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An Interview with Mary Johnson, Author of "An Unquenchable Thirst"
Last month, I posted my review of "An Unquenchable Thirst", Mary Johnson's luminous and enlightening memoir about the twenty years she spent as one of Mother Teresa's nuns. After writing that review, I reached out to her to ask if she'd be interested in an interview. To my delight, she was! Please welcome Mary Johnson to Daylight Atheism as she discusses her book and her extraordinary life story, and if you have questions, feel free to ask them in the comments. —Adam
Tell us a little about your early life. Were you raised Catholic? What first motivated you to become a nun and join the Missionaries of Charity?
My parents belonged to the Catholic charismatic movement, which fostered a very personal relationship with a loving God. My family attended church together every Sunday and prayer meetings twice a week. We prayed together every morning before anyone left the house. That said, there was no pressure on me to become a nun, and my parents were upset when, as a high school senior, I decided to follow Mother Teresa as a Missionary of Charity. I'd been deeply moved when reading about Mother Teresa's service to the poor, and my religious upbringing led me to identify that fervor as a call from God.
How long did you work for the Missionaries of Charity? What were some of your more notable experiences?
I joined the Missionaries of Charity in the South Bronx in 1977, during the summer of the Son of Sam and the blackout - a very interesting time for a Texas teenager in New York. I continued my training in Rome, where I taught Romani children to read and write and - a much harder job - tried to learn to obey my superiors. After more work in the South Bronx, Washington DC and Winnipeg, I returned to Rome to take my final vows, and remained in that lovely city until 1997. During my twenty years as a Missionary of Charity, I came to know Mother Teresa well, and traveled with her several times. I stood behind Mother Teresa when she met Princess Diana for the first time, and I'll never forget the sight of Diana's shiny black pumps outside the chapel next to Mother's multiply mended sandals. When the Vatican issued a new code of canon law, I was assigned to rewrite the Missionaries of Charity's governing documents, documents that Mother Teresa had written on her knees before I was born. Eventually Mother Teresa assigned me to prepare young women before their vows. Though I rose up the ranks rather quickly, I also began breaking the rules and developed a relationship with a sister, then with a priest. In your review of An Unquenchable Thirst, Adam, you expressed surprise at the amount of sex in a book about nuns. People in the church avoid talking about what it's like to live an ostensibly celibate life — and I think that needs to change. We have to learn to be honest about real human experiences.
What first inspired you to have doubts?
My doubts in the convent were more questions about my call than doubting God or my Catholic faith — that came later. Though I'd felt called to serve the poor, I was assigned years of administrative work. Eventually when I was superior of a house that cared for refugee women and their children, I was forbidden to start programs that would have helped the women toward self-sufficiency; my superiors insisted that I limit myself to providing food and shelter. As Mother Teresa aged and her health failed, I clashed with two powerful sisters who had pulled the community very far to the right. I also realized that I needed deeper human connections than the rules allowed. I kept hearing within me the words of Jesus in the gospel: "I came that you may have life, and have it to the full" — and life in the MCs didn't look very full. I felt as though I was suffocating.
What was it like leaving the convent after twenty years in the fold? How did you adjust to ordinary life outside the church?
I suspect that in some ways I'm still adjusting. It was an enormous liberation — and a real challenge — to begin deciding things for myself, to set my own schedule, to determine my own future. The first time my sister took me to a restaurant, it took me forever to decide — for twenty years no one had asked me what I wanted to eat. I'd never used an ATM or a microwave before, never pumped my own gas, much less used a computer. But the biggest changes had to do with learning to think for myself, looking at my beliefs objectively and sorting out what I thought and how I wanted to be in the world.
How would you describe your beliefs today?
I believe in mystery. I joyfully acknowledge the limits of my knowledge. I rejoice in the wonder of the universe and glory in a shared existence with people, plants, animals, stars, rivers, and microbes. I enjoy a more directly experienced life, without the imposition of a big story that assigns arbitrary meaning. Instead, I create meaning every day by engaging with my surroundings with honesty, curiosity, and loving responsibility. I no longer believe in a supreme being. In the beginning of my life without God I often felt lonely and confused — it's not easy to restructure one's worldview — but now I experience an immediate, exhilarating connection to life.
What do you think of Mother Teresa as a person? Some people, most notably Christopher Hitchens, have argued that she glorified suffering and wasn't interested in providing real medical care to the sick and dying. Does that accord with your experience?
Mother Teresa was, without question, the most dedicated, self-sacrificing person I've ever known, but not one of the wisest. Mother Teresa wasn't interested in providing optimal care for the sick and the dying, but in serving Jesus, whom she believed accepted every act of kindness offered the poor. She had her own doubts and feelings of abandonment by God, but her spiritual directors urged her to interpret these "torments of soul" as signs that she had come so close to God that she shared Jesus' passion on the cross. Under the sway of such spin, Mother Teresa came to glorify suffering. This resulted in a rather schizophrenic mindset by which Mother Teresa believed both that she was sent to minister to the poor AND that suffering should be embraced as a good in itself. Mother Teresa often told the sick and dying, "Suffering is the kiss of Jesus." Mother Teresa's sisters offer simple care and a smile, not competent medical treatment or tools with which to escape poverty. One could argue that Mother Teresa's faith both facilitated and tragically limited her work. With the enormous resources at her disposal, Mother Teresa could have done more, but she always saw helping the poor as a means to a supernatural end, never a good in itself.
Is the Catholic church more conservative today than it used to be over the last several decades? If so, why do you think that is?
The current pope and his predecessor have pulled the church further and further to the right by appointing conservative bishops and favoring leaders and organizations on the right. It angers me that while American bishops protest the supposed violation of their religious liberty by civil law, they deny freedom of conscience to those within the church. A dissenting Catholic theologian or an activist for gay rights or women's rights is more likely to be disciplined or discredited today than in past decades. Bishops have adopted a strategy of appealing to traditionalists because traditionalists don't question authority. The bishops prefer a smaller, loyal church to a more inclusive church in which they would share power with women and lay people.
Some of my commenters have said that it's impossible for a person to do real work for feminism as long as they're a part of Catholicism. Do you think that's a legitimate assessment or do you think it's still possible to reform the church from within?
I applaud anyone who seeks to reform an organization they care about. Many women and men have told me they remain in the church despite the injustices because the church is family and cannot be abandoned. Some of these people manage to do good work, but at a certain point I think one has to question where one's energies are best spent. Good works, reasoned arguments, and impassioned protests haven't yet budged the Catholic church's official position on women. For me, remaining in the church would have felt like remaining in an abusive relationship.
Because ordained men hold all Church power, real change in favor of women seems to require ordained men whose dedication to justice exceeds their love of power. Men like Oscar Romero, Roy Bourgeois, and perhaps John Paul I (who died before we could really tell) are in short supply. Sometimes I wonder what might happen if church women staged a boycott until women's ordination was recognized. No women staffing Catholic hospitals or schools. No women raising funds for cathedral renovations. No women vacuuming rectories, laundering clerical garb, or cooking priestly meals. That might get their attention. Maybe.
Image via Mary Johnson's website.
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."