An Unquenchable Thirst: A Memoirby Mary Johnson
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY KIRKUS REVIEWS“A candid, generous, and profound spiritual memoir that deserves a great deal of thoughtful discussion.”—Anne Rice At seventeen, Mary Johnson experienced her calling when she saw a photo of Mother Teresa on the cover of Time magazine; eighteen months later/i>/b>/b>/i>
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NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY KIRKUS REVIEWS“A candid, generous, and profound spiritual memoir that deserves a great deal of thoughtful discussion.”—Anne Rice At seventeen, Mary Johnson experienced her calling when she saw a photo of Mother Teresa on the cover of Time magazine; eighteen months later she began her training as a Missionary of Charity, a nun in Mother Teresa’s order. Not without difficulty, this boisterous, independent-minded teenager eventually adapted to the sisters’ austere life of poverty and devotion, but beneath the white-and-blue sari beat the heart of an ordinary young woman who faced daily the simple and profound struggles we all share, the same desires for love and connection. Eventually, after twenty years of service, Johnson left the church to find her own path, but her magnificently told story holds universal truths about the mysteries of faith and how a woman discovers herself. Includes new material: Two reading group guides—for groups that wish to take different approaches to the book; a conversation between Mary Johnson and Mira Bartók, author of The Memory Palace; and Mary Johnson’s recommended reading list. “A wonderful achievement . . . Johnson opens the window on a horizon of spiritual questions [and] takes an unflinching look inside her own heart.”—The Christian Science Monitor “An incredible coming-of-age story . . . [It] has everything a memoir needs: an inside look at a way of life that most of us will never see, a physical and emotional journey, and suspense.”—Slate “Reads like a novel . . . an exacting account of a woman growing into her own soul.”—More magazine “Engaging, heartfelt and entertaining . . . [Johnson] articulates her struggles with her God in words that will hit home.”—Los Angeles Times “An inspiration that transcends any particular religious belief . . . An Unquenchable Thirst is a journey that captivates, but its resonance lies in the life examined.”—The Denver Post
Beautifully crafted memoir of one woman's experience in Mother Teresa's order, the Missionaries of Charity.
Early on, Johnson compares prayer to immersion in water: "I could close my eyes and float on the river of God's Love almost at will." Readers, too, will find themselves transported into another world by this powerful, revealing memoir. An aspirant to the Missionaries of Charity at age 19, the author spent 20 years living a life both extraordinarily simple and heart-wrenchingly complex. Johnson skillfully demonstrates this juxtaposition through her writing—mundane events, such as gathering eggs or learning to play the piano, often have tragic or miraculous implications. As she progressed in the order and became Sister Donata, the issues she faced became darker: a sexually predatory subordinate, theological disputes, an increasingly rigid system of rules and regulations and a love affair with a priest. Throughout the book, the author describes her interactions with Mother Teresa, but she does not try to pass off their relationship as especially close, but instead describes their time together with honesty and telling detail. She writes about a nun who got tired and hungry, became frustrated and disappointed, and liked candy—Mother Teresa actually emerges as a fairly normal person rather than a saintly archetype. As it became increasingly clear to Johnson that the Missionaries of Charity's vision and management were diverging from her own beliefs and values, she struggled with her place in the order and eventually made the decision to leave after two decades of service.
Johnson's portrayal of her time as a nun is likely to be controversial; her memoir is exceptional.
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South Bronx, New York City
The cardboard box on the rack above my bus seat held what was left of my possessions. In a few hours they would belong to God, and so would I.
I watched the street outside, mesmerized as cars wove through eight lanes of traffic. On a billboard, an electric blonde advertised cigarettes, then suddenly morphed into a giant banana flaunting a reed skirt and long, dark eyelashes.
"You been to the city before?" A man with a black T-shirt waved his hands, brushing my shoulder with his too-broad gesture. He stared, waiting for an answer.
"Yes, I was here in January."
"Really? You look like you never seen a city before. Where're you from?"
