Two weeks ago a newly published book arrived in my mailbox that I was to forward on to a friend. The title and first few pages intrigued me, as it looked like it was going to be a book about life in the nunnery and insights into the life of Mother Teresa. In my romanticized view of what goes on behind the cloistered walls, I have always imagined monks and nuns sitting in the garden much of the day, meditating and contemplating God, doing a few odd jobs to keep them busy and singing Gregorian chants in the chapel, so I was interested to see if I was even half right. Not surprisingly, that is not how they spend their days! The more I read in this book, the more horrified I became about the so-called contemplative lifestyle, and then I needed to keep reading to know what it was going to take for the author to get out of her commitment to God and leave the Missionaries of Charity. My friend generously let me finish the book before sending it on, and I completed it this morning. This is the fastest I have read 544 pages in recent memory!
The book is called An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service and an Authentic Life, a memoir by Mary Johnson, a former sister in Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. I am not Catholic, was not raised Catholic and in fact have issues with the Catholic Church as I do with most organized religions and their dogma, which are more about greed and self aggrandizement than anything else (like the missionaries who came to Hawai’i to do good, and in fact did well). Yet I was curious, wondering what the life of a nun is like in the twentieth and twenty first centuries and wanting to learn more about the mystique of Mother Teresa. Who knows, maybe I would have changed my opinion, at least about the Catholic Church.
‘An Unquenchable Thirst’ is simply written, the author recreates dialogue with the sisters she encounters over the years to move the story forward. Although the author’s journey began almost 35 years ago, the events feel fresh, raw, like it all happened earlier this year. Her story includes a fascinating, sometimes voyeuristic exposé of life in the convent. The sisters are expected to live without any of the conveniences of modern life, they are worked long hours, they are not particularly treated well by their superiors, they practice disciplines (self punishment) and probably harshest of all, their marriage to Jesus is expected to fill every need in their lives, including the need – and desire – for human closeness. I find it hard to believe that Jesus would have wanted his followers to live under such conditions or to practice such a lifestyle. As a reader who was getting my first glimpse into life as a nun in this day and age, I have to say I was shocked, and I started wondering how this lifestyle differs from that in any other cult in which Faith and Rules and a Strict Hierarchy are the cement that holds everything else together. What moved me about this book, however, was the author’s courage to tell her story, including every mistake, every painful decision she had to make that finally led her to realize that she could no longer be part of this society. As Joseph Campbell said, “follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls”. It took an enormous amount of bravery and integrity for her to follow her bliss, and it’s not clear how much God helped.
I am grateful that this book found its way into my house as I would not likely have sought it out or otherwise found it. I am enriched by the author’s perseverance and compassion and mostly by her honesty and willingness to tell this powerful story. It further confirms my poor opinion of the church, but mostly the story renewed my desire and motivation to try and live a life that matters, which I think is what this book is ultimately about. Mahalo ia ‘oe, Mary Johnson.