Tuesday, June 5, 2012

An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life

By Mary Johnson
Toronto, Bond Street Books, 2011
526 pages     Spiritual Memoir

Times change, people change, the response to religious faith changes. If a person does not change, they are not growing; they are not, in fact, living. This idea is brought forcefully home in the magnificent spiritual memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson. At age 19, Mary, who was a part of a large, Texas, Catholic family, joined the Missionaries of Charity, the order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa. Twenty years later, her heart told her to take another path, and she left the order.

Her memoir recounts her journey from obedient follower to religious scholar, to questioning leader and finally to independent thinker. She says, “Through years of wresting with my own dark nights, I’d replaced marriage to God with a different sort of integrity.” The reader becomes totally caught up in her story, which she relates in a chronological order. The order in which she tells the story is important because the reader is able to relate distinctly to her journey from youthful innocence to exhausted middle age. 

An Unquenchable Thirst is an intimate look at a lifestyle that has been shrouded in mystery for centuries. We who know little about this topic—especially those of us raised in a different form of Christianity—wonder how the life works, who chooses to become a nun, and what the daily life of a nun is like. What one sees is that this is a profoundly austere life. The theology of sacrifice as practiced by Mother Teresa is one of rules and schedules and a total lack of independent thinking and response. One reviewer said that the nuns’ "sacrifices would convert sinners, save souls from hell, make reparations for sin, and speed world peace." These are the very things that Johnson chafes at over the years. However, she never rejects the concept of the religious life, only her life as an obedient nun. She finally realizes that in order to have a life as a nun, you must have a “stubborn faith, not an ecstatic vision.” Her honest portrayal of the order and Mother Teresa should be required reading for anyone seeking a life as a religious.

Johnson’s training includes years of dish washing, cooking, and piles of laundry. When she is finally able to get to the work for which she had joined the order, she experiences some happiness. She works with disadvantaged children, studies in Rome, and then becomes a guide for those entering the order. Many of her years are spent in Italy. She yearns for Mother Teresa to acknowledge her good works by calling her by her name, Sister Donata, but Mother never does—only “Sister.” 

The most poignant section of the book for me was about a young nun under Johnson’s care who came to be seriously depressed, so seriously in fact that she reverted to child-like behavior. At first Johnson is impressed by the natural child-like faith the woman has: “faith that we’d been encouraged to cultivate but which had always eluded me.” When she realizes that the woman’s mental health is in danger, she instinctively reacts by hugging her and touching her as a way of comforting her. Touching in any way is not allowed in the Missionaries of Charity and Johnson is reprimanded for her actions. It takes weeks of tenacity on Johnson’s part to get the woman the mental health care that she needs.

An Unquenchable Thirst is aptly titled for Johnson speaks of the thirst to know God and to help others in Jesus’ name. But she also speaks to the thirsts that she, in the end, could not deny: the thirst to be touched; the sexual thirst that she speaks candidly about; the thirst to be acknowledged; and the thirst to understand her place in the world. 

I was able to get an inside view of an abbey when my mother was in a nursing home run by the Benedictine Sisters in Duluth Minnesota. One dear sister had befriended my mother, loved her, massaged her, sang to her and prayed with her. When she realized that my sisters and I were spending hundreds of dollars on hotel rooms, she offered us a room in the abbey with kitchen privileges. It was a kind and generous gesture—one that we appreciated in immeasurable ways. Sister Susan’s ministry was to the dying at the nursing home and I will be eternally grateful for ways in which she ministered to my mother, including speeding my mother’s soul to heaven. 

As Johnson talked about the austerity of the life of the Missionaries of Charity and the silence of mealtime, I was reminded of the happy chatter that emanated from the dining room at the abbey in Duluth, the camaraderie of the nuns, and the way in which they interpreted the gospel.

With that experience in mind, I was interested in an article written by Mary Johnson and published by the Religious News Service on June 4. It is about American nuns.

You may also be interested in reading my thoughts on The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris who has spent a great deal of time at an abbey in Minnesota. I actually met Kathleen Norris in the elevator at the abbey in Duluth shortly after I read her book.

I can highly recommend An Unquenchable Thirst. It is very long, but it was so intriguing that I was able to stick with it for the long haul to the benefit of my soul.

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