I shifted in the seat. Was it supposed to be this personal between passengers on buses in New York?
"Texas?" The man was loud. Other people in the bus turned their heads to look. "What's a kid from Texas doing in New York?"
I wasn't a kid. I was nineteen and I'd just finished a year in the honors program at the University of Texas, with good grades. I didn't see why I should explain to a loud man on a bus that I was in New York because the only thing I'd been thinking of for the past year and a half had been coming to this city to give myself to God. But not answering would have been rude.
"I came to see some sisters."
"Oh, you got relatives here." He seemed satisfied, but his conclusion wasn't accurate.
"Not those kind of sisters. Catholic sisters. Nuns."
"You're coming to New York City to see nuns?"
"To become a nun."
He drew in a whistle as his eyes traveled my body, perhaps looking for some sort of deformity, or maybe, if he was Catholic, a halo. I possessed neither. I didn't expect him to understand. Even my family didn't understand.
The man grew quiet, and I grew less tense. Soon I didn't see the buildings or the billboards anymore. I saw Mom, Dad, my five sisters, and my brother all lined up on the tarmac that morning, waving their eldest off. Four-year-old Heather's hand had never stopped waving-only she seemed to understand the joy of my adventure. Kathy, just thirteen months younger than I, had cried most of the night. She'd said, as she had for weeks, "Mary, you're wasting your life." I'd told her that I'd chosen the best life possible, a life of love, but that morning she'd refused even to look at me. Mom waved but didn't smile. She'd been so insistent that I at least finish college. I'd explained that when God calls, you don't put Him on hold, but she didn't get that, either.
It had been even worse when Dad had taken me to the airport in January for the preliminary week the sisters called "come and see." The plane was delayed, and while we sat waiting, he put his hand on my knee and looked into my eyes, then at my suitcase, the floor, then me again, without saying anything. When tears began to puddle in his eyes, he left without a word or a glance back.
The bus jerked to a halt at Grand Central Terminal. I reached for the rack above, but the man in the black T-shirt saw me and lifted the box before I could. "Best of luck, kid," he said as he placed the box in my hands, then added under his breath, "Pray for me, okay?"
I nodded and smiled, edging my way along the aisle. I told myself to be more careful about judging people in the future. As I stepped off the bus, a wave of heat slapped me-not the familiar heat heavy with refinery fumes and Gulf Coast humidity, but an undulating heat of asphalt, steel, and bodies. I looked for the man in the T-shirt, but he was gone. All I saw were swarms of people-hurrying, determined people who all seemed to know where they were going.
I knew where I was going, too. I'd taken a taxi in January, though the first three cabs to stop had refused to venture into the South Bronx. This time the sisters had sent directions, and I'd memorized them: shuttle bus to Grand Central, the #5 subway, a five-block walk. God, I prayed, lead me through this scurrying city. Lead me to You.
I walked down steps that smelled of urine. On the platform, I flinched a little as trains rushed past, then marveled at their jackets of neon graffiti. I clutched the strings on my box. I'd heard stories of men with knives on subways, and lately the evening news had dwelt on the "Son of Sam." The serial killer, who police said believed he was possessed by the devil, shot women with long dark hair. My hair was sort of dark but short. According to Walter Cronkite, women in New York had bought out the city's entire stock of blond wigs and were on the verge of panic. God, take care of me. I'm working for You now.
When the #5 pulled up, I found a seat and cradled my box. A suitcase would have been easier, but the sisters had said they didn't use them, or purses, either. I'm going to live free, I told myself, like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.
The heat and the crowds and the news stories had made my stomach queasy. I checked my pocket for the envelope I'd safety-pinned there- my passport and money were safe. I'd collected the $700 from my summer job as a technical writer, my savings, and money from selling my French touring bike and electric typewriter. The sisters had insisted on money for airfare to return me home if things didn't work out, or to send me to Rome if they did.
