Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Review: An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Theresa in Search of Love, Service and an Authentic Life - Mary Johnson

An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life - Mary Johnson

Mary Johnson entered convent life at nineteen and lived as a Missionary of Charity, the order that Mother Teresa was the head of, for twenty years.

It all began with a cover of Time. Mary was attracted to the concept of helping the poor and Mother Teresa became her hero. For this reason she left behind her family in Texas, education, independence, and the world to follow Mother
(as she is called by the Sisters).

The order that Mary chooses is a strict one. All nuns vow chastity, poverty and obedience, but many still live in the outside world, have their own apartments and wear regular clothes. For Mary it's more like the old order of nuns. Her hair is shorn and remains that way during her twenty years as a nun. Every month she shaves her head. Her clothes are the same sari and head piece each day. She has no personal items at all other than the very basics which she doesn't own and has to ask general permission each month to use. She sleeps in a dormitory and keeps her few personal items on a designated shelf. The sisters switch beds and shelves on a regular basis to avoid the feeling of ownership (although Mother Teresa does have her own room when she comes to visit). She is trained in how to keep her feelings under control, not to ask questions, and to obey. There are strict rules to follow and her time is micro managed.

Perhaps for me the most shocking was discovering that this particular order encourages the sisters to beat themselves with whips and wear tight chains. The concept being to replicate the pain that Christ went through and to show Him that you are willing to do the same. This pleases Christ. It turns out that Mother Teresa's feet were severely deformed by shoes too small when she was a young nun. She never complained about them and instead used them as a sacrifice.

Mary actually reaches the level of a Superior (although the title Mother is reserved for Mother Teresa), when she comes to the decision to leave the order, much of it based on the politics she sees as Mother's health deteriorates.

Throughout the book Mary or Sister Donata as she is called, tells about her experiences most of the time in Rome. I had thought I would be reading about a nun that worked side by side with Mother Teresa, but that's not the case. Sister Donata never made it to Calcutta or the other places where Mother Teresa is famous for. She never worked side by side with her but only met her on a few occasions and made one short publicity trip with her. It's on these couple of days that we get to see more of Mother. For the most part though, Mother is not present in Sister Donata's life, only the order is.

There are many stories of how nuns are abusive and controlling. You can see how this happens when you put someone in a position of having no control over their own lives. When permission must be asked for the littlest things. When questions cannot be asked. It's no wonder that when power is given it is often abused. If you can't control your own life, you're likely to make others who are under you, suffer for it.

The other thing that came out was the chastity issue. In this order the sisters are not permitted to touch each other in any way. The human spirit cannot thrive without touch and in Mary's case it came out in several ways. She managed somehow to justify breaking her chastity vows by having sexual relations with two nuns and a priest.

I didn't come away with the idea that Mary was a lesbian (she married a man after leaving the order). It appears more to me as a call out for the need for a deeper relationship. In one of the nun relationships she allowed another nun, in an inferior position, to control her. It was definitely a relationship of abuse, and although Sister Donata was in a position of power over this nun practically, she gave into her emotionally until she finally told someone about it. It's unclear why Mother Teresa was so protective towards this abusive nun, and angry with those who complained about her (the abusive nun had a history which was forgiven over and over again).

That seems to be the pattern in many religious communities. The abuser gets a pass, the victim is blamed. It's a puzzle to me how someone who can break such strict rules often doesn't get punished.

What is clear, is that enforced chastity doesn't work. In this order chastity is any kind of touching. So a kiss or a hug could be seen as breaking the rules. It certainly left Mary open to abuse and inappropriate relationships. Most religions recognize this and few demand complete lifetime chastity. In fact most religions want their religious leaders married to avoid sexual improprieties. 

The other thing I find interesting is that there doesn't seem to be any shock or concern over homosexuality within the church. Her relationships with other nuns is treated without comment of the same sex issue.

Mary does talk about times when the poor are neglected by the order. The gypsy's are avoided (until she's in charge of her routes) and the school she starts is closed when she is given another responsibility because the other sisters can't control the students.

She doesn't go much into her life leaving the order other than mentioning that she had nightmares and had to go to therapy.

She's now married and on the board of the writers network "A Room of Her Own".

Although she could leave at any time and still remain a Catholic, there were some things I found in her story that were very religiously abusive. Bear in mind, she freely chose this life, but, these types of things do a number on you emotionally and spiritually that can take away free agency to think for yourself.

1. Taking away a name or changing it. I wished she had gone into explaining how this is done. All nuns give up their birth names and take on a new one. She says that she chose Donata, but gives no insight in how she chose it and I would have liked to have learned that. Now at least she chose it and it wasn't given to her.

In the LDS church, although you retain your name, when you go to the temple you are given a name which they don't tell you is on a cycle - they led me to believe it was specially chosen for me, however after a few trips to the temple I figured out that it depends on the day you first go - I would have had a different name if I'd gone a different day. That name is not used other than in one instance but it's supposed to be a name you'll be known by in heaven. The name is never to be revealed although women must reveal it to their husbands but men are never to reveal it to their wives.

