NOTA DE LEITURA
Mary Johnson nasceu no Texas em 1959 e aí viveu até aos 19 anos, altura em que decidiu ingressar na vida religiosa como freira da Ordem das Irmãs de Madre Teresa de Calcultá (1910-1997). Esteve nas casas de Bronx – New York, Winipeg- Canadá e em Roma. Abandonou a Ordem em 1997, estudou, fez um Master e casou. Esta é a sua autobiografia, bem escrita (a autora ensina creative writing) e bastante longa – 526 pags.
O livro descreve a vida da Ordem da Madre Teresa por dentro e não poupa as críticas. As personagens mais relevantes são identificadas com os nomes verdadeiros: as Irmãs Nirmala, Prema, Mary Frederick, Priscilla, Joseph Michael, os P.es John Hardon, S.J. e Mark Attard, Professor de Teologia na Universidade Gregoriana, em Roma. Pregava-se a disciplina, a obediência e a humildade, mas a organização e os seus dirigentes não escondiam a sua ambição e o gosto de exercer o poder. A autora frequentou um curso superior de Teologia durante três anos na Gregoriana, mas, anos depois, um pretexto serviu para tirar de lá as seis freiras que o frequentavam. Para ajudar os pobres, não são precisos cursos superiores de teologia, diziam.
Quando tinha já desempenhado cargos importantes, devido às suas qualificações, a autora foi mandada para a secção de “agente de viagens”, para tratar dos vistos, passaportes e bilhetes de transporte dos membros da organização. A humilhação fazia parte da vida monacal.
Também o desabrochar da sua sexualidade reprimida lhe fez ver que estava ali desajustada. São referidas relações com outras freiras e também com um padre que não a quis acompanhar, largando a batina. Embora não sejam descrições gráficas, estes episódios provocaram repulsa a muitos leitores na América. Entretanto, o livro não será editado nem sequer recenseado em Inglaterra, por receio de acções judiciais. A razão é que, enquanto nos USA, se houver um processo de calúnia, quem acusa tem de provar a falsidade dos factos narrados, em Inglaterra é o suposto caluniador que tem de provar que os factos narrados são verdadeiros. É um pormenor muito importante.
A ida para a vida religiosa foi para a autora uma espécie de fuga para a frente. Era a mais velha de sete irmãos. Aos 7 anos, eram já cinco. Quando lhe apetecia ir brincar, tinha era de ir passar a ferro, lavar o chão ou cozinhar para a família. Gordinha, sardenta, com óculos de lentes grossas, era gozada pelos colegas da escola (que a chamavam fatso) e achava que não podia ter amigos. Nunca namorou, nunca foi convidada para sair, nem foi a um baile. Explodiu na idade adulta.
Sobre Madre Teresa, a autora está dividida: continua a admirá-la (foi a Roma à beatificação em 19 de Outubro de 2003) mas também não lhe poupa críticas no livro. Faleceu há pouco o maior crítico de Madre Teresa, Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), que a definiu uma “fanática anã albanesa”. Ponho no fim links para alguns artigos dele sobre ela (há ainda o livro The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice).
O livro de Mary Johnson prende muito o leitor. Não o larguei durante três dias até o acabar.
Los Angeles Times
December 25, 2011
Book review: 'An Unquenchable Thirst' by Mary Johnson
The former nun, who served alongside Mother Teresa, details her disenchantment with the religious life she once found so appealing.
By Shari Roan
An Unquenchable Thirst
Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life
Spiegel & Grau: 526 pp.
It was common in the early part of the 20th century for large Catholic families
in the United States to steer one or more children into religious life. Even
Catholics in the boomer generation can probably recall being pressed to consider
— if only for a minute — becoming a priest or nun.
The majority of Catholics can only wonder what such a life might be like. Mary Johnson's "An Unquenchable Thirst," a book about her 20 years as a Missionaries of Charity nun, provides an unusually detailed, frank account that will fascinate not only Catholics but anyone who has wondered about the human capacity to vow lifelong celibacy, poverty and charity.
