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Mark Salzman

March 23, 2001

I read a gem of a novel recently about a nun who, after 25 years in a Carmelite convent, becomes famous for her spiritual writings and poetry. Coincident with her literary production is an ever-worsening condition in which headaches severely affect her ability to participate in the life of the convent.

Eventually, she is crippled by the pain and must seek medical help. When the diagnosis is made and a cure proposed, she faces a choice, because the states of mind that likely produced her profound religious experiences will disappear.

I haven’t revealed any more than the jacket cover. The novel is sparely written but beautifully conceived. It is like “Plainsong” in this way.

The story reminded me of the case of Hildegaard, a 12th century nun and mystic, of whom I first read in Oliver Sacks’ “The man who mistook his wife for a hat, and other clinical tales.”

I found my copy of this book, blew off the dust, and put on the CD “Chant,” a beautiful recording of Gregorian chants sung by Benedictine monks of Santa Domingo de Silos in Spain. I noted that the CD was engineered by one Angel Barco but did not speculate further.

Sacks’ chapter on Hildegaard is short but includes examples of her detailed drawings of her visions. This “case” is one of the best correlating an historical mystic experience with neurological conditions. Hildegaard’s experiences were unmistakably migrainous in origin.

Because a variety of organic causes can spark ecstasies and altered perception of reality, the Church is careful to screen monastic applicants for history of mental illness. There are a number of practical concerns, but I would think that protecting spiritual experiences from the charge of mental illness is one.

It is certainly not necessary to be mentally ill to have a profound religious experience. A great many people have such experiences, about which they will not change their minds no matter what. There is, perhaps, a continuum that includes a fair number of people whose experience of the mysterious and spiritual is mild to none.

I believe that different religions and religious practices appeal to different people along this continuum. It is a wonderful thing that in our country we are free to choose this most personal of pursuits.

That religious experience is intensely personal is without question. However, some people are so moved by their experience of connection with the divine that they must share it, and they spread the word with a certain generosity of spirit.

Others take a further step and infer from their feelings of personal connection a personal correctness that, unfortunately for others, is beyond question. Sometimes, such people become politicians.

But I digress — perhaps because I read too long in Oliver Sacks, and the CD has now changed from “Chant” to “The Cranberries,” whose singer has a voice like an angel’s but might not otherwise meet the standard criteria.

Mark Salzman’s novel very quietly convinced me that I was inside the peaceful, separate confines of a monastery, and so much so that when the story first took me back outside the walls, it was a bit of shock. It was a fine effect, like looking at the world through one face of a prism, then rotating it — and suddenly the world looks different.

Of course, I immediately went for another of Salzman’s books, “Iron and silk,” about his two years, 1983-4, spent teaching English in an industrial Chinese city. Good, good writer. Recommended.

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