Monday, January 02, 2012

Review: An Unquenchable Thirst

About the Book:
An unforgettable spiritual autobiography about a search for meaning that begins alongside one of the great religious icons of our time and ends with a return to the secular world.

At seventeen, Mary Johnson saw Mother Teresa’s face on the cover of Time and experienced her calling. Eighteen months later, she entered a convent in the South Bronx to begin her religious training. Not without difficulty, this bright, independent-minded Texas teenager eventually adapted to the sisters’ austere life of poverty and devotion, and in time became close to Mother Teresa herself.

Still, beneath the white and blue sari beat the heart of an ordinary young woman facing the struggles we all share—the desire for love and connection, meaning and identity. During her twenty years with the Missionaries of Charity, Sister Donata, as she was known, grappled with her faith, her sexuality, the politics of the order, and her complicated relationship with Mother Teresa. Eventually, she left the church to find her own path—one that led to love and herself.

My Comments:

Net Galley has a lot of books, over 1700 at this moment, and I tend to take period sweeps through it, requesting anything that looks interesting, based on the title, author or cover.  I do not always click through to read the entire description of the book as NetGalley is a free service for bloggers, and selecting a book from them does not obligate me to read or review it.  Had I clicked through and read the description, it is likely I would not have chosen this book.  As you can see above, the author ends up leaving not only the Missionaries of Charity but also the Catholic Church.  Realizing that as I began to read probably colored my opinion of the book.

Once upon a time, many years ago, I wanted to be a nun.  I knew they had to pray a whole lot, but they also didn't have to get married, and at the wise old age of six or seven, I knew I didn't want anything to do with boys, and the nuns I knew were very nice.  I hung onto that dream for many years.  In high school I read Kathryn Hulme's The Nun's Story  (which was made into a movie starring Audrey Hepburn), the story of a young woman who joined a Belgian convent in the 1920's and left during WWII.  We followed her from  her first days as a postulant to the day she left the convent.  We learned about convent traditions, rules, politics and watched the main character get too close to a man with whom she worked.  That book (and boys, who I later realized weren't so bad after all) convinced me that I didn't want to be a nun.  Still, I had a hard time reconciling what I read in that book to the lives I saw the Daughters of Charity, who staffed our parish school, live.   Later I read several "I left the convent behind" stories and figured that there had to be some truth to that story, at least at some time in history.

Mary Johnston's story in  An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life is pretty much a clone of those books. She entered the Missionaries of Charity in the mid-1970's after falling in love with Mother Teresa via magazine articles. She began as a aspirant Bronx New York and then spent her novitiate in Italy before being sent back to the US briefly. She spent the rest of her 20 years with the Missionaries of Charity primarily in Italy. We follow her as she spends hours in prayer, works with the poor and adapts to bathing in cold water in a bucket. We learn that she attended Mass daily and confession weekly. She had to accept criticism from her superiors without question. Sisters were not to touch each other unnecessarily nor become special friends with any one sister. They had to ask permission for just about everything and had very little personal freedom. The Superior's word was law and more than a few of the Superiors weren't all that nice and seemed to her to be more interested in promoting a personal agenda than the agenda of the order; and instead of promoting the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love in the sisters under them, they promoted the primary convent virtue of obedience. After years in the convent, Johnston violates the vow of chastity, first with two Sisters (not at the same time) and then with a priest. She then decides God is calling her to leave the MCs.

I found the summary above a little misleading. I never got the impression, reading the book, that Sr. Donata was close to Mother Teresa. I definitely thought she wanted to be; as a matter of fact, when she mentions Mother Teresa visiting, her main complaint was that she didn't get enough one-on-one with her, and on an occasion when she traveled with Mother Teresa, she later realized she never really got to talk to her on the trip.

I have no doubt that it takes a very special person to live the life of a Missionary of Charity. The chosen poverty, with the resultant bad food, cold bucket baths and cots in a communal non-air conditioned dormitory is enough to scare me away, even without chastity and obedience. That being said, the book is obviously written by someone who left--someone who didn't fit in and wasn't happy. I wonder how much of it would be like reading a description of marriage by a divorced woman? For example, what's the difference in the following: Woman 1: I called and told my husband that I found the perfect sofa for the living room. He told me I couldn't have it. Woman 2: I called and told me husband that I found the perfect sofa for the living room. He said "That's wonderful. If we save $50 dollars a month in the furniture fund, we'll be able to get it before the end of the year". For all we know both husbands could have said the same thing--neither woman has a new sofa in her living room right now. A woman who is in love with her husband "gets" to be physically intimate; one who barely tolerates him "has to be".

Mary Johnston mentions at the end of the book that not only did she leave the Missionaries of Charity, she also left the Church, but she doesn't really go into what prompted that except to say that one day she asked God to show Himself to her and she heard a small voice said "Look inside yourself. God is like the best parts of you", and that from there it was a small step to "God is the best parts of you" and that stories about God no longer ring true and "physics and literature and music feel so much more honest than theology". I know Johnston isn't looking for my sympathy, but she has it, and not for what she endured during her time with the MC's.

I debated on how to rate the book.  It was an interesting, well-written book.  It was also a not-so-thinly veiled attack on the Catholic church in general and the Missionaries of Charity in particular.  I guess I'll give it a C+.


  1. sigh.... really wish there were more positive books about the life of religious out there.... but then they are too busy serving God to have time to write books to entertain us

  2. you summed it up right...another attack on the Church and on the religious life. Yes, you just keep looking inside yourself Sister, and tell me how that works out.

  3. If what you say is true, I find her experience not to be unlike many women I know when they hit 40 - or after all the children have left the nest. She would have been better to see that she was going through a normal process of questioning and blaming the "outside influences" (the Church,, the Missionaries) she needed to be realistic with herself and see that she had choices and made them. If she joined the order to be close to Mother Teresa, she chose for the wrong reasons. it probably would have been a more important read.
    Remember when men went through mid life crisis? It seems women are now doing the same thing- especially working women- in my observations. Sounds like what she did.

  4. In the end, the leaving of a convent is primarily about not wanting to obey. I know because I did that after 5 1/2 years. The reasons are varied for not wanting to obey.

    I get the impression from your review that this woman did not have a deeply personal relationship with Christ and that she had poor spiritual direction. Yes, some superiors are harridans, but getting past that is part of how God perfects us.

    I also get the impression that she wanted to attach herself to perceived power: Mother Teresa herself.

    This lady's story is sad and I hope she eventually returns to the Church. That voice she heard was from the devil.

  5. Great review. I have the same impression that Barb had of the author. Sounds very sad.

  6. Hey I like your review.

    "a communal non-air conditioned dormitory is enough to scare me away"

    This from someone who lives in South Louisiana!

  7. Yup, this Girl Scout leader does not camp outside in the summer!

  8. 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.


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