Friday, September 3, 2021

Lying Awake

I love reading fiction, and I love reading books on spirituality. Yet it is rare to find a quality work of spiritual fiction. Too much religious fiction is pabulum – filled with New Age memes or Christian platitudes. So when a listener to my podcast recommended Lying Awake by Mark Salzman, I bought it. It is a brief book, less than 200 pages, but rich in spiritual insight.

It is about Sister John of the Cross, a member of the Order of Discalced Carmelites, founded by Saint Teresa of Avila in the sixteenth century. Sister John is cloistered in the monastery of the Sisters of the Carmel of Saint Joseph in present day Los Angeles. 

She is a woman of unique spiritual insight and intimacy with God, who has developed a reputation outside the monastery as the author of a book of essays and poems about contemplative life entitled, Sparrow on a Roof, based on her vibrant spiritual experiences. 

Sister John suffers from terrible headaches and seizures. The seizures become so severe that they disrupt the community, and Mother Mary Joseph insists that she seek medical care. It turns out that she has temporal-lobe epilepsy caused by a small meningioma under her skull. This noncancerous brain tumor appears to be the source of her headaches and seizures, and likely the cause of her mystical experiences as well.

She is faced with the decision of whether or not to have surgery to remove the tumor. Her dilemma is that if the tumor is removed, it may also remove her sense of closeness to God. I won’t reveal what she decides and what follows, so as not to spoil the book - just in case you decide to read it. The reasons for her decision are the best part of the book.

This slender volume made me ponder the relationship between health and spirituality. Recently I recorded a podcast episode and YouTube video entitled, “Was Jesus Mentally Ill?” I explored the relationship between mental illness and spiritual genius. The gospels record that Jesus’ family thought he had “lost his senses,” and “has a demon and is insane.” I wonder aloud if Jesus’ family members, who knew him the longest and best, were correct.

In discussing the topic with a friend I joked that if there had been antidepressants in biblical times, we would not have half of the prophetic books or psalms of the Old Testament! Indeed we might not have the New Testament at all! There seems to be a relationship between mental illness and spirituality, as well as between epilepsy and religious experience. These connections are explored in this book.

Lying Awake made me look at both spiritual experience and suffering from a different perspective.  How much of our religious beliefs and spiritual experiences are due to physiological factors? What if spiritual experience is nothing more than a chemical imbalance in the brain? Does that make religion a symptom of mental illness? Does that make spirituality invalid or less authentic?

How is suffering linked to spirituality? There is an oft-observed connection between severe illness, personal tragedies and spirituality. Just read the Book of Job!  Often the onset of catastrophe or severe illness drives a person to examine his or her priorities. Countless times I have ministered to people who were seeking God because of a dramatic change in life’s circumstances.

People assume that health is good and suffering is bad. People go to great lengths to be free of emotional, spiritual and physical suffering – including taking solace in religion and spirituality. Buddhism says that suffering prompted Gautama Siddhartha to begin his spiritual search.

The book made me take a second look at suffering in my life. I have not suffered greatly in life, but I know what great suffering looks like. As a pastor I have ministered to people who endured great suffering – emotional, spiritual and physical. That is how I know I have been spared the worst that life can inflict. Yet I have had my share of suffering and pain.

We all suffer. Life is suffering, as the Buddha taught. We all have to decide how to approach suffering and how it fits into our spiritual life. My life is better for suffering. Suffering has forced me to look at life without flinching. 

Witnessing evil and suffering has caused me to wrestle with the theological “problem of suffering” and the “problem of evil.” That in turn has forced me beyond the easy theodicy that Christians so hurriedly embrace. It propelled me into the fathomless Mystery at the heart of existence.

I am grateful for the suffering I have known. It has revealed God and softened my heart. It has prompted compassion and made me a better pastor. Suffering is intimately connected to the Great Mystery that we call God. That is the meaning of the Cross. 

Throughout the book Sister John’s prayers returned to the suffering of Jesus. Her thoughts led me to ponder anew the Cross, the central symbol of our shared faith. There is no easy answer to suffering, but one can see the answer from the Cross.


Douglas Wyman said...

Thank you Marshall. In the wake of great pain and suffering people are left with two options - Bitter or Better... I’m happy I took better. I’m closer to God and I am a better person for it. I am able to minister to those who cross my path. And need help better... Thank you for the lessons you taught me.

TomCubb said...

Thanks, Marshall! Totally agree. The book sounds interesting! I didn't understand the message of Christ until I understood the message of Buddha. Then I could understand passages like "I only preach Christ and Him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). I think putting people into a position where they are prevented from understanding their true nature is a form of psychological terrorism. Your efforts to help free people from wrong thinking goes a long way toward bringing about peace and happiness. Kudos!