Johnson was born into a large family in Texas headed by charismatic Catholic parents. As the oldest of several children, she didn't get a whole lot of attention and saw herself as overweight and unbecoming. But she brimmed with a profound spirituality and compassion for the poor, and when she saw Mother Teresa of Calcutta's face on the cover of Time magazine in 1975, she heard God calling.
Johnson's life as a sari-draped nun, when she was known as Sister Donata, was troubled from almost the start. Although she relished her early years in the convent as she worked with children in poverty-stricken American neighborhoods, her superiors recognized her intelligence and put her on a managerial fast-track in the ultra-regimented, secretive Missionaries of Charities order. Far from tending to Calcutta's poor, Johnson spent most of her years as a nun in and around Rome studying, teaching, writing theological curricula and doing paperwork.
Over time, Johnson began to chafe at the political maneuvering and less-than-holy behavior of her superiors, several of whom she names in the book while disguising rank-and-file nuns and priests with pseudonyms. Even Mother Teresa herself doesn't escape Johnson's sharp eye and sense of injustice. While Johnson clearly loved the "living saint" and admired her life's work, Mother Teresa comes off as a control freak who senses her chance at sainthood under the congenial Pope John Paul II and strictly adheres to the rules set by Rome, including several of the Catholic teachings that have kept women in a place of powerlessness.
Since Mother Teresa's death in 1997, her writings have surfaced detailing her "dark nights"; years of nagging doubts about God's presence and the void she felt while building her worldwide ministry. Johnson's book supports the more-human-than-saint portrayal of Mother Teresa, finding her sincere and hard-working but decidedly businesslike and nonmaternal with her own daughters in Christ.
What overwhelms Johnson, however, is not Mother Teresa but Johnson's battle against loneliness and the lack of emotional and physical intimacy. Although Missionaries of Charity nuns are forbidden any physical contact — even a friendly hug — Johnson engages in sexual relationships with other nuns on several occasions, including one affair with a sexual predator that the Missionary of Charity leadership knew about but chose to retain on the roster anyway.
An affair with a priest finally pushes Johnson to request exclaustration — leaving the order — although the priest later decides to remain in his vocation and the relationship ends.
Johnson has devoted her years since sisterhood to becoming a writer, and "An Unquenchable Thirst" is engaging, heartfelt and entertaining. She ably communicates why she found religious life appealing and allows readers to understand, bit by bit, how she became disenchanted, needy and sad. She articulates her struggles with her God in words that will hit home with all people of religious faiths.
Only the epilogue is somewhat unsatisfying. Johnson details her years from 1997 to 2007 after leaving the convent and her attempts to resolve some of the emotional debris lingering from the departure. She married and says little of her life as a married writer near the end of the book; the last chapter feels strangely devoid of the central character of the other 505 pages: God. What became of that relationship? Johnson mentions that she rarely goes to church but doesn't elaborate on the state of her soul. In giving herself so completely to God, did this idealistic and compassionate young woman lose both her vocation and her faith?
Reviewed by Robin Vidimos
An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life
by Mary Johnson (Spiegel & Grau)
"An Unquenchable Thirst," a memoir by Mary Johnson, is aptly titled. It is the only way to describe the determination of her pursuit of the fullness of life. She spent 20 years with Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity before returning to a secular path. Her search for "Love, Service, and an Authentic Life" starts as simply her journey; by the end, the reader is at her side.
Johnson entered the world of nuns at 19, in the summer of 1997. Two years earlier she'd seen an article on Mother Teresa in Time magazine and had known immediately that this was how she was meant to live. Her first convent is located in the South Bronx, where Mary is the youngest of the 12 women who aspire to enter the order. After six months, she is one of two who remain.
Her existence is governed by schedule and The Rules. Her days start at 4:40 a.m. and nominally end at 10 p.m., and are bookended by prayer. The hours in between are spent in work and more prayer. The Rules, written by Mother Teresa when starting the order, are strict and prescriptive. They impose isolation within the community, forbidding the sisters to touch each other, "even in jest. We were not to shake hands, nor so much as tap an arm or touch a shoulder, and certainly never to embrace."
