Reading Mark Salzman’s spare, astringent novella about the struggles of a cloistered Carmelite nun inevitably reminds one of Ron Hansen’s contemporary masterpiece, Mariette in Ecstasy. Sister John of the Cross is decades older than Hansen’s teenage novice and has lived in the convent for almost 30 years. Moreover, her struggles are less with the eroticism of the Song of Songs and the paradoxes of the stigmata than with a sudden burst of illumination after years of spiritual dryness.
But Salzman, like Hansen, quickly introduces the reader to the austere ways of the monastery without condescension or gothic overtones. These are real women with all our foibles and self-doubts, yet dedicated to a vocation that radically challenges our contemporary world’s most cherished values. Hiddenness, self-surrender, freely accepted suffering are the core of their identity. Having stripped away so many layers of self-deceit, their sensibilities are like finely tuned instruments that quiver painfully when confronted with the world’s ills and their own failings. But they are also women who delight in the beauty of their secluded setting and laugh easily.
Sister John has entered on a period of intense consolation, in which she writes ecstatic poetry that wins her a following beyond the walls as well as an invitation to read a poem in honor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux at her centenary celebration in Rome. The problem is that both the ecstasy and the poetry come accompanied by severe headaches, originally diagnosed as migraines. But a neurologist suspects epilepsy and discovers a removable tumor above her right ear.
She must choose. Should she have the tumor excised and likely lose the ecstasies, or hold onto these consolations at the risk of spreading illness? Memories of her long period of arid desolation incline her against the operation. Surely, God does not want to deprive her of her newfound joy. But is it God she seeks or simply these consolations? Memories of her mother’s abandonment of her as a child haunt her thoughts, even though she was able to forgive her. Is this a further abandonment?
The turning point comes late on the night she must decide. Recovering from another seizure, she keeps vigil in the chapel. Slowly the chapel fills with her sisters who forego their little sleep to watch with her. Sister John realizes how little she has thought of them and the trouble her epileptic episodes had already caused and would assuredly cause them in the future. She looked around the room and tried to etch the scene in memory, praying that whatever her own future might be, God would reward her Sisters for their generosity of spirit. She rose, bowed to them as a signal that her vigil was over, and returned to the infirmary.
After the operation she has an even clearer insight into her past: She was convinced now that her epilepsy had been merely an opportunistic virus; egotism had weakened her resistance to it. The medical has been subsumed in the spiritual, and by the end of the novella Sister John has accepted the role of novice mistress for a hard-charging aspirant who, the prioress fears, may have trouble adjusting to the fact that she can’t force God to come to her. The motherless child and brilliant poet assumes now the new role of nurturer.