Mary Johnson,
An Unquenchable Thirst
(Bond Street, 2011)

Who has not heard of Mother Teresa? We often think of this nun, who lived her life serving the poor (first in Calcutta, India, but eventually worldwide), as a selfless person above the petty thoughts and doubts about life we mere mortals have. Years after her passing, it came to be known that Mother Teresa was a tormented soul in her own way. She may have projected a cheerful and serene facade, but she constantly had her doubts. She had her quirks. She was a normal human being.

One individual who saw this human side of Mother Teresa up close and personal was a former nun, Sister Donata, now known by her given name, Mary. Mary Johnson worked in Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity for 20 years. Following her autobiography An Unquenchable Thirst, we see a lady whose faith morphs over time. When Mary was a senior in high school, she saw a picture of Mother Teresa on the cover of Time magazine. At 17, she knew what her calling would be -- she would join Mother Teresa's order when she was 19. Mary knew without a doubt that she would work taking care of the poor in the name of God. In reality, over those 20 years, she worked more in the background. She trained other nuns to take care of the poor. She studied divinity. But Mary was not truly on the front lines with the poor as she envisioned.

Mary notes that all new nuns take three specific vows: poverty, chastity and obedience. The sisters from the Missionaries of Charity took an additional vow to give free service to the poorest of the poor, and dedicate themselves whole-heartedly to that effort. In the early sections of the book, Mary discusses some of the spiritual practices that her order followed. As an outsider, I was shocked and cannot relate to self-inflicted pain involving the use of chains and whipping oneself. If a regular person did these things, we would think they had some mental issues. But if one hurts themselves in the name of God, I guess it's OK? In Mary's words, "We human beings sometimes do odd things, especially when religion is involved."

While Mary was a practicing nun, she described how many sisters, including herself, had issues with the vow of chastity. Most humans need some sort of contact. Mother Teresa was not a touchy/feely person, and physical contact was not allowed within the Missionaries of Charity. In fact, unless one was confessing or in talks with their superior, then two individuals were not allowed to be alone. Mary gets quite graphic in her book as she describes her relationships with a priest, and other nuns, one of whom Mary describes as a "sexually predatory subordinate." Mary questions whether the sexual intimacy was really sexual or more simply a need for connection. As a reader, I was surprised at how unchaste these nuns really were. I guess in my mind, if one makes a vow to one's god(s), then one should keep that vow!

Mary goes to great lengths describing her interactions with Mother Teresa over the years. She talks about how, like most organizations involving humans, there are power plays, politics and fighting egos at work within the Missionaries of Charity. One good example is when she was assigned to a house in Washington. Mother Teresa had come for a visit. Mother Teresa did not like the curtains in the house. They should have been made out of simple white cloth and only cover the top half of the windows. Mother Teresa ordered Mary to take the curtains down right then and fix them appropriately. Mary's superior did not want her to take the curtains down -- it was Sunday, after all, and no "work" was to be done on this holy day. When Mother Teresa realized Mary was not obeying (remember the vow of obedience?), she told Mary that she had an issue in that she liked to be consulted rather than simply doing as she was told. Mother Teresa believed wisdom came from those above you in the Church. Do not question. Act when you are told to act. And there were not many people above Mother Teresa. This was a lady who was used to telling others what to do and not having to wonder if her directions were carried out or not.

Mary Johnson's disillusionment with the Missionaries of Charity reached a breaking point in her 20th year in the organization. She made a vow with God that she would work one final year to live within the boundaries provided by the order, but that if she could not, then she would leave the order to start her life anew. While I can only give a synopsis of what Mary talks about in more than 500 pages, I will say that I found this autobiography insightful, intriguing and utterly fascinating. My personal experience with spirituality and religion are greatly different from hers, but I still found this book a worthwhile read. I had never heard of Mary Johnson before I started reading this book. After reading An Unquenchable Thirst, not only do I know more about her, but I know more about Mother Teresa, the Missionaries of Charity and even the Catholic Church.

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Wil Owen

17 August 2013

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