Why I Loved An Unquenchable Thirst

I recently read a book I want to tell you about. It is a book that has changed my life. Now before you roll your eyes at that dramatic statement, hear me out.

An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson.

From the author’s website:

“An Unquenchable Thirst is the story of my twenty years as a Missionary of Charity, a nun with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. People tell me that the book is more than a fascinating story about nuns; they say it’s a book about being human. That pleases me.

Mother Teresa always used to tell us:  “God made us to love and to be loved.” An Unquenchable Thirst is the story of the many ways love surprised and challenged me, and of how I came to understand myself as a woman with body, mind, desires, and what some would call soul. I hope you’ll enjoy my stories, and that my book will spark lively, honest discussion.”

It sparked something, all right. It sparked a long overdue look at some of the painful memories of my past. I was in the seminary in Rome at the same time the author was a sister there. I don’t remember if our paths crossed or not, but the similarities of experience and the struggles came back vividly as I read.

It has also sparked a correspondence with the author. We met through Twitter and have had some engaging letters about the book and about life in general. By way of a review, I would like to share a bit from a note that I wrote to her after I finished An Unquenchable Thirst:

First of all, I think it’s important for me to acknowledge the difficulty in which your book has placed me- I was allowed to confront the (sometimes) harsh realities of my Roman years gently through your own- but I have realized all of the unfinished work before me. I, too have dreams of those days that push me and pull me and wake me up panting for steady breath. There’s obviously more for me to do- and the difficulty is finding my own way to process the lessons of those years. I can’t put it off any longer, and I’m really grateful to you for kickstarting the process for me.

Having said that, I loved your book. The affection I feel for your experience and the way you tell your story is very real. With a very few changes of detail, nuance, situation and character, it is my story. It is the story of more than one of my classmates at the NAC- and of more than one sister I’ve met who has left. It’s the story of all people who strive to give love according to rules- and find that there are none. The institutions to which we innocently entrusted ourselves often became the painfully dramatic catalyst for a process of birthing a life-giving truth. You tell it beautifully, honestly and respectfully. I really appreciate that honesty and respect- especially for the women with whom you shared a great part of your life. You didn’t let the pain become the motivation, I think you correctly allowed it to appear as a symptom of your desire for love. But you didn’t gloss over the real issues, either. Power is always hard to talk about without descending into pontificating (irony intended). But you did it well, with the grace of concern and conviction.
The hard part for me was leaving the people of the church- the folks in the pews who believed in goodness and the message of Jesus. I loved being a part of their lives, I loved being a voice against fear. I loved being an advocate of justice, compassion and peace. I loved the sacraments- the true sense of sacrament which is mediating ‘The Divine’ to the world. But not being allowed to be myself nearly killed me. I tried to reconcile my experience of love to the church’s- and all I got was depression and malaise. When I finally figured out that my desire to give life was forcing me to contemplate the ending of my own, I found relief. The realization of that fallacy set me free. The church gave me a lot of excellent language to describe my true self- but it still does not accept me or my experience as valid expressions of truth love or meaning. Much like your love for Mother (Theresa), I also confused the need for love and acceptance with my own need for myself….

This book changed my life because it forced me to realize the work I had left to do in processing my own time in the church, work that I’ve now taken up again in earnest. It continues to change my life by providing words to some of those experiences. But mostly, I think, it changed my life by giving me a friend, a sister in the best sense of the word- someone who I’m getting to know better through correspondence and mutual support in our “lives outside”.

This book is not a Catholic-bashing fest. It is a respectfully honest and forthright memoir reflecting not only the experience of the author, but the experience of many others.  Mary Johnson’s chronicle is a must-read for anyone interested in spirituality, integrity and the struggle of the self-awakening heart. I recommend it unreservedly.
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