Select one of the keywords
An Unquenchable Thirst    by Mary Johnson order for
Unquenchable Thirst
by Mary Johnson
Order:  USA  Can
Spiegel & Grau, 2011 (2011)
Hardcover, CD

Read an Excerpt

* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Whether or not we hold as deep a faith as Mary Johnson, the author of An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life, many of us have been inspired by Mother Teresa's example (as was the author) and wondered what it would be like to lead a life of service to others. This autobiography shares two decades of such a life, the good and the bad.

Johnson, then a Texas teenager, learned about Mother Teresa, after seeing her photograph on the cover of Time magazine in 1975. Certain that 'loving others was life's most important calling', she wrote a letter that led to her acceptance as an aspirant to the Missionaries of Charity - who vow 'wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor' - in the South Bronx in 1977. Of twelve young American women who joined the mission house, only two continued.

Why such a high drop out rate? The author speaks of Rules that enforce isolation (friendships were discouraged); pressure to perform the discipline (self-flagellation for perceived sins); the requirement to live simply to the point of using buckets of water ('the Indian way') instead of showers; and the cult-like (my perception, not the author's) blessing rule and permissions ritual for basic needs, such as a pencil or toothpaste. Johnson speaks of helping run a summer class for children in the South Bronx, visiting shut-ins in Rome, and working with the elderly, as well as doing endless laundry.

Woven into the culture of the Missionaries of Charity was a 'theology of sacrifice'. Though Johnson questioned this (despite being told that 'obedience should be blind') strong faith kept her on her path. It led to her acceptance as a novice (Sister Donata) in 1978, profession in Rome, followed by service there and back in North America. She met Mother Teresa (whom they called simply Mother and who saw herself as 'a pencil in God's hand') on several occasions and once travelled with her. Sister Donata shares all these encounters, as well as her impressions of the time Mother won the Nobel Peace Prize and her meeting with Princess Diana.

Sister Donata took her final vows in 1986. She worked on the order's Constitutions and was sent to study theology in Rome. She also observed political in-fighting and retaliation, as well as the abuse of power within the Missionaries of Charity, and power politics used to damage a good person. And she developed a longing for connection and intimacy that led her to growing feelings for a priest, Father Tom, and to a relationship with Sister Niobe and the eventual discovery that Niobe was a sexual predator, in the habit of manipulating other Sisters' emotions. But, despite Sister Donata's warnings about her, Niobe was accepted for final vows.

The author clearly admired Mother greatly but was also disappointed in her. She tells us that 'Mother was perhaps the only woman alive with sufficient moral and political capital to challenge the Vatican and hope she might be heard', but she never did. In 1997, Mary Johnson, who began feeling that 'Becoming a Missionary of Charity was like a fire burning in my heart', realized that she 'couldn't go on feeling out of sync with my own heart' and left the organization. She offers her remarkable soul's journey as 'a gift I want to offer others.'

It's hard not to admire anyone who set out on the path that Mary Johnson followed for two decades, and impossible not to respect someone who had the courage to break away from a committed life. Sadly, power politics seem to take all human endeavors away from the intent of the founder over time. I highly recommend An Unquenchable Thirst to anyone who admires Mother Teresa, or has wondered about the reality of taking on a life of service.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more NonFiction books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews