Mary Johnson, a.k.a. Sister Donata, has two outstanding qualities: perseverance and honesty. Fortunately, perseverance is just what a Missionary of Charity (MC) needs for work as a nun under Mother Teresa. Honesty, however, is better suited to writing a memoir.
“To turn your back on the poor is to turn your back on Jesus,” Johnson/Sister Donata is told as she arrives in New York from Texas in 1977. She takes her first vows: Poverty means praying with bare knees on cold concrete, wearing shoes that don’t fit, and living without family or friends. (The nuns are forbidden from forming friendships with one another or outsiders.) Chastity means not so much as a gentle touch on another’s arm; a kiss on the wooden Jesus hanging from her sari is the only affection allowed.
For Sister Donata, it will be this enforced lack of intimacy that finally breaks her down and sends her packing, but only after 20 devoted years as an MC, in the United States and Rome, alternating between the ridiculous (officious nuns barking contradictory orders) and the sublime (witnessing God’s love in her work with the poor and needy).
But Unquenchable Thirst is no vicious tell-all aimed at exposing Mother Teresa or fellow nuns. (It’s dedicated to “sisters everywhere.”) Rather, Johnson takes an unflinching look inside her own heart during those two decades as an MC. When she runs up against the brick wall of dogma and hierarchy, she prays for the humility to accept her position. “MC’s do not question,” she is told by Mother Teresa. “MC’s obey promptly, cheerfully, blindly.”
Blind submission, however, doesn’t come easily to Sister Donata. The more she’s forced into kitchen or office work instead of serving the poor, the more she questions her calling. No amount of confession, prayer, or self-flagellation (a nightly discipline, done in the bath with corded rope until her thighs are raw) provides the succor she needs. She reaches a crossroads when a student nun under her tutelage makes repeated sexual advances. Donata gives in and returns the affection, opening a flood of inner conflict: Being held by another feels so wonderful, so complete; surely God wants this for his children. But her vow of chastity says even desiring the touch of another person is a sin, never mind that she’s supposed to be this nun’s spiritual leader. Donata confesses this to a kind-hearted priest, only to start wishing for an intimate relationship with him!
A new priest tells her she’s a “sex addict” for having such lustful thoughts, and secretly passes her literature on the 12-step program for recovery. (Nuns are not allowed to possess anything that has not been approved by their superior.) Finally Donata reports her infraction to Mother Teresa, but the student is promoted anyway.
Readers may be frustrated with portions of this long memoir; it could have used the guiding hand of an experienced editor, prodding the author to illuminate some spots and hit the delete key on others. Overall, however, it’s a wonderful achievement.
The ending is especially strong. Johnson has left the convent, married, and settled down in the US to teach Italian and study writing. When a group of nuns comes to the States for a celebration of Mother Teresa’s life, Johnson tries to reunite. But it doesn’t work; she’s an outsider now. “I feel odd to prefer the human to the perfect; maybe that’s why I don’t fit anymore. I want earth, not heaven.”
Readers can’t help but wonder: Are heaven and earth so distinct? Had Sister Donata felt “heaven” in that convent, hamstrung by rules, stymied by dogma, and strangled by capricious human will? Surely that felt more man-made than spiritually inspired.
Can anyone say with absolute certainty that “heaven” is the exclusive domain of the religious? That pounding one’s thighs until they bleed brings one closer to heaven than holding open a door for an elderly person, teaching a child to read, kissing a spouse goodnight?
Johnson opens the window on a horizon of spiritual questions. These days she considers herself an atheist, divorced from the God she once married. Will her spiritual pendulum swing back, or perhaps land in the middle, where heaven and earth co-exist? I look forward to more from this honest, courageous voice.
Elizabeth A. Brown is a freelance book critic in Chapel Hill, N.C.