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An Unquenchable Thirst: A Memoir

Review

An Unquenchable Thirst: A Memoir

This book will shock some Catholics with its heretical claims and depress others of all religions who want to believe in the saintliness of Mother Teresa and her nuns. For readers like me, it will confirm an unavoidable truth: The religious life is not free from petty jealousy, destructive envy, greed for power and control, or even from lust and cruelty. Within the confines of a convent, all these sins may be discovered if you stay long enough, yet this does not mean that the religion is false or its proponents deluded.

"This book will shock some Catholics with its heretical claims and depress others of all religions who want to believe in the saintliness of Mother Teresa and her nuns. For readers like me, it will confirm an unavoidable truth: The religious life is not free from petty jealousy, destructive envy, greed for power and control, or even from lust and cruelty."

Mary Johnson stayed 20 years as a devoted sister of the Missionaries of Charity, having close contact with Mother Teresa, its founder, and rising to the level of Mother Superior herself. A devout teenager from Texas, Mary was moved by a picture of Mother (as her nuns call her) on the cover of Time magazine. She wanted nothing else but to join Mother and live with and for the poor. Her youthful idealism and innate piety, she believed, would mesh perfectly with Mother’s mission. But she was wrong, as time would tell.

Beginning with “Charity Boot Camp,” where breakfast consisted of bread smeared with Crisco and baths were one bucket of cold water, Mary, who was later renamed Sister Donata, embraced the outward signs of her sacrifice for Jesus and for Mother. As she moved to final vows and then to positions of greater responsibility, she willingly scourged herself with a whip and, when accused of any infraction, blamed herself and tried to be better. Readers like myself will feel anger when, after prayerfully taking responsibility to advise her superiors about sisters who were potentially endangering the order, Sister Donata herself was accused of being arrogant and complicit --- and managed to swallow these insults. She was called “seductive,” a “fornicator” and a “sex addict” after allowing another sister, deeply depressed at the time, to lie beside her with a blanket between them. Mother, she learned, could be cold and exacting, but also capable of great forgiveness, a contradictory combination that made it nearly impossible for Mary/Donata to sort out her personal feelings --- especially since she was not supposed to have any, but subsume all in her love for Jesus.

Donata was fortunate to have a priest confessor who cared about her --- in fact, their love became all but carnal until they were forced to separate. He did not condemn her when she expressed her ideas and feelings, and this made it easier for her to see some things more plainly, though for more than 18 years, she let the Rule of the Missionaries hold sway over her, believing she must try harder to accede to the will of the Church and Mother. She longed --- prayed --- to feel for Jesus what she was told she must feel. But she gradually began to think that loving her fellow human beings is not a sin, and that helping the poor is not possible if one lives exactly like them. Her activist tendencies caused her to run afoul of church doctrine; in one instance, she was prevented from helping a group of poor women start a sewing co-op because, she was told, the Missionaries’ purpose was to embrace the poor, not change them. In another instance, she struggled to understand why it was acceptable to beg from the local merchants for building materials, while every day large donations pour in from supporters all over the world. Mother’s explanation that this gave the merchants a chance to exercise charity rang hollow.

After long bouts of physical illness and probable depression, and of conflict with the Church in which she watched helplessly as political forces dominated, Mary/Donata made the decision to leave the order. For some time beforehand, she had nursed fantasies of escape from a home that was a prison to her, and leaving, even with permission, was not immediate or simple.

Mary Johnson, now married and an adept and emotive writer, is the founder of an organization called A Room of Her Own, dedicated to encouraging and awarding isolated and embattled creative women. She believes that Mother Teresa’s flaws have been ignored or micro-sized and her strengths and virtues magnified by those who want to consider her a saint. Johnson’s “unquenchable thirst” is perhaps less for personal piety now, more for the right to doubt, to defend others, and to formulate her own theology --- rights she had given up to live with and for Mother Teresa.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on September 21, 2011

An Unquenchable Thirst: A Memoir
by Mary Johnson

  • Publication Date: February 26, 2013
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, Religion
  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
  • ISBN-10: 0385527489
  • ISBN-13: 9780385527484