Sister John of the Cross is a Carmelite nun who has lived in a California monastery for 28 years. She writes poetry and essays. In some ways, writing is nearly equivalent to prayer for her. Sister John is revered for her spirituality and visions. What she has long assumed to be special blessings from God turn out to be manifestations of temporal lobe epilepsy due to a small meningioma.

The nun is forced to confront the scientific explanation that her headaches, altered perception, and hypergraphia are secondary to a seizure disorder and not a gift of divine favor and spiritual ecstasy. Sister John agrees to undergo surgery to remove the tumor aware of the likelihood that a surgical cure will also eliminate her unique visions and insight. Postoperatively, she admits that life without epilepsy seems dull but realizes that "only in complete darkness do we learn that faith gives off light." [p. 178]


Throughout history, epilepsy has often been viewed as a "holy madness." In this novel, faith and science both vie to explain the unusual visions of a special nun. The story explores how we reconcile our experiences with our faith. It highlights the uneasy balance between reality and illusion, the spiritual and the material, and faith and self-interest.

Sister John longs for the unknown and endures suffering, solitude, and silence in her search for God's love. She eventually understands that sometimes a cure equals a loss. She acknowledges a parallel between the religious life and the culture of medicine.



Place Published

New York



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