A nun leaves Mother Teresa’s order after 20 years and tells all (book review)

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An Unquenchable Thirst: A journey of hope, sadness and redemption for one of Mother Teresa’s former nuns. Review by: Hemley Gonzalez.

Reviewing this book proceeded from a lively and insightful conversation with the author. Since my horrific experience as a volunteer a few years ago with The Missionaries of Charity, my investigation of Mother Teresa’s medically negligent and financially fraudulent organization has led me to discover many deeply disturbing accounts and experiences from different volunteers, nurses, journalists and now former nuns like Mary Johnson.

In her lengthy tome, Johnson shows us in detail what it was like to be a ‘sister’ for twenty years with the world-famous catholic order, chronicling the searing hopes of a young woman in search of god who instead is met with sobering and often cruel repression, unnecessary suffering and a constant and immense spiritual conflict laced with specific accounts of guilt-ridden sexual episodes despite her vows of celibacy.

Although Johnson never made it to Calcutta, she did however spend enough time with high ranking nuns of the order and Mother Teresa herself to properly asses the moral compass, primary mission and mishaps of the organization as a whole. Being Shuffled between nunneries and houses in Brooklyn, Washington DC and Rome, aside from medial tasks with the poor in some of these locations, her work remained primarily planted in the theological teachings and logistical aspect of the operation.

The first sign of trouble emerges when she is scolded by one of the senior nuns just days after starting her vocation for not using a bucket (while taking a freezing-cold shower) but instead for standing under the shower head. The older nun hissed at her words like ‘selfish, disobedient, wasteful and immodest’ for not suffering enough, a cornerstone and a troubling aspect of the organization which dwells on punishment and penance as a way to get closer to god. Suffering from this point on prevails and the irrational repression and illogical abuses only continue to escalate as power struggles and the expected absolute obedience turns into conflict with the author’s common sense and emotional stability.

Astonishingly, Johnson manages to find patches of personal peace by learning to avoid some of the oppressing nuns and by trying to convince herself as she was systematically told by her superiors and Mother Teresa that one day all of these doubts and suffering would bring her closer to Jesus.

Becoming further entrenched in the organization over the years, she was sent to Rome where she began to oversee new nuns who were joining the order from all over the world and eventually also saw them leave to other places where she herself desired to go to the most. Disappointingly, she was always skipped for these remote missions because she had become a useful and encouraging superior herself and these are important attributes which the organization needs in order to keep nuns who have difficulty adapting to the dismal rules and abusive behavior from defecting.

Education of non-ecclesiastical subjects were strictly forbidden as they were an evident threat to the order, at one time prompting Mother Teresa herself to admit that such was one of the reasons for so many nuns leaving the organization. So when even the theological programs which Johnson had been specifically instructed to revise and teach were met with opposition during debates on the issues of birth control and the conception of life (which sharply divided some of the nuns) the prospect of leaving began to emerge. For an intelligent, curious and spiritually seeking woman like Johnson this environment of repression, Machiavellian survivorship and the omnipresent pettiness of gossip simply became impossible to handle.

Naturally, sexual desires and urges were present, and as it is expected she wasn’t the only one suffering from the restrictive vows of chastity and celibacy. A proposed “emotional and spiritual marriage” to Jesus while observing strict celibacy was one of many ironies far too grand to ignore, let alone uphold until her death. Soon she found herself giving in to physical encounters with other nuns and paying the consequences of her mental turmoil through years of confessions with priests, sporadic conversations with her superiors and the negative effects of the emptiness which occupied her heart. At one point, she even became the target of another nun’s unwanted sexual advances, although she had reciprocated this individual’s advances at first, when she decided to end the relationship the other woman turned aggressive and abusive. Later on she managed to also make love with one of her confessors thus reconciling in her mind that fearing such natural desires was incompatible with reality and the essence of love as she understood it.

The brash and sporadic encounters with Mother Teresa, the manufacturing-like attitude of preparing scores of young women to become nuns and Mother Teresa’s stern and irrational instructions on how to achieve god’s love were unavoidably disconnected from the idyllic image she had of the organization from the time she first learned of it while in high school. In a note which Johnson wrote and at times of emotional hardship often read to herself, readers can feel the pain of a human being losing its individuality and self-confidence:

“Sister Donata, you are nothing, you have always been nothing, and you will always be nothing. Your desire to be someone special is just pride. And everything you have, including your existence itself, is a gift. You breathe only at the pleasure of the lord. You are privileged to be invited to intimacy with the Maker of the Universe. You will belong to God, and Jesus will be your husband. There is no higher honor.”

As she began to admit to herself that praying to the image of Jesus was spiritually unsatisfying, she had come to view god as a larger and much more complex essence in her mind versus the male character inculcated and rehashed by a male-dominated church for centuries which hypocritically demanded sacrifice from others, specially the women in the church’s lower ranks while many of the leading men in the institution lived a life of luxury with far less restrictions.

After much consideration, she realized that her search for god was incomplete and that god was incompatible with the image of Jesus and neither was present inside The Missionaries of Charity. Once in a hospital while recovering from an operation she had gazed over the rolling hills of Italy’s countryside and remembered feeling an overwhelming and calming sense of peace; this simple awareness of the world around her seemed much more in line with her spiritual quest than anything she had experienced in all her years as a nun.

One feeling that permeates throughout the book is Johnson’s desire for comradery. There’s melancholy in her words, and also sadness for the ‘sisters’ which she left behind, the reader can see the love jumping from the pages at times but also it is impossible to ignore the many instances in which the author seems to be drowning in a sea of sadness.

How long can any human being bear such sadness? This was a question which took Johnson exactly twenty years to answer and when she did, she found the light at the end of the tunnel and the personal and spiritual happiness she had been seeking for all along immediately after leaving Mother Teresa’s cult.

About Mary Johnson:

Mary Johnson joined the Missionaries of Charity, the group commonly known as the Sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, at age 19. For fifteen of Mary Johnson’s twenty years as a sister, she was stationed in Rome and often lived with Mother Teresa for weeks at a time. Johnson also lived and worked as a nun in the South Bronx, Washington DC, and Winnipeg. Mother Teresa sent her to study theology at Regina Mundi, a pontifical institute aggregated to the Gregorian University in Rome, where she received a diploma in religious studies. Johnson was assigned to compose and revise some of the governing documents of the Missionaries of Charity, and for six years was responsible for the formation of sisters preparing to vow their lives as nuns. After leaving the sisters in 1997, Johnson completed a BA in English at Lamar University and an MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College. She also married. A well-respected teacher and public speaker, Johnson has led retreats, workshops, classes, and training sessions of various kinds for nearly thirty years. Most recently she has taught creative writing and Italian to adults and is Creative Director of A Room of Her Own Foundation’s retreats for women writers. For more information please visit:http://www.maryjohnson.co/

This is Mary Johnson today: