In Search of Sisterhood: How Mary Johnson Found and Lost Her Faith
"I bring you all the love of the sisters in the Mother House." Her voice was enthusiastic, without any trace of tiredness. She gestured widely. "In the Mother House there are more than 300 novices." She raised three fingers. "Imagine that. And the sisters feed 3,000 people in Calcutta every day."
"Take us to Calcutta, Mother," one of the aspirants begged.
"There's still time for that." Mother gripped both sides of the table. "And Jesus is everywhere, also in New York." Her eyes sparkled.
"We are visiting many shut-ins, Mother," Sister Andrea said, "and we have many children in the summer camp."
"Ah cha," Mother said, using the Indian expression meaning "well" or "okay." She looked down the table, nodding and smiling.
One day, a week later, we aspirants sat around Mother again at the refectory table. "Sisters," she began, "Jesus has chosen you to belong to him. Imagine that. Out of all the people in the world, almighty God has chosen you." Each word penetrated my soul. I was afraid to breathe, afraid some movement might disturb the joy I felt growing within. "You must give Jesus your whole heart and soul, your body, everything." Mother looked intently at each of us as she touched the crucifix pinned at her shoulder, caressing Jesus's body.
"You have a choice: Stay and be faithful for life, or pack up and go home right now." Her words scared me a little, but mostly they excited me. "When you put on the cross each morning, you must remember: You are the spouse of Jesus crucified. Holiness is a simple duty for you and me. God has called us to be saints."
I moved to the chapel in astonished silence. No one had ever expected so much of me.
As we knelt, Sister Carmeline held a tray with a dozen three-inch crucifixes, each bound to a large safety pin. Moving to the first aspirant, Mother took a crucifix from the tray and kissed it, then pressed it to the aspirant's lips. Mother pinned the crucifix to the aspirant's blouse, saying, "Receive the symbol of your crucified spouse. Carry his light and his love into the homes of the poor everywhere you go, and so satiate his thirst for souls." While jump-rope rhymes and the sound of a brawl drifted into our sacred space, I imagined myself picking up the dying from the streets of Calcutta or the Congo.
Suddenly Mother was in front of me, pressing the cross so strongly to my mouth that my lips weren't free to respond. With a swift jab, Mother pinned the symbol to my blouse. I was a Missionary of Charity.
When Mother left New York, I missed her. The crucifix she'd given me bobbed against my chest, reminding me how much she expected—something Sister Carmeline didn't let us forget when she drilled us during daily instructions.
One sticky July night, I peeled off clothes for a shower. A candle—MCs didn't use electricity after Night Prayer—threw flickering shadows on the bathroom walls.
The icy water from the shower made my muscles seize. Even after nearly a month of "sharing the poverty of the poor," the cold water still surprised me. I soaped and rinsed as quickly as I could, dried myself, slipped on my white nightdress, and tossed my dirty clothes into my bucket. On my way out, the bathroom door hit something. Glaring, Sister Carmeline blocked the threshold.
"Sister Mary, what have you been doing?" Her words alarmed me—only an emergency merited speaking after Night Prayer.
"Taking a shower," I said.
"You should be ashamed." Sister Carmeline's eyes narrowed.
"I'm sorry, Sister," I said. "Did I take too long?"
She hissed, "You did not use the bucket."
"I heard the water from the shower, and I heard it last night, too." Sister Carmeline shoved her bucket at my belly. "Selfish, disobedient, and immodest."
I opened my mouth to protest but then remembered an instruction I'd been given. When corrected, a sister was to remain silent, even if the accusation was unjust. I breathed deeply and limited myself to the approved response: "Thank you, Sister. Sorry, Sister."
"Vain." Sister Carmeline pushed past me into the bathroom, shaking her head and mumbling, "Lazy and vain."
Angry and baffled, I climbed the stairs to the dormitory. Had I missed some crucial instruction on bathing? I sidled between the beds to my cot in the corner, knelt on the bare floor, and stretched my arms in the form of the cross, as we had been taught. I silently prayed the prescribed Act of Contrition , five Our Fathers, five Hail Marys, and one Glory Be. I was then supposed to unpin the crucifix from my blouse and kiss Jesus's wounds while reciting a prayer for perseverance, but instead I shoved the crucifix under my pillow.
In bed, I wondered if Jesus had felt this angry when he'd been accused of blasphemy for calling himself God's Son—which had only been the truth. How could my shower possibly be lazy and vain? And what did the bucket have to do with anything? I took the crucifix from under my pillow and ran my fingers up and down Jesus's wounded body.
"God," I asked silently, "should I be here? Is this really what you want?"