My friends had thrown a "penguin party" for me a week earlier, a beach party-"black and white dress required in honor of Mary's new wardrobe." These public school classmates of mine didn't even know my nuns wore white saris trimmed in blue, yet they squatted around the campfire debating the odds of my perseverance. Some claimed the girl who took on the school board in editorials was constitutionally incapable of a vow of obedience, that a star of the debate team, known for humiliating her opponents, wouldn't last ten minutes in a convent. Others countered that I was the kind of person who, once she decides something, will see it through, even if it means taking the layouts of the school newspaper home with her, working on them all night, strapping them to her bicycle the next morning, and delivering them personally to the printer to avoid missing a deadline. They said once I put the habit on, I'd die in it.
I enjoyed confounding their expectations. These were the people who had voted me Most Likely to Succeed. I wondered if they knew how little that title meant to me. That gathering on the beach was only the second party I'd been to since moving from Michigan when I was twelve. My first act at my new junior high had been to speak to a group of kids in a corner of the gym. Seconds later a spitball smacked my head and I heard-as did everyone else-a boy on the bleachers shouting, "Nigger lover." No one, not the five black kids at school nor the seven hundred white kids, accepted any of my approaches for the next three years. When I started earning debate trophies some of my teammates began to tolerate my presence, and Kathy and Kelley and Monica seemed to enjoy working on the newspaper with me, but boys continued to spit on me on the bus, where I was the only rider over sixteen. My classmates all had cars or hitched rides with friends. The penguin party was a nice gesture, probably prompted by their curiosity about my choices, but I doubted these acquaintances understood my outsider's pride in values beyond the mainstream. They didn't know the secret thrill I felt on the streets of Austin when, watching couples walk hand in hand, I savored my relationship with the Creator of the Universe, who shared my every moment, awake or asleep. They didn't know that living the gospel of poverty and love with God constituted real success.
I got off the train at Third Avenue and 149th Street and began the five-block walk from the subway to the sisters' house. Pulsing Spanish lyrics pushed thoughts of home away. A fruit stand hawking ma and papayas caught my eye, until I sensed boys in front of an electronics shop eying me. I shifted my box nervously from hand to hand. God, keep me safe, I prayed.
A train passed overhead. Kids my own age break-danced under the el, their boom box momentarily overpowered by the train. The smell of hot dogs increased my nausea. I stepped around some broken glass and turned onto East 145th Street. My heart beat a little faster when, midway down the block, I spotted a three-story building behind a high brick wall, barbed wire coiled at the top, a small sign to the left of the gate: Missionaries of Charity. I opened the gate and stood before the door. I swallowed, and hesitated just a moment.
I juggled the box, smoothed my hair, then rang the bell, my hand trembling. Staring at the door, I saw Heather's last wave, Kathy refusing to look.
Dear God, I prayed, please send someone to open the door.
I set the box on the sidewalk-and the door swung open.
A short, dark woman with puffy cheeks, a blue apron over her white sari, smiled at me. "Welcome," she said. The door clicked as she shut it behind me.
Sister Rochelle took my box and nudged me up a short flight of stairs toward the chapel. "Say hello to Jesus," she whispered.
I knelt on the rough carpet. A large wooden crucifix hung behind the altar, with two words pasted on the wall next to Jesus' head. When I read them, I felt as though Jesus spoke those words directly to me: I thirst.
I'd barely begun my silent prayer when Sister Rochelle said, "Come now. We'll take your things." She led me upstairs, climbing quickly. I heard chickens clucking. Nuns keeping chickens in the South Bronx-what surer sign of self-sufficiency and disregard of convention could I have asked for?
"This is the refectory for you aspirants," Sister Rochelle said as we entered a room with a long wooden table, benches on either side. "These are your plates." She pointed to a bookcase marked with numbers cut from calendars. Above each number sat a large white enamel bowl with a small plate, an enamel teacup, and a saucer. Everything was simple, clean, orderly. Above the shelf a plaque read, The Aspirancy Motto: He must increase; I must decrease.
"There are going to be twelve of you," Sister Rochelle said. "You are number nine." There'd been nine of us at home. Nine was a good number.
Another bookcase stood nearby. "Your Bible goes here. Number nine."
She took me up another flight of stairs. On the landing, we set my box down in front of a large wooden bookcase with a sheet hanging over its shelves. Sister Rochelle pulled back the sheet to reveal clothes folded more neatly than any I'd ever seen, each little pile above its own number.
"Number nine?" I asked, and she nodded.
The next door led to a room with a slanting ceiling, a linoleum floor, and thirteen cots crowded close, with barely room to walk between them. A bare bulb hung from a black wire, and simple muslin curtains covered the lower halves of the room's three small windows.
"This is your bed, number nine." Sister Rochelle smiled again as she patted a thin mattress in the corner. "I hope you brought your sheets," she said, and I nodded. "The dormitory is a sacred place and no talking is allowed, but your mistress will tell you all that."
Sister Rochelle headed for the stairs. Over her shoulder, she said, "Now unpack your things and feel at home." Already halfway down, she added, "The bell will ring soon for adoration."
I sat for a moment on bed number nine, eager to absorb the quiet. The attractions of the convent were pure, minimalist, essential-life without the additives. Everything about the convent seemed to proclaim: Only God matters.
I was stacking my clothes on shelf number nine, as neatly as I could, when I heard footsteps. A tall woman with straight, shoulder-length brown hair and sparkling green eyes rounded the corner.
"Hey, Mary!" she said, stretching out her hand. "Sister Carmeline told us to expect another aspirant today-I'm so glad it's you."
"Louise! Great to see you." Louise had been in charge of the catechism program at St. Rita's Church, just next to the convent, and we'd met in January. She was just a few years older than I-a recent graduate of the University of Virginia-and played the guitar at Mass. Her hand was warm in mine. "What's an aspirant?"
Louise laughed, throwing her arms up in the air. "I'm developing a new vocabulary. We're aspirants because we're aspiring to be sisters, or something like that."
We walked together to the dormitory, and Louise pulled back the blue and white checked bedspread on number nine, revealing a homemade mattress, not more than an inch and a half thick, resting on the cot's iron netting. As we stretched out the bottom sheet, the smell of fabric softener reminded me of home. "You mean you're joining the sisters, too?" I asked Louise. "I thought you'd decided not to."
"Yeah, well, I talked to Sister Andrea about it a lot. It's been great to work in the parish, but I do feel something missing. I want to give God everything, and I guess it's worth a try." Louise pushed the tiny pillow into my way too big pillowcase and fluffed it up as much as she could. "The sisters are excited that we'll be the first group of aspirants in the U.S. Till now they've only had a few American vocations, and they've all gone to London for aspirancy."
Suddenly a short woman stepped up so close that I nearly lost my balance. A finger to her lips, small crucifix pinned to her blouse, she shook her head with its closely cropped black hair and whispered with a light Hispanic accent, "The dormitory is a sacred place. We do not speak in the dormitory."
I froze, but Louise shook her head and laughed lightly. "Sister Elvira," she said, "this is Mary. She's just come, and I think we ought to say hello."
From the Hardcover edition.
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Meet the Author
For twenty years, as Sister Donata, Mary Johnson was a Missionary of Charity, a nun in Mother Teresa’s order, until she left in 1997. A respected teacher and public speaker, she has been named a Fellow of the MacDowell Colony and is on the board of A Room of Her Own Foundation. She lives in New Hampshire.
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I have to admit that memoir is not my thing. Most of the time I find them to be a bit self-serving and uninspiring. Not so with this book. I don't usually write these reviews, either, but I really felt like I had to after seeing some of the comments by people complaining about the book being "too graphic." Nonsense. If you want to see Mother Teresa and her nuns walking on water and singing Kumbaya, then go ahead and hold onto your fantasies about rainbows and unicorns. If you want to see a vivid portrait of an idealistic young woman who matures into a real flesh-and-blood woman with doubts, hopes, and expectations, and does so while serving with one of the world's great mythical holy women, then read this book. This is an engaging read. I learned a lot about what it is like to live in the company of only women and what it is like to love with your whole being. I wanted to say that I couldn't put it down, but the fact is that I could for good reason. I read, I reflected, I picked it up again, and read some more. There's no whitewashing here, but there is no bashing. To the naysayers, I say if you don't think this was a spiritual account of a woman's bright light and dark night of the soul, and if you can't see some of your own doubts and struggles, you are looking at a book to tell you what YOU want to know, rather than what is the truth. Great read. Courageous and gutsy. I'd love to know about the next chapter in this woman's life.
Mary Johnson, the 17 year-old daughter of religious Catholic parents, begins her story by describing a turning point in her life when her parents were announcing what they were planning for their lives after school. As much as those ideas of study, work, and marriage attracted her, she knew that she had a call from God to live her life in service to Him and only Him! Soon after, she saw a picture of Mother Teresa on the cover of Time magazine and read the article about the Missionary of Charity nuns. She decided the message in that article was a precise answer to her divine call! The remainder of this memoir about Mary or Sister Donata's twenty years life as a Missionary of Charity is a mind-boggling read. As Mary lives the course of her preparation for final vows, the reader is exposed to a painstaking battle of the soul interspersed with some moments of deep peace, understanding, and union with God. What is most evident, however, is the harshness and downright meanness of those in authority who are supposed to be bringing these novices and so on closer to God and service. In fact, this segment is torture to read at times, defying logic, compassion, and every other positive Christian virtue one can contemplate. Later it turns out when Sister Donata actually reads the Constitution of the Order that Mother Teresa wanted more kindness toward the Sisters but felt powerless to change the abuse she knew was occurring. Years pass and Sister Donata is sent to many places in America, Italy, and Canada. Temptations appear after some mental satisfaction in doing academic work and some work important as the assistant of Mother Teresa. The temptation toward a fellow nun and a priest yields a world of conflict, guilt, and so on, followed by a scandal at one of the schools with ramifications going all the way to Cardinal Ratzinger, the present Pope of the Catholic Church. Finally, Mary describes how she makes her decision to change her life's call and how she spends years resolving the residual effects of all those years. This is a moving, comprehensive, scathingly honest memoir about the heights and depths, heaven and hell, of the spiritual life of a notable community of nuns modeled after the saint-like figure, Mother Teresa! Read it, not to judge, but to know honesty and truth prevail, divine and otherwise! Astonishing book!
This was a very compelling tale of one person's journey thru the sisterhood. I am sure that any one would find it fascinating. It came to a forgone conclusion, otherwise no book would have been written, but it shows how even in the best of intentioned professions, certain people in charge can use ideas and rules to twist the inteneded purpose. I found it quite a revelation.
I found this book fascinating !
Just finished this book. It is a rare personal narration of someone that has actually lived in a convent as a very human nun (aren't they all human??) I found it 100% sincere and I couldn't think differently than Mary Johnson when she lets us see how a religious order can really be very political with its members hunting power, losing sight of the very reason they were founded on. I had never read anything that portrayed Mother Teresa like a real human being, beautiful and too good inside but always a human being. VERY interesting book!
I didn't want to put this book down, and even when I did I couldn't stop thinking about it. Even now, two days after finishing it, I'm still processing the events and the lessons beyond. Though the content may be different, this is every human's story of youthful naïveté, growth, disillusionment, and acceptance. It is beautifully written, with the writer showing great courage in revealing the very personal experiences she had while in the convent. If you like a book with substance and depth, this is it.
Mary Johnson has done an amazing job of bringing the reader into her life at that time. The reader is able to feel what she went through, all the doubt, fear, guilt, sadness, longing, and so much more. I highly recommend this book for those who not only want to see what life is like for a nun in the Missionary of Charity organization, but also to see what goes through the minds of, dare I say, all believers. I greatly anticipate Johnson's next book, her life since leaving the order.
This book was a journey. I felt as if I were living the journey as I was reading. Whether you agree with the author or not, the trip along the way is well worth it!
Being Catholic and being taught by nuns in school, I found this a must read. It's easier now to understand why more women/men don't go into religious service. I was actually very afraid of the nuns who taught me. The rules they all had/have to live by are against human nature and I can better undstand why they acted as they did. I admit I would rather the sexual encounters Sr. Donata lived through be shortened, however, I guess she had her reasons. I'm glad she's happy now and would definitely recommend this book.
Religious hypocrisy and its sadism are challenged, especially when inhumanity dresses up as holy care-giving! How grueling for Johnson and the other innocent, earnest young women to become enmeshed in a crucifixion-fixated RC religious culture. How hard-won is Johnson's autonomy! When she began to honor both her questions and her answers, she found a way to live that included happiness. As author Karen Armstrong suffered years earlier, in a convent where sadistic control was the order of the day, Johnson also labored, day by day, until she gave birth to her beautiful self! An amazing story, beautifully written! Eleanor Cowan, author of : A History of a Pedophile's Wife
Description: An Unquenchable Thirst is the autobiography of Mary Johnson, a woman in search of God, love, and her true-self under the influence of Mother Theresa's teachings. Review: I have to admit, I wasn't expecting this book to affect me so much, but Mary's story was really moving and genuine. The level of detail was astonishing, Mary's feelings and surroundings adding to an already intense journey for human understanding; her hopes, fears, and secrets permeating every page. I have never really appreciated the idea of convents or nuns, but I completely understand devotion, and when I consider the term, Mother Teresa does come to mind. I knew some basic information about her life, but had not considered her earthly contributions as of late, however, An Unquenchable Thirst sketched a life portrait that I had not expected. Not only does Mary Johnson recount Mother Teresa's graces, but also her flaws and failures - humanizing a woman who is so often only described as saintly. I love when a book, especially one detailing such a prominent figure, makes history relatable and enjoyable. No one wants to read about absolute perfection - an attribute the Earth knows not. Overall, I rather enjoyed Mary's story, minus a few grammatical/punctuation errors, and I am glad that her life ended up the way it did, (no spoilers). Recommended for open-minded readers who would like to know more about Mother Teresa and her followers... or those who want a look into the little-known and misunderstood lives of nuns/missionaries and those who choose to devote themselves to GOD. Rating: On the Run (4/5) *** I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
The book is overwritten, much too wordy. Could have done with some sharp editing. Starts out well but bogs down in the middle.
I never could finished reading this but I was shocked at the graphic and detailed content - the first part of the bpook is fine but when she starts telling about her lesbian sexual exploits (while still a nun) it goes overboard for me. I certainly did not expect that in a book whose cover claims it is about working with Mother Teresa and the MC's. This and then her elicit affair with a priest is just too much info. I cannot understand why she continued to be a nun for so many years if she wanted a sexual life? She had a choice but she wanted both (being a nun and having sex with both men and women apparently) with no consequences. I also found it distrubing that she practically accuses another sister of sexually attacking her and yet would go back to her for more.
As with any institution, once you are live, study, work within, your rose colored glasses are shed and reality sinks in. We all are human, everyone is flawed; Sadly Ms. Johnson held Mother Teresa in such high esteem she could not, or failed to realize Mother could actually be human. A shame actually, for if she would have been able to accept Mother Teresa for the person she was, the twenty years Sr. Donata, aka Ms. Johnson, lived as a Missionary of Charity sister could have been years of spiritual growth and personal maturity. What I find disturbing about this book is the graphic descriptive writing of Ms. Johnson's sexual encounters while a nun. I do not believe it necessary to be so explicit. I do not see why she felt compelled to be so graphic when her title states: following Mother Teresa in search of love, service and an authentic life; this story seems to be quite the opposite of those words. I don't believe Ms. Johnson's writing to be eloquent, moving or heartfelt; rather I believe Ms. Johnson, even at this age, is immature, vindictive and has unresolved issues.