An Unquenchable Thirst

A Review of Mary Johnson’s An Unquenchable Thirst

As my regular readers will know, I have never posted a book review on Reason Being before.  There is a first time for everything.  I just finished reading “An Unquenchable Thirst” by Mary Johnson.  Johnson spent twenty years as a Missionary of Charity (MC) nun—the order that was founded and earned fame under Mother Teresa.  After twenty years, Johnson left the order, and now, no longer believes in a “supreme being”.  I read a lot.  I can honestly say that this is the first autobiography that I have ever read that I could not put down!  It may be a work of non-fiction, but is as good as any novel.

This book is unique in that it provides a very detailed account of life as an MC.  MC’s are a very closed society—Johnson has burst open the door.  The day to day life of an MC is quite interesting and not what you might expect.  At times I was inspired.  On numerous occasions I found myself angry.  Her story has all of the intrigue of a good novel—good deeds, love, deceit, politics, and more sex than you would probably expect to find in an autobiography of a nun.  In short, the book will take you on an emotional roller coaster ride.

Johnson left her studies at the University of Texas to join Mother Teresa’s order.  She was inspired by “Mother” and wanted to dedicate her life to god and to the poor.  This is no small undertaking.  As far as religious orders go, few are as strictly run as the MC’s—they don’t just care for the poor, they live like the poorest the world has to offer.  MC’s take the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  They also take a fourth vow to give “Wholehearted and Free service to the poorest of the poor”.  While her dedication to serving the poor never wavered, her dedication to the MC’s and god waned over time.

From the start Johnson struggled with MC notion of obedience.  Sisters were expected to obey the word of their Superiors, as if they were decreed by god himself.  This was often times quite frustrating for Johnson.  Two occasions from the book stand out and certainly contributed to her doubts on the MC order.  The first involved another nun, Sister Nolly, who was suffering from severe depression.  Sister Nolly was in a really poor state, having been abused as a child and suffering from a disorder that at times left her with the mental faculties and maturity of an eight year old—on top of her depression.  Johnson, as Sister Nolly’s superior, took her to see a doctor and got her the necessary medications.  This was all done in secret because it was against the rules.  Mother Teresa did not approve of psychiatrists.  The other story that had a large impact on me (and Johnson) was a refusal to allow one of the convents to start a sewing co-op to help unwed mothers learn a skill and get back on their feet.  This was denied because the leadership of the MC’s insisted that their goal was to provide basic assistance to the poor and not anything that required a skill—that way they could move Sisters around without any inconvenience.  There are many instances where Johnson struggled with being absolutely obedient, but I don’t want to ruin the book for you.

Paramount to the life of an MC life are “The Rules”.  These are a series of rules that more or less govern daily life.  They are quite strict.  They include the obedience to superiors and much more such as no touching (no physical contact of any type is allowed except when being blessed), no reading unapproved texts, no questioning, no doing anything without permission, the list goes on and on.  From the start Johnson chafed with “The Rules”—not because she was wild, but because they often did not make sense.  So many times throughout the book Johnson shares a story where the “right thing to do” would have violated the rules.  Sometimes she broke “The Rules” other times she painfully, for her and the reader, did not.  One thing is clear; they were a constant source of pain, suffering, and irritation for Johnson and did play a part in her leaving the order.

I mentioned that Johnson struggled with her vow of chastity.  I hope that I do not misrepresent her reality when I write that she did not seem to be motivated by sexual urges, at least not at first, but for the need to be loved and to have companionship.  Being an MC requires little emotion towards each other, in fact, it is frowned upon.  Sisters are not to form friendships with each other and are never to show one sister any favoritism at all.  In short, as an MC, you may be surrounded by people, but you are alone.  Over time this became unbearable to Johnson—how could it not?  I won’t spoil her stories for you other than to say that she talks openly and in detail about finding love in the convent with other Sisters in a homosexual way, must deal with a Sister who forces herself upon her numerous times, and falls in love, in a non-platonic way with a priest.

Mother Teresa spent a great deal of her time talking about love and spreading god’s love.  How they were supposed to do this was unclear, at least to me, when the only beings that Sisters were allowed to love were supernatural.  Johnson, until she started breaking rules, did not seem to know what real “love” entailed.  The solitude of being unloved, of leaving one’s family, of not being able to show any amorous feelings towards another human exacted a huge toll.  What is clear is that Johnson was desperately lonely.  She does not hold back on her criticisms of this part of MC life.

The last vow is also a source of frustration for Johnson.  Her dedication to serving the poor never wavered.  What did waver was her view of how this was being done.  The story of the sewing co-op is one example where her views differed from her Superiors.  I would say that Johnson also struggled mightily with a famous quote from Mother Teresa—“Suffering is the kiss of Jesus”.  This quote is how Mother Teresa lived her life.  Mother’s devotion to Jesus entailed a great deal of suffering.  MC’s including Mary took part in the “discipline” which involved beating her thighs with at knotted rope and wearing a cilice (spiked chain) around their biceps and waist.  Needless suffering was a major part of MC life.  Johnson handled her own suffering well.  She did not see the need to spread it to those in need.  Johnson writes to the effect that Mother Teresa’s devotion to god is what inspired her to do the great work she did, but it was also her biggest limiter.

The politics of the MC’s is astounding to read.  The deceit and power grabbing is no less than what we have come to expect from many politicians.  Johnson did move up to a place of leadership in the order, but did so without playing the game.  The emotional toll that took her was quite large.  Her name was tarnished, punishments inflicted, and spite allowed to run rampant.  Not exactly the kind of stories one expects in a book on the life of a nun.

In the end Johnson found that she could no longer continue her life as an MC.  She needed to live—to love, to think, to find joy in each day.  None of those things were a part of MC life.  She found that she could no longer blindly accept Catholic theology, dogma, and doctrines.  (There are numerous stories in the book where Johnson gets in trouble for arguing against parts of those three things).  As time moved forward, Mother Teresa was losing control of her own order to a group that was insistent on bringing it to a more orthodox state—a direction Johnson did not want to see the order moving.  As a result of political maneuvering Johnson spent the last six years training new sisters—a job she begged to get out of.  Why?  All she wanted to do was the help the poorest of the poor, it was her reason for joining the MC’s, and it was withheld from her.  In the end, Johnson decides she can no longer live that way.  Her one on one conversation with Mother Teresa about this decision will stay with me for a long time.

Johnson’s story is fascinating.  I highly recommend reading this book, you will not regret it.  While the book has little to do with her current atheism (it is not alluded to until the epilogue) her story is powerful.  Few people on this planet make the commitment to a religious life in as strong a manner as Johnson did.  Fewer still leave that vocation.  Even fewer run the full gamut to not believing in supernatural beings.  There are numerous books out there that detail stories of this nature, they are becoming popular—from Ayaan Hirsi Ali to the stories from The Clergy Project—Johnson’s story stand near the top of those lists.

Mary Johnson’s story is powerful, inspiring, frustrating, and well worth your time.

Thanks for Reading.  I look forward to your comments.


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4 thoughts on “An Unquenchable Thirst

  1. Loren Miller from Bedford, OH, United States

    Wow … I thought I wasn't going to be surprised by anything coming out of Mother Teresa's Missionary of Charity … UNTIL you mentioned the cilice. I remember that device from Dan Brown's "The DaVinci Code," and thought it to be something used by Brown to show the exaggerated practices of those belonging to a fictional Opus Dei. To hear that the cilice is still in use and advanced by a real-world organization as a necessary part of their practices just about takes one's breath away. It also confirms that MC was less interested in lifting anyone up or improving the lot of the poor, as I suspect many who look at Mother Teresa's organization suppose was their purpose, but in a clear obsession with suffering as an end in and of itself.

    I have not read this book, nor Christopher Hitchens' "The Missionary Position," but it would appear that these two works taken together are more than a little revelatory as to the real practices of MC. No doubt, Bob Donahue will protest; he seems to know how to do very little else. Still, this is one more nail in what I hope is the coffin of the RC church and its false veneer of piety and service.

    1. reasonbeing from Rochester, MN, United States Post author

      Thanks for the comment Loren. I think if you read this book, there will be other surprises as well. Not to mention, Mary's story is great in and of itself. I tend to agree with you that the MC's did not and do not do enough to eradicate poverty in the areas they work. This book seems to support that concept. I cannot fathom the idea that a co-op designed to lift people out of poverty was rejected for political and logistical reasons—I don't want to tell the whole story here, but it is something that will forever darken my view of the MC's. The important thing to know, is that like all groups, there are MC's, like Mary who try to fight the system. In the end, at least through her time, they were losing the war, but winning some battles. There is little doubt that Mary did a great deal of good as a Sister, and I would argue very little to no harm–at least in accordance with the book. It is well worth a read Loren.

  2. Cephus from Redlands, CA, United States

    You have to remember that the Catholics aren't in it to end poverty, just to treat the symptoms. If they actually ended poverty, they'd shoot their church membership in the foot. The majority of their members are poor and the poor tend to breed much faster than the better off. Faster breeding = more Catholics. That's why the RCC is so focused on the poorest parts of Africa, for example. Lots of new Catholics to balance the dramatic fall-off in other, more advanced parts of the world.

    It's also not surprising that there's such an utter disconnect between basic human nature and Catholic expectations. They never did have much of a grasp on reality. Priesthood chastity is, in large part, responsible for the pedophilia scandals, yet they refuse to acknowledge that priests have basic human needs as well.

    The whole church is out of it's metaphorical mind.

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