In Search of Sisterhood: How Mary Johnson Found and Lost Her Faith
I came to think of my first six months with the Missionaries of Charity as boot camp: total immersion, sink or swim. The 11 women with whom I ate, slept, worked, and prayed became my sisters. At 19, I was the youngest aspiring nun; the eldest was 35. We came from every part of the country, as well as Puerto Rico and Canada. I was happy among these women and felt ready to give myself to the poor.
But first Sister Carmeline, the nun in charge of newcomers, or aspirants, was determined to train us in two essentials for a nun: discipline and humility. She taught us to jump out of bed at the first stroke of the bell at 4:40 every morning, to kneel on the floor next to our cots and recite the day's first prayers loudly and with joy. We threw our sheets over our heads as modesty tents while we wiggled into skirts and blouses. After brushing our teeth, we hurried ("Waste no time, but never run; you are not wild elephants") to the chapel for an hour of vocal prayer and meditation, then half an hour of housework—squatting to swab the floors with an old potato sack and water, a trick I found hard to master—then 20 minutes to scrub our clothes in the same five-gallon buckets. Silence was the rule unless we were engaged in work that required speech. For a girl who'd been a star of the high school debate team, keeping my mouth shut wasn't easy, but I knew I would learn to appreciate the way silence kept me focused, how the Grand Silence after Night Prayer at 9 until breakfast the next morning brought a measure of privacy in cramped quarters.
We aspirants were given black lace mantillas to cover our heads in the chapel, and mine kept sliding off. As I recited the prayers, my knees and lower back often ached. The first day I'd leaned back on my heels, but as I reached for my sliding mantilla, I saw that everyone else was still upright. I struggled back to my knees and prayed for strength—not only for my knees but strength to live this new life well.
At dinner that first evening, one of the women had placed a large aluminum dish on the table. Carrots and potatoes swam in the red broth; bloated tortilla chips and something—it looked like pieces of scrambled egg—floated on top. Sister Carmeline lifted the ladle and announced, "Mother always says, 'A good appetite is the sign of a good vocation.'" She filled my bowl.
I stared at it. "You should eat it," the woman on my right whispered. "She won't let you up until it's done." I smelled the soup. I gazed at those floating tortilla chips. I'd been attracted by Mother Teresa's decision to serve the poor not from a position of wealth but while sharing their lot. A visceral understanding of the poor would start with eating the food of the poor. Swallow after swallow, I somehow downed that soup.
Little did I know that food would become my special domain. Sister Carmeline told us our assignments came from God. I had to remind myself to look for God's will when the others scattered for work at summer day camps for the poor or to the homeless women's shelter, as I trudged down the basement steps to the kitchen. Alone, I concocted soup from rotting vegetables donated by a local market, determined to prepare more-palatable meals than that first one.
A plaque in the basement proclaimed Mother Teresa's words: Do Little Things With Great Love. I supposed she meant that my attitude mattered more than my actions, but I longed to do bigger things: feed the hungry, comfort the dying—or at least work with the kids at the day camp. Instead, I chopped and boiled, hoping to make up for the missing basil or thyme by adding love to my soup. I'd always relished a good challenge. I told myself that the minor irritations were nothing in light of God's call. He had a plan for me. I was sure of it.