Book Review: An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson

an-unquenchable-thirstAn Unquenchable Thirst

by Mary Johnson
ISBN 978-0-385-52747-7
Random House, 2011

With a sense of trepidation, I began to read this book. I have long admired the work of Mother Teresa, and I did not want my image of her selfless dedication shattered. If Mother Teresa suffered from crises of faith or took occasional misguided actions, I did not want to know. I wanted my untarnished image of her left intact. I wanted to put my hands over my ears and say “I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!” to protect myself from criticism of her.

But then, would that kind of avoidance serve the highest good? Undoubtedly, Mother Teresa positively affected the lives of millions of people, so if we learn about her work and find a way to make it even better, wouldn’t that propel us forward into a brighter future?

So, I forged ahead into Mary Johnson’s detailed (maybe a touch too detailed?) version of events. 

Indeed, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity (MIC) serve the world’s poor in a way few other organizations do. Following the biblical teaching “. . . whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40) the sisters look for Jesus in every person they meet. The sisters find Jesus in the homeless, the ill, the mentally ill, and the poverty-stricken. Their work honours in a beautiful way the true teachings of Jesus: social justice and unconditional love.

But then, the not-so-beautiful side of the story emerges.

Under a vow of chastity, the sisters try to repress their sexuality. It doesn’t work. Out of frustration and loneliness, they seek outlets with priests and other sisters. Guilt over their perfectly natural sexual drive follows. Under the vow of poverty, the sisters seek donations for their work. They allow others to feel good about giving and trust God to provide. They also expend extra energy trying to make ends meet, or leave deserving workers without due recompense. (Even simple things like curtains lead to conflict.) The daily rituals and routines of life with the MIC take precedence over all—even physical and mental health. The sisters pray, meditate and work even when swaying on their feet from illness or exhaustion. The life of a missionary of charity demands separation from family. Severed or strained relations with parents and siblings result. Most worrying of all, the sisters practise “the discipline” by beating themselves with a rough rope.

I wasn’t fully aware of Mother Teresa’s role as something close to a chief executive officer of a global organization. Before reading this book, I envisioned her spending every day walking the streets of Calcutta, bending to touch the hands of people in need. Her life involved much more than that. She travelled extensively and attended boring meetings. In a way that is both understandable, given the demands of her day-to-day life, and sad, given her desire to aid humanity, Mother Teresa sometimes overlooks the suffering of her sisters as they work to ease the suffering of others.

Mary Johnson spent 20 years with the Missionaries of Charity. She believed in the work of the sisters and the help they provided to people in need, but she yearned for intimacy and human contact, and she strained against the unquestioning obedience demanded of her. Seeking a way to fulfill an unquenchable thirst, she left the organization.

After reading Johnson’s book, I’m left to wonder, how much better could it all be? How much greater might the good works inspired by Mother Teresa be if the sisters slept more comfortably and began each day with a full measure of healthful energy? How many more people could be helped if the work was undertaken by people who loved themselves enough not to punish themselves? How refreshed would they be if they were emotionally fulfilled and supported by family? And how much more loving would their work be if they viewed money and resources as loving tools with which to do good, and not something that is “harmful if accumulated”?

I believe that is Johnson’s loving reason for writing this book and for risking her own reputation by trampling on the illusions of people like me. I believe she wrote it to improve the work with the ill and underprivileged—not to harm her fellow sisters or the reputation of Mother Teresa. She sees a world of human beings with “Jesus,” or whatever word you use for the sacred, inside of all of them, in need of nourishment in the most effective way possible.

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About Arlene Somerton Smith

Writer, laughing thinker, miner of inspirational insights, sports fan, and community volunteer

Posted on October 16, 2013, in Book Club, Book reviews, Books I bought, Memoir, Non-fiction, Random House and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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