BOOK REVIEW: Now in Paperback: '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: Now in Paperback: 'An Unquenchable Thirst': American Nun Writes About Leaving Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity Order After Two Decades of Doubts, Questions
 
 
As I noted in my review of the hardback edition of Mary Johnson's "An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life", on November 30, 2011, I have problems with memoirs, as readers of my past reviews of them no doubt remember.
The book is now available in a quality paperback (Spiegel & Grau Trade Paperbacks, 560 pages, $16.00) and, as I said in the hardback  review,  I can recommend Mary Johnson's memoir 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.  

 
The paperback edition coincidentally comes out the week that Pope Benedict XVI leaves office, following his surprise resignation on Dec. 17, 2012  -- the first papal resignation in centuries, and at a time when most of the news of the 1.2 billion strong Roman Catholic Church deals with its ongoing crisis in the wake of priests molesting young boys and having their superiors at the highest levels covering up these horrific crimes.     One of those who covered up the scandals in Southern California, Cardinal Roger Mahony, will decide with other cardinals who the next pope will be. This via a report in my old newspaper, the Los Angeles Times (link: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2013/02/gomez-pray-for-cardinal-mahony-has-be-goes-to-rome.html)  that Archbishop Jose H. Gomez on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013  sent out a letter urging the faithful to pray for Cardinal Roger Mahony to help select a new pope and reiterated his message that Mahony remains a priest "in good standing" despite new details emerging about clergy abuse cases. It's a controversial decision by Gomez, but everything he says or does is controversial these days.

“Having been promoted to the dignity of Cardinal, Cardinal Mahony has all of the prerogatives and privileges of his standing as a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church,” Gomez wrote.

Gomez announced last month that he had removed Mahony from all public duties amid revelations that he plotted to conceal child molestation by priests from law enforcement.
 
According to the L.A. Times blog: "Gomez wrote in a letter to parishioners last month that newly released priest files were "brutal and painful reading. The behavior described in these files is terribly sad and evil. There is no excuse, no explaining away what happened to these children."
Gomez wrote that Mahony, his predecessor as leader of the archdiocese, "has expressed his sorrow for his failure to fully protect young people entrusted to his care. Effective immediately, I have informed Cardinal Mahony that he will no longer have any administrative or public duties."

A church spokesman later clarified that Mahony remained a priest "in good standing" and maintained all his powers as a cardinal."

Scandal upon scandal roils the church, with  mainstream media reports, such as The Guardian (link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/21/pope-retired-amid-gay-bishop-blackmail-inquiry)  writing of blackmailed gay priests. The secrets of the Roman Catholic church and its scandals are fodder for movies as diverse as the Da Vinci code ones and Francis Ford Coppolla's "Godfather III".

New material in the Spiegel and Grau paperback include two reading group guides -- for groups that wish to take different approaches to the book; a conversation between Mary Johnson and Mira Bartok, author of "The Memory Palace;" and Mary Johnson's recommended reading list.

Here's the text of my November 2011 review: 

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.'"  
 


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. Her website: www.MaryJohnson.co.   //
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