Johnson took it on because, she writes, "I wanted a life with purpose, a radical life that didn't settle for the easy way. I wanted to make the world a better place." To accomplish that involved a loss of self that stemmed from their founder. Mother Teresa always spoke of herself in third person, "as Mother instead of I, emphasiz(ing) mission over individuality. She was living the motto of aspirancy: He must increase; I must decrease."
There are six years of temporary vows before fully entering the order. All nuns take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; to these The Missionaries of Charity add the promise to "consecrate their work for the poorest of the poor."
Johnson becomes Sister Donanta, "the freely given one." She embraces the order's harsh conditions: discipline, spartan living conditions and works. Theirs is a theology of sacrifice, based in a belief that grew from the visions at Fatima, that "sacrifices would convert sinners, save souls from hell, make reparations for sin, and speed world peace."
There is spirituality in the life, but fallible humans people the Missionaries of Charity. Johnson is at times caught in a tension between absolute obedience and her instinct toward the more communal theology of Vatican II.
Johnson's path is one of love and strength, a dedication to calling that is worthy of great respect while being difficult to comprehend. She writes some of the satisfaction of her days: working with children, pursuing theological studies at Rome's Regina Mundi, guiding nuns entering the order. She writes also of the struggles with her vows. She is as unsparing in her catalog of shortcomings as she is in her work to overcome them. In this lies the story of a woman who works hard to forget herself and only eventually realizes that she needs to forgive herself as well.
Early in the memoir, Johnson writes that Mother Teresa's certainty was the result of "stubborn faith, not ecstatic vision." So it is with Johnson, whose life is driven by a deep desire to comfort and serve. The ability to cleave to that desire for 20 years seems near-heroic, but that sense doesn't come from any self-aggrandizing writing. Johnson's prose is both conversational and humble.
"An Unquenchable Thirst" is a journey that captivates but its resonance lies in the life examined. She is driven by Mother Teresa's vision and while the nun is certainly present in the work, it is her values that are the focus. The memoir is of a straight chronology, Johnson's journey more circuitous. Her beliefs and choices are undeniably hers; the dream of service and how it is realized — that's an inspiration that transcends any particular religious belief.
Friday, Dec. 2, 2011
If I had a personal list of the best books of 2011, An Unquenchable Thirst would be on it. Mary Johnson's memoir of her time with Mother Theresa's Missionaries of Charity 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 of an unusual kind--the reader knows from the beginning that Johnson will leave the "MCs." The real question is what among the various sacrifices, indignities, and disillusionments of life within the order will push her over the edge.
Mary Johnson spent 20 years as "Sister Donata" and rose within the ranks of Mother Theresa's missionaries, working directly with Mother Theresa and with those who now run the order. She describes the calling that took her, at 19, to the Bronx to work with Mother Theresa after seeing her on the cover of Time, and she bluntly narrates the struggles that follow: her confusion over how much sacrifice one's God should demand, her eventual regret for the physical pleasures that she left behind, and her gradual realization that moral certainty can conceal a mighty thirst for power behind a veil of sanctitude, but only for so long.
An Unquenchable Thirst is much more than a single Catholic journey, and it's far from a book only for current or former Catholics. Johnson's is a spiritual journey much starker and more enthralling than most. It's a courageous and often dark book—the author is unsparing in her descriptions of her own failings and those of the women (and occasionally men) around her. It's a sensual book that vividly depicts the temptations of a life that is not only celibate, but lived as though any unnecessary physical contact was both sinful and suspect. And in its harsh examination of what it means to want to dedicate a life to service, only to realize that the image you held of that life rings hollow after decades, An Unquenchable Thirst is an incredible coming of age story. No interest in theology necessary.
