Currently residing in the heart of New Hampshire, Mary Johnson was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan where she lived until she was 12 years old. She then moved to Beaumont, Texas.
As the eldest of 7 children which include six sisters and one brother, Johnson grew up in a very Catholic household. Now her family is quite diversified as her extended family includes a Sufi sister, a Jewish brother-in-law, a Muslim family, a Unitarian, a Congregationalist, atheists, and a brother whose spirituality tends to lean more toward the ancient Egyptian. Celebrating holidays with our family is always an interesting experience.
Although Mary is inquisitive, evolving, and content her memoir, an Unquenchable Thirst is an honest and loving gift. Recently, I had the chance to talk to Mary Johnson about life as a nun, Mother Teresa, and An Unquenchable Thirst and here is what she had to say…
(Q) Tell me a little about An Unquenchable Thirst…
I wrote An Unquenchable Thirst to tell the story of my twenty years as a nun. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes sad, always honest. An Unquenchable Thirst makes some people uncomfortable because it’s a nun’s story that includes sex and longing and disappointment as well as fulfillment and service – I had to write it honestly.
(Q) Taking you back 20 years when you first decided to become a nun, did you wake up one morning and say to yourself, “I want to devote my life and time to God, I want to become a nun.” I have to ask…what inspired you to become one?
When I was in high school I found a story about Mother Teresa in Time magazine. When I read about how she cared for people who were dying on the streets, how she rescued babies from dustbins and took them home with her, I knew that I wanted to follow her. I experienced it as a call from God, as God telling me what he wanted me to do.
(Q) Tell me a little more about The Missionaries of Charity organization…
The Missionaries of Charity is the group of Catholic sisters founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. There are also branches of the MCs for priests and brothers. MCs serve the poorest of the poor all over the world, in over 130 countries. Missionaries of Charity live a poor life, dedicated to God in prayer and service.
(Q) An Unquenchable Thirst is such a riveting story that is so engaging, I just couldn’t put it down. In fact, I read the entire book in several hours. There were some parts where I would wipe the tears away because your story is that fascinating. This is your life story and experience as a nun with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Not many people in the world today can actually say they have had this experience. I have to ask, what was Mother Teresa like? Tell me a little more about her…
Mother Teresa was certainly the most dedicated, most self-sacrificing person I’ve ever known. She was entirely focused on living, as she would say, “Only always all for Jesus.” As an act of humility, Mother Teresa often spoke of herself in the third person. One of the first things she told us was, “Mother has promised to give Saints to Mother Church, and she cannot fulfill that promise without you.” The stakes were always very high with her.
(Q) In Chapter 2, you mention the training you endured while becoming a nun. Can you give the audience, who has yet to read your memoir…a small excerpt of this chapter?
Sure. Here are a couple of paragraphs:
Sister Carmeline told us our assignments came from God. I had to remind myself to look for God’s will when the others scattered for work at summer day camps for the poor or to the homeless women’s shelter, as I trudged down the basement steps to the kitchen. Alone, I concocted soup from rotting vegetables donated by a local market.
A plaque in the basement proclaimed Mother Teresa’s words: Do Little Things With Great Love. I supposed she meant that my attitude mattered more than my actions, but I longed to do bigger things: feed the hungry, comfort the dying – or at least work with the kids at the day camp. Instead, I chopped and boiled, hoping to make up for the missing basil or thyme by adding love to my soup. I’d always relished a good challenge. I told myself that the minor irritations were nothing in light of God’s call. He had a plan for me. I was sure of it.
(Q) Your projection of your own spiritual crisis phenomenal. It is almost like a rebirth. What made you decide to come forward with your story?
I began to write An Unquenchable Thirst at about the same time that we began to know more about the depths of the pedophilia crisis in the Catholic Church. I wrote partly because I wanted to encourage honest dialogue about celibacy in the Church. I hoped that being honest about my experiences might help other people be honest about theirs, because I knew that no meaningful change would come in the Church as long as people were hiding behind theology and laws. I also felt that even though much had been written about Mother Teresa, none of what I read corresponded to the woman I knew.
(Q) In your book, you quote Mother Teresa as saying, “God made us to love and to be loved.” What do you think she meant and how do these words affect you?
Mother Teresa saw love as the central value in life, and I believe she had a longing for human love as we all do, but she believed that her vow of celibacy required that she not get close to any human being. Her love was directed to God and she loved others by offering service and kindness. I knew that I needed more than that to flourish – I longed for intimate, human love. I do still believe that love is the central value in human life, and that we are happiest when we are loving and being loved.
