Out of the order

Last modified: 9/25/2011 12:00:00 AM
It is a sentence you'd expect to read in a pulp bodice-ripper, not an ex-nun's memoir, but here it is: "As the hand cupped my soft flesh, resistance melted, and we seemed to float above every snoring sister in the dormitory." This is one of many moments in Mary Johnson's gripping, if overlong, account of her years with the Missionaries of Charity when her youthful infatuation with Mother Teresa collides with reality.

Johnson, who left the order in 1997 and now lives with her husband in Nashua, spent 19 years struggling to keep her vows as Sister Donata. That she finally gave up had less to do with her own doubts or actions than it did with the suffocating regime of the Missionaries of Charity. Self-denial and a vow of poverty came with the territory, but so, it turned out, did blind obedience, self-flagellation, deadening orthodoxy and withering injustice.

Johnson's book is in a vein, though not quite a league, with some of the most famous books of post-World War II literature. She could have spent two decades in the Army without encountering half as many Catch-22s as she did in the service of God. Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and George Orwell's 1984 also crossed my mind as I read how leaders in Mother Teresa's order tried to drain the life out of Sister Donata.

Mary Johnson was 19 years old when she decided to follow Mother Teresa. Originally from Michigan, her family was living at the time in Texas, where Mary was a top student but a social misfit in high school. After joining the Missionaries of Charity, she served the order's missions in New York City and other U.S. cities, but mainly in Rome. She was always in demand for her administrative ability and never got the job she really wanted: to help people in the poorest places in the world.

Slowly and painfully, Sister Donata learned that the Missionaries of Charity were hierarchical to a fault. Mother Teresa's lieutenants in Calcutta ran the order under a Byzantine set of rules. Distrustful of intellect and rigid in their beliefs, they used spite, shame and rumor as tools to control the destinies of all the sisters.

Even when sisters knew their superior was making a mistake, they had to obey cheerfully. Sister Donata's boss ordered her to put up curtains in the sisters' intercity convent. She did so even though she knew Mother Teresa considered curtains a waste of cloth that should be used to help the poor. Predictably, Mother Teresa was angry when she saw them. When she left to attend a graduation, Donata suggested to her superior that they take the curtains down. The superior berated her for wanting to work on a Sunday. When Mother Teresa returned, she scolded Donata for not removing the curtains. The superior did not own up, and Donata bore the blame in silence.

In one of the most chilling incidents in the book, Sister Donata confesses to a priest that in a fit of pique over false accusations from the same superior, she had lifted the woman off the ground. The priest ratted her out to Mother Teresa's henchwomen. Angry over the broken seal of confession, Donata confronted the priest, who told her, "Sister, there are many things you don't understand."

Although Donata worried about pride and other human feelings, her real vulnerability was the capacity of her mind. The same brainpower that made her useful as an organizer, teacher, bookkeeper and even reviser of the order's core documents also posed a constant threat to the ideologues in charge. Their response was to put her in her place.

When she defended a religion professor who suggested both sides be represented in a debate on abortion, the bosses treated her as though she had spoken in favor of abortion. The woman who seduced her, leading to a series of breathless encounters like the one in the dormitory, turned out to be a sexual predator who had bullied weak sisters into her thrall. Realizing this, Donata confessed her dalliance to the order's leaders and warned them against allowing the woman to take her vows. Instead they welcomed the predator into the fold and chastised Donata for her conduct.

Donata often met or observed Mother Teresa and even traveled with her from Rome to Sweden. Throughout most of her time as a sister, she remained smitten by this living saint, unable to speak her mind in her presence.

Yet the portrait of Mother Teresa that emerges from An Unquenchable Thirst is revealing. She chose her lieutenants poorly. Her decisions were often arbitrary and ill-informed. She was out of touch with reality, advising a group of Georgetown graduates that "the best gift they can give each other is a virgin body on their wedding day." As bothered as she seemed by her status as a pop icon, she played to the crowds. Her insistence on petty rules infected the culture of her order.

In the end Donata even questioned Mother Teresa's embrace of the one ambition allowed to a Missionary of Charity: the desire to be canonized as a saint. "In this respect," Mary Johnson writes, "Mother was an ambitious woman." Yet she wonders if ambition did not make Mother Teresa a slave to the Roman Catholic hierarchy rather than "the kind of saint who spoke truth to power."

Johnson's memoir is a page-turner, in part because she chose the techniques of fiction to tell her story. Verbatim dialogue moves the action along, and one suspects she was not shy about inventing details to recreate texture lost to memory. A disclaimer at the start of the book declares that "dialogue is not meant as a direct quotation" but is reconstructed "so that the reader may enter more seamlessly into my experience." Whatever readers may think of this device in a work of nonfiction, it is often used in memoir, and to her credit Johnson is upfront about it.

More to the point, she is candid about her experiences as both a woman and a Christian. She shares intimate aspects of the female experience and the terrors and joys that come with it. As for her faith journey, there is nothing easy about it. It is just as serious, questioning, doubting and struggling as Thomas Merton's. That her church and her order did not treat such a gifted and giving woman well enough to keep her in the service of the poor is a mark against them, not her.

(Johnson will speak Thursday Sept. 29 at 7 p.m. at Gibson's Bookstore in Concord.)

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