An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Theresa in Search of Love, Service and
an Authentic Life
Spiegal & Grau, 542 pp., $27
Reviewed by Jonathan E. Lazarus
Mary Johnson boarded a bus in Texas when she was 19 and traveled to the grittiness of the South Bronx where she entered the Missionaries of Charity in 1977 as an idealistic, impressionable aspirant. Twenty years later, after serving as Sister Donata in mostly Italian postings, she left the order from the sun-dappled surroundings of Rome — older, wiser, conflicted and yet strengthened in both secular and spiritual feelings.
If the joy is in the journey, then Donata’s surely was one of mostly growth, service and exuberance, tinged with the very human doubts and stirrings for which her order decreed zero tolerance. Now married and living as a writer in New Hampshire, Johnson has chronicled two decades of a no-holds-barred nun’s story while avoiding the temptation of a spiteful, smutty “convent confidential.”
For Donata, the interplay of faith, doubt and obedience, challenging in the best of circumstances, reached jarring levels of anguish and isolation with each disappointment in the order. The cinched habit and blue-bordered sari become the symbolic and allegorical boundaries of a life circumscribed by the inviolate rules written by Mother Theresa and filtered unevenly through a cadre of sisters in key positions, many of whom indulged in inside baseball with unseemly gusto.
But it is the mystique cloaking Mother, the tiny, crinkled, Albanian-born dynamo propelling the Missionaries of Charity, that suffuses the book and informs Donata’s actions. The now-beatified supernova of Calcutta, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, confidante of John Paul II, adorner of magazine covers, literally wills her way through the narrative and her own crises of faith and physical infirmity.
Yet, for all her travels to receive honors and visit missions, and despite her prodigies of charity, the superior general seems curiously oblivious to the quotidian concerns of her flock. In Donata’s case, this becomes a game-changer. She leaves the order distraught that Mother never acknowledged her by her professed name, only as a generic “sister,” despite their proximity during several assignments.
“Unquenchable Thirst” candidly acknowledges Johnson’s awakening sexuality, her relationship with two sisters and her deepening attraction to a priest. She would, however, wish to be judged on the two decades spent teaching, tending, learning, growing and trying to reform from within as validation and authentication of her unquenchable thirst.
Jonathan E. Lazarus is a former news editor of The Star-Ledger.
Writer finally finds time to satisfy ‘Thirst’
By LISA JACKSON Correspondent
NASHUA – How does someone spend 20 years as a nun with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and end up living in Nashua’s North End?
Mary Johnson, the autobiographer of “An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life,” did it one word at a time.
Being the eldest of seven children raised in a Catholic household in Michigan and then Texas, Johnson attended church services and catechism classes without feeling a calling to the church.
She recalls two potential career options from her childhood.
“I remember I wanted to do big things,” she said. “I wanted to become the conductor of the philharmonic orchestra because I had seen Leonard Bernstein on television and it really enthralled me. Or I wanted to be an archaeologist.”
In high school, Johnson developed a strong interest in writing. She became involved with the school newspaper and was editor in her senior year.
Johnson worked at the school’s literary magazine and entered writing contests. She also became involved with the debate team. A communications career seemed to blossom.
While a senior, Johnson saw a picture of Mother Teresa on the cover of Time magazine and read the article inside.
“That was the turning point for me,” Johnson said. “I hadn’t heard of her before, and I read that article and I knew that was what I had to do.”
She wrote letters to Mother Teresa; time passed with no response.
Within a few months of starting a liberal arts program in college, Johnson received a reply from the sisters. Her path as a nun began.
Johnson’s life in the convent ran on a strict schedule with minimal writing time. Twice a day – at noon and before bed – she could make notes in a tiny handmade book as preparation for confession. And once a month, she could write to her parents.
“On Easter and Christmas,” Johnson said, “we could write to our brothers, sisters and grandparents, but we really didn’t have much time, so I ended up writing these very tiny notes to each of them.”
Johnson felt lucky when assigned to study Mother Teresa. It involved writing and speaking.
“I did a thesis about her spirituality, and afterward, the sisters sent me around the country teaching about Mother Teresa, her thoughts and her work.”