2. Uniforms - Mary wears the same thing day in and day out all day long. There's no choice in the matter, and even has to wear those articles a certain way. Uniforms are frequently used in schools and jobs, but they are used specifically for a purpose and at the end of the day are changed out of (or in the case of the armed forces, when on leave). They are a way of uniting a group and identifying them. In Mary's case, the uniform is also a way of taking away individuality.

In the LDS church, there is a uniform as well. Those that go to the temple are instructed to wear special under garments day and night. All members are encouraged to wear clothes that come down to the knee and covers the shoulders and upper arms. In addition, tattoos, piercings, facial hair, and long hair on men are discouraged. They call it modesty and it is a way to set members apart from the rest of the world. The garments are intended to be constant reminder of promises made in the temple. It's certainly harder to cheat on your spouse if you're wearing garments and have to purposely remove them.

3. Self-abuse. In Mary's order self abuse was daily. I find this whole thing disrespectful of God. Christ suffered so we don't have to. To beat yourself daily is to say that what He did was not enough. It horrifies me at Easter time when men actually have others put them on a cross so they can suffer like Christ did. This is the same thing. The sisters believe (because Mother Teresa taught them) that Christ wants us to hurt and suffer. If He loves us, why would He want us to suffer? The whole thing is messed up. So is the concept that they are Christ's brides. I don't think Christ ever consented to being a polygamist. And what kind of husband would want his wife to beat herself with whips and cinch a chain around herself? I find the whole thing repulsive and blasphemous.

But I think emotionally we all do this. We beat ourselves up and punish ourselves for our imperfections. Note: I am not saying we shouldn't feel sorry when we hurt someone or actually do something wrong. It's important to recognize when that happens so we can make amends and corrections. But I think we confuse mistakes with sins and we punish ourselves over mistakes, while excusing ourselves over sins.

4. Giving up free agency and allowing others to control us and make our decisions - This was strictly followed in Mary's order. You couldn't be a member without doing this. In her case, she had to ask permission for everything. There were two kinds of permissions - specific permissions as in leaving the room to go to the bathroom, and the once a month general permissions where it would have been impractical to ask every time - such as using the things given you for your use. Mary gave up all her privacy. Her letters out and in were first read by others, phone calls were listened to, and alone time was rare.

In many religions, we give up some of our free agency. We allow leaders to tell us how to live and often fill up our time with church demands. In my church this would be callings (there is pressure to accept them even if you don't want to), family night on Monday, at least three hours of church on Sunday, temple attendance (this depends on how close the temple is), scripture study, home and visiting teaching, church cleaning, and other demands. If you don't show up for something people want to know why. There is also the expectation to follow rules of what you can and can't drink. We also allow leaders to tell us what to think. Thinking anything other than what the leader said is disobeying God, since they speak for God and questioning or criticizing can lead to accusations of being an apostate.

4. When Mary left the order, Mother Teresa was mad, and other sisters thought she was making a serious mistake to go out there in the world. They didn't believe her when she said she felt she was following God's plan. They made it difficult for her.

It's sometimes like that when you leave a church. Some people will be angry, you'll be warned that you're making a serious mistake going out into the world. Some will view you as unrighteous. They won't believe you if you say you are following God's plan.

5. Pressure to avoid sexual intimacy - Sometimes this can backfire. In Mary's case the complete avoidance of human touch led to inappropriate sexual relations. Sometimes hyper vigilance causes the opposite effect. Now I'm not saying that every nun was like Mary, but if this was Mary's experience, then it was probably other nun's experiences. Mary however, didn't seem to feel much guilt for her breaking of vows and frequently justified them.

And in other religions, the focus on sexual behavior can lead to inappropriate behavior and feelings of guilt over natural feelings and behaviors that God blesses us with. That's a whole other blog post.

6. Separation from home and family. Mary missed out on family events. She simply wasn't allowed to go. She replace her own mother with Mother Teresa. Although she was allowed contact with her family through letters, visits were extremely rare. There weren't family gatherings, birthday parties, weddings, or even funerals. She replaced her family with the convent family.

This is often the scenario in an abusive relationship, whether it stems from a religious organization or a marriage with a controlling spouse. Although on one hand, the church encourages continued relationships with family, when it comes to weddings, family is purposely banned from the wedding if they are not deemed "worthy". It's a heartbreaking scenario, to be left out of your child's wedding because someone with the power thinks you're not good enough.

Overall I found the book interesting and unlike one reviewer on Amazon who called it pornography, I would disagree. Mary never tells us things to arouse us. It's told to illustrate a much deeper anguish and a greater truth and she doesn't go into great detail. 

It also shows that no matter the religion, there are similarities and leaving one that does not feed us anymore, can be difficult, isolating, and create false judgements.

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