Five minutes later...

Yesterday may have been my best and worst day of the semester. In the senior capstone we were discussing a lovely little novel, Mark Salzman's Lying Awake, which tells the story of Sister John, a cloistered nun dedicated to prayer. For years she goes through the motions, doubts her vocation, and never feels the presence of God. Then, miraculously, she begins to experience ecstatic visions and feels enveloped in the certainty of God's love. She emerges from these raptures brimming with insights that she manically writes down.

When the visions are diagnosed as symptoms of an operable brain tumor, she must make a choice: forgo the mystical experiences that give her life meaning and purpose and go back to the spiritual desert, or cling to them despite the fact they may be an illusion. I use this novel to get at the issue of faith in the capstone seminar, a course in which students evaluate the significance of their liberal arts education.

There's a scene in the book where Sister John's mother shows up at the cloister. The woman had abandoned her daughter as a child, a psychological wound from which Sister John has never emotionally recovered. Indeed, it's possible to read her entire religious life as a botched attempt to insert God for the absent mother she longed for as a child. Then, in the midst of her spiritual doubts, mom reappears to say she doesn't want any more contact. The scene serves as a kind of reenactment of her childhood trauma, and it comes when she is least sure of anything in her life.

Understandably Sister John is angry, filled with venom and fully justified in saying something that would plunge a barbed harpoon into this bete noir of a mother, but she doesn't do it. Instead, she falls back on her commitment to love as Christ loved and thinks to herself, "Maybe here--not in the cell or the choir--is where I find out what my vows really mean." So, despite her uncertainty, she acts on faith. The chapter ends with this sentence: "Even then God remained silent."

After examining this scene in detail, I asked the students which was the true instance of faith: the ecstasy of her visions, which are compared to super novas of love and certainty, or that encounter with her mother, when, shaking, angry and afraid, she relied on her vows and was answered with silence? Man, that was a great moment in class. When you teach long enough, you can--like a performer--sense when you're locked in or bombing. For some reason, I was locked in and the students and I ended up having a wonderful discussion about whether faith was about possessing certainty or the strength to move forward in the face of uncertainty.

Next class, I bombed. No, I mean really bombed, H-bombed. Everything I tried was not working, unconnected, disjointed, forced and lame. It was the worst class of this semester so far. I had planned to show a few minutes of a documentary to make a point, but the class was going so badly I decided to let the video run for an extra ten minutes to kill off the hour. Meanwhile, I stood in the darkness at the rear of the room filled with a sense of hapless ineptitude. How could I go from such heights to such depths? Sheez, this job! It can make you feel like a genius and five minutes later you're a bum.


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