One significant moment in Johnson’s life happened while she lived in a convent in Washington, D.C.
“I remember very clearly,” Johnson said. “I had this urge to write, and I knew that I couldn’t. The only way I could rationalize it and work through it was to make my life my poem and try to put everything into my life somehow. It helped a little bit.”
Johnson spent 15 of her 20 years as a nun in a convent in Rome. When she left the Missionaries for Charity in 1997, she moved in with her sister in Texas.
Re-entry into mainstream life held many challenges, but the passion to write flared. She knew she wanted to write her story.
“I started writing journal entries right away to process the experience,” Johnson said.
Except for a handful of personal notes, written secretly, her mind held the two decades of memories.
Johnson finished an undergraduate degree in English with concentrations in creative writing and international studies. She took an online memoir writing course through UCLA, where her instructor encouraged her to find some way to tell the story.
A master’s program at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., challenged her to write her full, true story.
Of the difficult parts, her instructor said, “If it didn’t kill you to experience it, it won’t kill you to write about it.”
Johnson persevered, and ended up with more than 700 pages.
She met her husband during her first semester at Goddard. He was a physician, who was finishing up a master’s in poetry.
He lived in Vermont, and eventually, the two married.
He decided to give up his clinic but continue practicing, and eventually landed at Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Hudson.
“We looked around a lot,” Johnson said about relocating four years ago. “Nashua felt like a New England town with a lot going on, but not too big. We really like the downtown. I can walk everywhere I want, to the post office, to a cafe to write.”
“I’ve written probably in every restaurant on Main Street at one time or another,” Johnson said. “I would walk and write it here and there.
“Some of my favorite places are Riverwalk Cafe and Vietnam Noodle House. I really miss the Black Olive Restaurant. I wrote a lot at the library and Michael Timothy’s, some at Villa Banca.
“I have a great fondness for Main Street in Nashua.”
After a decade of writing down two decades of experiences, Johnson is now looking forward to promoting her book, speaking and discussing the issues raised in it.
Sep 23, 2011
There’s an episode in Mary Johnson’s An Unquenchable Thirst that seems to epitomize the painful years she spent in Mother Teresa’s religious order.
It is just one of dozens of uncomfortable moments the former nun recalls as a member of the Roman Catholic Missionaries of Charity, but it exemplifies the degree to which she saw life around her as one of repression, repercussions and guilt — the things that drove her out of the order in 1997.
At one of the order’s homes in Rome, a supervisor, Sister Dolorosa, began shouting in her sleep, “I need a man! I need a man!”
The sister was faithful to her vows, but the evidence of her subconscious desire sent shock waves through the other nuns.
Sister Dolorosa’s words “reverberated in my brain, my gut, my bones,” Ms. Johnson writes.
One sister said, “It’s only normal. We are all human.”
“But she’s our mistress,” said another. “We’re supposed to learn from her.”
When Sister Dolorosa found out what she had said, she hid in shame from the others.
Ms. Johnson, who was in Toronto this week to promote An Unquenchable Thirst, said no one reading her book should think life in the Missionaries of Charity was typical of that in other women’s religious orders.
Other orders, she said, allow their members to have some semblance of a normal life: to engage with friends outside; to keep up with current events; and to stay in close contact with their families.
“We weren’t even allowed to be friends with each other,” she said. “All our contacts were cut off.”
In the midst of this turmoil, Ms. Johnson said many of the sisters rose heroically to the challenge.
“They come from very simple backgrounds and all of a sudden they are in charge of an orphanage with 60 babies with precarious health or they’re working with lepers,” she said.
“They just pour themselves into it. It’s astonishing.”
Ms. Johnson was a high-school student in Texas in the late 1970s when she found in her school library a copy of Time magazine with a painting of Mother Teresa on the cover, wearing her distinctive habit, a sari with blue highlights.
She skipped class to read the piece. A week later, she wrote to Mother Teresa in Calcutta, “begging her to take me as one of her own sisters.”
