One Woman's Extraordinary Journey of Faith, Hope, and Clarity
Format: Hardcover, 544 pages
Publisher: Bond Street Books
ISBN: 978-0-385-66697-8 (0-385-66697-7)
Pub Date: September 13, 2011
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For readers of Karen Armstrong and Kathleen Norris comes a powerful, unforgettable spiritual autobiography.
An Unquenchable Thirst is the story of Mary Johnson's twenty years as a Missionary of Charity — working alongside Mother Teresa in service to the world's poor — and a fascinating depiction of the daily struggle to live a life of religious service. At 17, Johnson experienced her calling when she saw a photo of Mother Teresa on the cover of Time. Eighteen months later she found herself in religious training in a South Bronx convent. This boisterous, independent-minded teenager adapted, eventually, to the austere life of poverty and devotion, but faced daily the struggles of any young woman — the same desires for love and connection and meaning and identity. After 20 years, Johnson left the order and has since left the church, but the story of this complicated, extraordinary woman will speak to atheists and true believers alike.
I was sometimes confused by the myriad references to the Rule, the rule, the Rules, or the rules— singular or plural, capitalized or not, without any apparent change in meaning. Though Sister Carmeline referred to both the Constitutions and a seemingly endless number of unwritten customs and traditions as Rules, only the Constitutions carried what she called “the Church’s stamp of approval”; the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious had authorized the Constitutions as an infallible path to holiness. Failure to observe the Constitutions could be sinful, especially in matters connected with the vows. All religious (it felt strange to think of that word not as an adjective but as a noun referring to vowed sisters and brothers and some priests) took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Missionaries of Charity were privileged to take an additional vow of wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor. We aspirants wouldn’t make these vows until we had completed three years of training, but we were to practice them already.
Some Rules formed the foundations of MC life, such as the one that stated, “Our particular mission is to labour at the salvation and sanctification of the poor not only in the slums but all over the world wherever they may be.” I sometimes resented the implications of other Rules: “Our correspondence will be marked with uprightness, clarity, and strength of character. Letters sent by or addressed to the Sisters must be handed over to the Superior that they may be seen by her.” Ungrammatical Rules, of which there were more than a handful, bothered me in an official document like the Constitutions: “We shall walk whenever opportunity offers to take the cheapest means of transport available to the poor as far as possible.”
One day when pontificating about the Rules’ importance, Sister Carmeline replaced her usual drone with a far more tender tone. Sister Carmeline looked almost dreamy as she told us, “When Mother started the Society, she wrote the Rule little by little, at night, after working all day in the slums.” Sister paused, then said with even greater reverence, “Mother wrote the Rule on her knees.” The pontifical drone reappeared the day Sister Carmeline read from the Constitutions about “particular friendship.” She explained that in religious life every sister belonged to every other. Though we might like certain sisters better than others, never, under any circumstance, could we become emotionally attached to any sister.
The Rules— Sister Carmeline shook the Constitutions book in our faces— forbade sisters touching 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.
The Rules against touch seemed overblown but didn’t annoy me the way the prohibition against friendship did. As my hopes for a friend among the sisters were dashed, I also realized that banning the joy of friendship meant freedom from the pain of exclusion as well. We would all belong to one another.
“A wonderful achievement. . . . I look forward to more from this honest, courageous voice.”
—The Christian Science Monitor
MARY JOHNSON joined the Missionaries of Charity, the group commonly known as the Sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, at age 19. Mother Teresa trusted her and she rose quickly in the ranks. Mother Teresa sent Mary to study theology at Regina Mundi, a pontifical institute aggregated to the Gregorian University in Rome, where she received a diploma in religious studies, summa cum laude. For fifteen of Mary Johnson's twenty years as a sister, she was stationed in Rome and often lived with Mother Teresa for weeks at a time. After leaving the sisters in 1997, Johnson completed a BA in English, summa cum laude. She subsequently received an MFA in Creative Writing. She also married. A well-respected teacher and public speaker, she has led retreats, workshops, classes, and training sessions of various kinds for nearly thirty years. She currently teaches creative writing and Italian to adults and is Creative Director of A Room of Her Own Foundation's retreats for women writers.
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