BOOK REVIEW: 'An Unquenchable Thirst': American Nun Writes About Leaving Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity Order After Two Decades of Doubts, Questions

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'An Unquenchable Thirst': American Nun Writes About Leaving Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity Order After Two Decades of Doubts, Questions
I have problems with memoirs, as readers of my past reviews of them no doubt remember. But I can recommend Mary Johnson's "An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life" (Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, 544 pages, $27.00) -- with no reservations. Johnson spares few members of her Missionaries of Charity (MC)  order, founded by Mother Teresa in 1946, as well as the church's hierarchy -- and herself in telling her story.  


Like Johnson, who left the MC in 1997 at the age of 39, I have issues with Mother Teresa (1910-1997) and her Missionaries of Charity  order -- issues that are summed up quite well in Mother Teresa's Wikipedia entry (Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Teresa).  

The entry notes that "Towards the end of her life, Mother Teresa attracted some negative attention in the Western media. The journalist Christopher Hitchens has been one of her most active critics. He was commissioned to co-write and narrate the documentary Hell's Angel about her for the British Channel 4 after Aroup Chatterjee encouraged the making of such a program, although Chatterjee was unhappy with the "sensationalist approach" of the final product. Hitchens expanded his criticism in a 1995 book, 'The Missionary Position.'" 
Mary Johnson
Mary Johnson


In its section on criticisms of a woman considered by many to be a living saint during her long life -- and who was beatified by Pope John Paul II after her death --  "Colette Livermore, a former Missionary of Charity, describes her reasons for leaving the order in her book 'Hope Endures: Leaving Mother Teresa, Losing Faith, and Searching for Meaning'. Livermore found what she called Mother Teresa's 'theology of suffering' to be flawed, despite being a good and courageous person."

Many of the points raised by Mary Johnson in her memoir were raised  by Livermore and others and are contained in the Wikipedia entry: "Though Mother Teresa instructed her followers on the importance of spreading the Gospel through actions rather than theological lessons, Livermore could not reconcile this with some of the practices of the organization. Examples she gives include unnecessarily refusing to help the needy when they approached the nuns at the wrong time according to the prescribed schedule, discouraging nuns from seeking medical training to deal with the illnesses they encountered (with the justification that God empowers the weak and ignorant), and imposition of 'unjust' punishments, such as being transferred away from friends. Livermore says that the Missionaries of Charity 'infantilized' its nuns by prohibiting the reading of secular books and newspapers, and emphasizing obedience over independent thinking and problem-solving."

All this comes through in Johnson's memoirs, but I wonder why a practicing Roman Catholic -- which Johnson was when at the age of 17 she saw Mother Teresa's picture on the cover of Time magazine and decided to become a nun -- would be so ignorant of her own faith's negative views toward secular education -- dare I call it anti-intellectualism --  not to mention its misogynistic policies that kept women religious in subordinate positions and that demanded celibacy from people who are biologically oriented toward love -- including intimate, sexual love. Johnson deals with this in the sections about her intimate interaction with Sister Niobe, a member of the Missionaries of Charity whom Johnson -- then known as Sister Donata -- met while she was in Rome. Johnson also describes her "inappropriate" behavior with a priest who she calls "Father Tom."  

I approach religion with an agnostic's, even an atheist's, point of view, so I have difficulty understanding what I consider to be a backward religion -- on a par with Islam -- for not ordaining women as priests, as most Protestant sects have done and even some branches of Judaism. Catholic theologians argue in favor of a male only priesthood by stating that all of Christ's disciples were men -- but they were all Jews, too! (I hereby give into my temptation to quote Nietzsche's notorious quip about women: "You are going to women? Do not forget the whip!" and apply it to religion).  

The whip aspect isn't far from what Johnson calls her "discipline" punishing her body with a chain. It took her twenty years to come to her senses, when she was 39 years old in Rome and seriously questioned the policies of the MC, as well as her Roman Catholic faith.  

 In an interview Johnson was asked why she wrote the book. Here is her response:   

"I decided to write "An Unquenchable Thirst"...the day my youngest sister phoned to say she was about to marry a man she'd met twice; their guru had decided the two 'could contain each other.' "We human beings sometimes do odd things, especially where religion is involved....But it seems to me that what happens when we surrender our wills to religious figures -- or deny our sexual natures or believe the Creator of the Universe speaks to us -- are things that need to be discussed."  

Johnson concludes by saying that her book "provides an intimate, inside view of a closed society and of a woman still admired throughout the world, a woman I knew personally, Mother Teresa. The book doesn't preach or whine; it simply tells my story...."  

That it does! And a reader seeking to understand how really closed a society the Roman Catholic Church is, will find the answers to many questions in "An Unquenchable Thirst." Look for the reference to Cardinal Ratzinger as you read the book; unfortunately, there is no index, so you'll have to read the entire book to find the reference to the German who is the current pope.  

About the author  

Mary Johnson was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and moved with her family at age 12 to Beaumont, Texas. She joined the Missionaries of Charity, the group commonly known as the Sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, at age 19. Mother Teresa trusted her and she quickly rose in the ranks. Johnson, known as Sister Donata, studied theology at Regina Mundi, a pontifical institute connected to the Gregorian University in Rome, where she received a diploma in religious studies, summa cum laude. For 15 of her 20 years as a sister, she was stationed in Rome and often lived with Mother Teresa for weeks at a time. After leaving the order in 1997, she completed her BA, earned an MFA in creative writing --- and married. She lives in New Hampshire and teaches creative writing and Italian to adults and is Creative Director of A Room of Her Own Foundation's retreats for women writers. Her website: www.maryjohnson.co 
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