I ‘ ve heard stories from sisters who were close to Mother Teresa during the weeks before she died, when she sometimes repeated, ” The sisters don ‘ t love Mother. “ Of course, the sisters did love Mother Teresa very much, but she had placed so many limits on how we could show that love, and she always kept herself at a distance from us. It strikes me as tragic that Mother Teresa, who was known throughout the world as a loving person, felt so unloved herself.
(Q) It’s a well known fact that every Roman Catholic sister takes three vows. Tell me a little more about these three vows…
Like all sisters, we took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; as Missionaries of Charity we also took a fourth vow to give wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor. We took all of those vows very seriously, living them in radical ways. We slept in a common dormitory, without any privacy, on thin mattresses we made ourselves.
We had two sets of clothes and washed them by hand in buckets. We had no say in where we would be sent or what work we would do; our superiors made all those decisions without consulting us. Mother Teresa once told me that one of my biggest problems was that I liked to be consulted.
(Q) Are developing friendships encouraged by the church or are they forbidden? Tell me a little more about developing friendships in the Catholic Church…
The Catholic church as a whole has nothing against friendships, and some of the Church’s great saints have been good friends: St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, Saint Francis and Saint Clare, St Ignatius of Loyola and St Francis Xavier. The gospels even identify St. John as the apostle whom Jesus loved most. But Mother Teresa felt that friendships diminished a sister’s consecration to God, so we sisters were forbidden to speak alone with another sister or to initiate conversations with any of our former friends.
There was also a Rule of Touch, which forbade us to touch our sisters in any unnecessary way – no hugs, no handshakes. Mother Teresa used to tell us that even when we were feeding the babies, we could hold them as long as it was necessary while they were eating, but then we should put them down immediately.
(Q) Sexual morality seems to be a very sensitive subject within the church. Recently, I read somewhere that Mother Teresa defended a pedophile priest named Donald McGuire by writing a letter embracing his strengths over his sin. Why would you think she would defend him?
Mother Teresa wrote that letter in 1994, during a period in which many priests and sisters in the Church still had big blind spots when it came to sexual abuse. I’m not sure she ever understood the harm sexual abuse causes to its victims. One thing Mother Teresa always insisted on, though, was the duty to defend the public image of the Church and especially of priests. Many Catholics who knew Father McGuire in his public persona admired him for his conservative theology and his gifts as a preacher. I think it was hard for her to imagine the depths of the evil he had done.
(Q) Looking back to the time you were a Roman Catholic sister, would you say your thoughts have changed now?
Oh, yes, I’ve grown. In the convent blind obedience was held up as a great virtue. Now I know that thinking for myself is my responsibility and privilege. I no longer believe in God as most people would define God. I don’t pretend to understand the world’s mysteries, and I try to live my life in a way that does the most good and the least harm, instead of trying to apply arbitrary rules handed down by religious authority. I feel much freer and happier now that I can ask the questions that I was supposed to suppress before. Life feels much more honest now.
(Q) When it comes to writing a memoir, how difficult was it? For those looking to write one, what advice do you have for those writers?
It took me ten years to write An Unquenchable Thirst. Writing a memoir requires radical honesty. Sometimes you have to go back and relive things that you’d prefer to forget about. For writing about painful memories, this comment from one of my writing teachers helped me: “If it didn’t kill you to live through it, it’s not going to kill you to write about it.” Perspective, perspective, perspective. Also, it’s very important for a writer to develop a community of writers who can give feedback and support. For all the women writers out there, I recommend A Room of Her Own Foundation, www.aroho.org .
(Q) For those individuals that feel sad or depressed and just feel like they want to give up on everything, what advice do you have for these people?
Seek help. We all pass through sad and difficult times, but it’s much harder to do that alone. We need each other.
(Q) After reading your book…I have to tell you Mary, I am a huge fan. Your story was so moving. You are a wonderful person, as you don’t judge or vilify others and your journey is so captivating. I have to ask…what comes next? For all of your fans reading, what would you like them to know?
I’m working on a book that has a tentative title in my mind, “When Everything Changes.” This book will pick up where An Unquenchable Thirst left off, and will be a book to help people with transitions in life. In the meantime, I love to interact with readers at my website, www.maryjohnson.com , and on Facebook ( www.facebook.com/authorMaryJohnson ) and Twitter (@_MaryJohnson).