Summary: The Roman Catholic equivalent of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “Infidel”. A luminous, extraordinary account of one woman who devoted her life to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, saw the organization from the inside out, and decided to walk away after twenty years of service as a faithful and obedient nun.
The “deconversion memoir” is seemingly fast becoming the most common genre of atheist book. In just the last few years, I’ve read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, William Lobdell’s Losing My Religion, Valerie Tarico’s Trusting Doubt, Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem, and now the latest entry: Mary Johnson’s An Unquenchable Thirst.
But when it comes to sheer depth of devotion, when you think about what religious backgrounds a person would seem least likely to break away from, this book outshines most of its competitors. Because for twenty years, Johnson was known as Sister Donata, a Roman Catholic nun sworn to Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity; worked in far-flung locations around the world, from the South Bronx to Rome; and rose to a position of prominence that included many personal interactions with “Mother” herself. This book is about her life as an MC, and what ultimately convinced her to walk away and become the atheist she now is.
Although I’d heard bits and pieces from other ex-members, this book was by far the most uncensored look at what daily life in a fundamentalist religious order is really like, almost an X-ray view into a group that’s normally opaque to outsiders. By Johnson’s account, the MCs take the Christian theology of human depravity and expiation through suffering to extremes: As part of their daily devotions, they’re expected to beat themselves with a rope – called “the discipline” – as well as wear a cilice, the spiked chain famously depicted in The Da Vinci Code. Mother Teresa herself, as a means of self-mortification, wore shoes that were too small for her and left her with permanently deformed feet. She also originally wanted her nuns to live on a diet of nothing but water, rice and salt, backing down only when it was explained to her that this would cause debilitating health problems.
MC life is governed by “the Rules”, a strict set of doctrines composed by Mother Teresa and the church superiors, which order them not to have personal friends, to have virtually no contact with their families, not even to physically touch other human beings. The lack of human contact, combined with a grueling daily schedule of prayer and hard labor, makes the MC life like a combination of prison and boot camp. It’s no surprise that crippling sadness and loneliness are very common among them. But what did surprise me was that lesbian relationships are also common, though of course not condoned. Johnson herself was involved in several, which she discusses in frank detail: one with a nun named Sister Niobe, who gave her the first real taste of human love she’d ever had in her life, but showed herself to be a sexual predator when Johnson tried to break off the relationship. Later on, she fell in love with a priest who reciprocated the feeling. (For a book about Mother Teresa and her nuns, there’s a lot more sex than you might have expected.)
But it wasn’t just the desire for love that drove her out of the church, nor the constant hard work, nor the blatant politicking and power grabs among the senior sisters. From my reading, the real cause of her deconversion was the MCs’ relentless insistence on unquestioning obedience and total abdication of self. A recurring theme is that sisters were expected to obey their superiors’ orders as if they came straight from God, even when those orders were contradictory or nonsensical. One instance of this that stayed with me was when, at one point, Johnson wanted to start a sewing co-op so that homeless women could have a livelihood, but was denied by her superiors who explained that the MCs provide only “immediate” service to the poor, i.e., nothing long-term or that required specialized knowledge (like medicine).
The denominational politics and personality clashes, the lack of human contact or intimacy, the anti-intellectualism, the insistence on total submission – all this conspired to stifle any attempts by Johnson to grow or change as a human being. After twenty years of obedient service, the emotional suffocation was impossible to bear. When she finally made up her mind to leave and seek her own life, she was confronted by Mother Teresa herself, who demanded to know why she was leaving. I won’t spoil her answer, but it was one of the best parts of the book.
As you might expect, the book has a large cast of characters. Some of them are introduced, drop out for most of the book, and reappear in chapters chronicling Johnson’s life many years later. I sometimes had a hard time keeping track of who was who. But despite this, her writing is outstanding – luminous and bright, and as compulsively readable as a good novel. It’s an extraordinary story told with skill. And although the painful process of shedding twenty years of indoctrination and becoming an atheist is only mentioned in the last pages of the book, it’s described with all the beauty and grace of the sun breaking through storm clouds. I would class An Unquenchable Thirst with Infidel as one of the best biographies I’ve read.
Image: The crucifix pin that Mother Teresa gave to Mary Johnson when she first joined the Missionaries of Charity as an aspirant in the South Bronx. Visit Mary’s site for more photos and other background material about her story and her life as an MC.