An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life by Mary Johnson. Spiegel and Grau, an imprint of Random House, 2011. <>
In an interview Mary Johnson said, “Even when you enter a convent you are still a human being with all sorts of things happening. We have to start talking about that.”
Her publisher, (Spiegal & Grau) was overjoyed with the book, “We all marveled at how it – Unquenchable Thirst – spoke to us, no matter what our religious background, age or gender… Mary was a rigorous and learned thinker on the most vexing and mysterious and essentially spiritual questions.” Words by publisher, Julie Grau in “First,” a 6-page article by Eryn Loeb in Poets and Writers, Sept/Oct. 2011.
The bar is set high. Mary – who comes to be known as known as a Missionary of Charity (MC) named Sister Donata – is longing for an authentic life. She stays on her point. But how much authenticity can an enormous organization carry? Mother Teresa was the embodied inspiration linking multiple mission houses to help the poor all over the world. By 1996, at age 86, she was operating 517 missions in more than 100 countries, each run by sisters aiming to be devoted brides of Jesus.
Sister Donata is in the matrix of the activities. “ I looked at the shoes outside the door –– Mother’s ragged, repeatedly mended sandals next to (Princess) Diana’s shiny black pumps.”
The author gets you to care about how she will continue against the difficult circumstances that are present from her first days as an Aspirant. She sheds each skin so naturally that you, the reader, are now in New York City, now in Washington DC, now in Rome and this girl from Texas has become fluent in Italian and is helping the Romany (Gypsy) children there. You are applauding on the sidelines, but then she is too happy with her work educating those children who had never been taught anything but street-life, so her superiors take that away from her. Being humble and holy is more important to these nuns than using knowledge to help the poor. Pride. Sin. Sister Donata is up against the formidable hierarchy within the organization, which makes authentic life very challenging.
The unkind high-ranking sisters create stern distance between themselves and the newer women, a distance, she says she will erase in favor of being kind and compassionate – if she is ever in that position. But when she becomes the “mistress” some students take advantage of her kindness.
Earlier on, there is the moment she is working with the wild inner-city kids in D.C. She has 60 of them. She asks who has been in a fight, and nearly everyone raises a hand: “And what do you do when someone else picks a fight?” “Kick their ass,” a boy in front shouted… And who knows what Jesus said about fighting?” All faces went blank….” Jesus said, ‘When someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the left.’” “…we have to be peacemakers even if it’s hard. The point is if someone’s mean to us we don’t fight back and make it worse.” Derrick looked at me as though I were crazy. Most of the little kids looked blank. They would need time to digest this.”
Then in the middle of this fragile, nonviolent work she is introducing, one of the other sisters starts covertly hitting the children when they misbehave…
Most difficulties encountered in the daily life of a MC did not seem to have the support of the superiors. Rules and more rules, punishment and taking yourself to task were regular fare. A sympathetic priest suggests a Twelve Step program to Sister Donata, and offers to introduce it as the subject of his weekly talks to the sisters. “The twelve steps use sound spiritual principles – they’re good for anyone who is trying to grow,” he tells her. Conscious growth is not a topic Sister Donata has encountered. She divides her sisters she is guiding into groups called, “Sinners Anonymous.” This seems to be a useful tool, next to the path of striving for spiritual perfection – and repeatedly failing. She bravely shares with the reader her discoveries, as a young nun, of her own sexuality and how she is on her own dealing with it.
It is shocking how the system fails to make use of knowledge and natural gifts. Sister Donata is great with children and young novices. She has spent 3 years studying Theology at prestigious Regina Mundi, part of Gregorian University, just blocks from the Vatican in Rome. After that she was assigned to work on Mother Teresa’s writings for a short time. Then there are political moments, and she is re-assigned as ground level organizer arranging visas and travel tickets, buy and pack supplies for the missions and deal with “hordes of sisters newly professed from Calcutta and Africa and Rome, sometimes even from the Philippines and the States –– it was a zoo.”
The grit in this book is in every chapter, but it becomes tactile as she begins to see the distance between her idealistic, expansive view and the wedge of strict, small minded people who influence Mother Teresa. Then there is disappointment in the woman who was her inspiration for years – Mother, herself.
“I can’t do this anymore. I couldn’t be the spouse of Jesus crucified. I wanted to be Mary Magdalene discovering the empty tomb in the garden, hearing the Lord call her name. I wanted to be the spouse of the One who said, I came that you may have life, and have it to the full.”
This is after her powerful dream of the potter as Creator, who breathed life into each of her creations and set them out in the world. The last one was a girl with glasses. The potter decided to keep her on the shelf – after breathing life into her – and that little person was Sister Donata, who shouted and began to cry, “I want to go (into my life)…” But she was ignored.
“Sometimes I dreamed of helping the Society return to Mother’s emphasis on love, but I didn’t want to settle for being a good influence on individual sisters in a bad system.”
So after 20 years as a Missionary of Charity, Sister Donata leaves the world of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and re-enters secular life as Mary Johnson. Her careful reflections on that time became this beautiful, though-provoking book. I marked Unquenchable Thirst with over 60 markers, each page-flag an indication of something that might be good to share in a review. Sadly, I had to make difficult choices. You’ll have to get the book to read the rest.
May the words in this book reach far and wide! <> <>