Mary Johnson joined the Missionaries of Charity as a teenager, in the late 1970s when becoming a nun was hardly a mainstream or popular choice for a young girl. Even her devoutly Catholic family didn’t entirely understand or support her choice, but Mary had no doubts: she was called to a life of service.
An Unquenchable Thirst is the story of her twenty years in the order and why she finally left — not just that religious order, but ultimately the church and Christianity as well. It’s a well-told, compelling story, though there are no shocking exposes of Mother Teresa or the Missionaries of Charity as some readers might be expecting.
Essentially, Johnson’s (or Sister Donata’s, as she was during her years in the order) vocation faltered on two of the three religious vows: poverty wasn’t a problem, but chastity and obedience were. She joined as a teenage virgin, never having had a dating relationship at all, thinking herself, as many teenage girls do, unattractive and unsexy, and assuming that giving up something she’d never had would be no problem. Of course, it turned out to be more complicated and that, and given her cloistered life it may not be surprising that her sexual awakening came at the hands of other nuns. Eventually, though, it was a relationship with a man — a priest — that made her realize she was cutting out a vital part of her life; not just sex but the ability to intimately love one other human being.
As for obedience, Johnson was disappointed she didn’t get the assignments she’d hoped for working among the poor. Even an order dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor needs a bureaucracy, and most of Johnson’s time in the order was devoted to the training of other novices. This work involved frequent clashes with her superiors and the need to practice obedience against her own best judgement. The frustration of having to bow to leaders who were moving the order in a conservative direction with which she was increasingly uncomfortable, drove the final nail in the coffin of her vocation.
This book is an intimate and honest look at the religious life, and will no doubt be revealing to those of us who’ve often been curious about life inside the cloister, especially in the modern world where this is such an unusual choice. I was disappointed to learn by the end that Johnson considers herself an atheist now, because all throughout her struggles with the religious order she seemed to be fuelled by an absolutely genuine faith in God, and it’s sad, to me, to see that kind of light snuffed out. But whatever she has evolved into spiritually, there’s no doubt that Johnson has become a fine and thoughtful writer.