Eighteen months later, against the objections of her family, she found herself at one of the order’s homes in the South Bronx, one of New York’s most dangerous neighbourhoods.
In effect, she had joined the Marine Corps of religious orders — the most dedicated of the dedicated.
The Albanian-born Mother Teresa started the order in 1950 to serve the most desperately poor and rejected in Calcutta. From 12 sisters, it grew to a worldwide organization with more than 4,500 nuns.
“What drew me to that group was the fact they were living a very radical life,” said Ms. Johnson.
“That they went to serve God, and to serve God through the poor and identifying very much with the poor, living as the poor did. Leading a dedicated life where one could give everything.
“When I felt this calling to give myself as a sister, it was very clear to me it was a calling to the Missionaries of Charity. I didn’t feel drawn to any group of nuns. I thought that’s where I really belong.”
But, as she recounts in An Unquenchable Thirst, that conviction soon deteriorated into years of confusion, hostility and self-loathing. If this were a book about any other religious order, it would probably only be of interest to a few people. But because it is about Mother Teresa’s spiritual family, it resonate far more deeply.
Asked whether she worried the book would hurt the order and its work, Ms. Johnson replied, “It has been a concern of mine, especially because people are so inspired by Mother Teresa and have done a lot of good because of her.
“What I told myself in deciding to publish it is that people who are ready to realize this is a human organization, that it has faults like any other group does, will understand.”
Still, reading it is hard to fathom why anyone who would have lasted 20 years. But Ms. Johnson explained the conviction you have been called by God to do something is far stronger than anything that could be imagined in a secular pursuit.
“We’d always been told you are here because God has called you, so the worst thing you could do is leave.”
During her time with the sisters she broke her vows with chastity with another nun and later with a priest. She believes now if the order allowed more humane relationships she would never have broken her vows.
“I think if I hadn’t been that lonely it would have been a whole lot easier to keep my vows. I’m not making excuses. I know I violated my vows and that was something very complicated for me and that I felt guilty about for a very long time. But at the same time I found myself unable to resist having a relationship.”
The book tells of superiors who became drunk with power, whose normal mode of communication was to shout and invent irrational accusations against those below them.
Because arguing back was considered a sin against humility, even the most irrational charges could not be countered properly for fear of appearing to be proud or arrogant. Self-flagellation with a rope or a chain was used as a means to conquer pride.
“As I lived it out, I realized that sort of radical draw also brought these drawbacks where people didn’t have any way of pursuing any form of pleasure or relaxation,” she said.
“The food was bad, living conditions were difficult, and we didn’t mind that, because we had signed up for that. But what happens is some of the people get their only pleasure in the exercise of power. And this part of what happened in the Missionaries of Charity.”
At one point, after being attacked verbally by another nun, Ms. Johnson picked up her assailant and shook her like a rag doll.
“I really couldn’t take it any longer,” she said. “And that happened pretty early on. It frightened me to find that kind of reaction within myself.”
Today, she is married and lives in New Hampshire, where she writes and teaches Italian, a job that often means bringing her students to Rome — and a chance to visit the sisters, many of whom she still feels a great fondness for.
She is also careful not to sully Mother Teresa, calling her the most dedicated and extraordinary person she has ever met. Ms. Johnson even returned to Rome in 2003 to attend her beatification ceremony.
Still, she believes the nun reached the point at which her role of superior-general became overwhelming, especially as her popularity turned her into a Catholic superstar.
Ms. Johnson said at one point Mother Teresa went to Rome in the early 1980s to meet pope John Paul II. She planned to tell him she was being pulled in too many directions and away from the care of the sisters, and seek his advice.
“When she came back, I could see the disappointment in her face. She said the Holy Father told me I must give necessary care to the sisters and loving care to the people. He told her she was his best ambassador,” Ms. Johnson said.
“From that point on she would see us when she could but we were no longer her focus.”
Sobre Madre Teresa de Calculá:
Aug 29, 2007
January 11, 2012