Mary Johnson believed she was born to be a nun. But could she ever be as holy as her hero, Mother Teresa? The cardboard box on the rack above my bus seat held what was left of my possessions. In a few hours they would belong to God, and so would I.
I watched the street outside, mesmerized as cars wove through eight lanes of traffic. On a billboard, an electric blonde suddenly morphed into a giant banana flaunting a reed skirt and long, dark eyelashes.
"You been to the city before?" A man in a black T-shirt sitting next to me brushed my arm with his too-broad gesture.
"Yes, I was here in January." It was now summer of the same year: 1977.
"You look like you never seen a city before. Where you from?"
I shifted in the seat. Was it supposed to be this personal between passengers on buses in New York?
"Texas? What's a kid from Texas doing in New York?"
I wasn't a kid. I had just finished a year at the University of Texas at Austin. I didn't see why I should have to explain that the only thing I'd been thinking of for the past year and a half was coming to this city to give myself to God. But not answering would have been rude. "I came to see some sisters."
"Oh, you got family here."
"Not those kind of sisters. Catholic sisters. Nuns."
"You're coming to New York City to see nuns?"
"To become a nun."
The man then whistled as his eyes traveled my body, perhaps looking for some sort of deformity, or maybe, if he was Catholic, a halo. I didn't expect him to understand. Even my family didn't understand.
My sister Kathy had cried most of the night before I left. She'd said, "Mary, you're wasting your life." Mom had tried to insist that I at least finish college. I explained that when God calls, you don't put him on hold.
In January, when I'd sat with Dad waiting for the plane that would take me to New York for the preliminary week the sisters called "come and see," he'd put his hand on my knee without saying anything. When tears began to puddle in his eyes, he left without a word or a glance.
Now the bus jerked to a halt. I reached for the rack, but the man in the black T-shirt lifted the box before I could and placed it in my hands. "Best of luck, kid," he said, then added under his breath, "Pray for me, okay?"
The sisters had sent directions, and I'd memorized them: bus, then the number 5 train, then a five-block walk. God, I prayed, lead me through this scurrying city. Lead me to you. I made my way through a maze of tunnels and stairs. When the train pulled up, I found a seat and cradled my box. A suitcase would have been easier, but the sisters had said they didn't use them, or purses, either. I'm going to live free, I told myself, like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.
A week earlier, my friends had thrown a "penguin party" on the beach—"black-and-white dress required in honor of Mary's new wardrobe." These public school classmates of mine didn't know that the sisters I was about to join, the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa, wore white saris trimmed in blue. Still, they debated the odds of my perseverance. My classmates had voted me "most likely to succeed," but I doubted they knew how little I was moved by conventional ideas of success. They didn't know the secret thrill I felt on the streets when, watching couples walk hand in hand, I savored my relationship with the creator of the universe. I knew that, to me, living the gospel of poverty and love with God constituted real success.
When I got off the train at Third Avenue and 149th Street, pulsing Latin music pushed away thoughts of home. I walked past a fruit seller hawking mangoes and papayas. Boys in front of an electronics shop eyed me, and I shifted my box nervously from hand to hand. God, keep me safe, I prayed. I'm working for you now. Finally, I spotted a three-story building behind a high brick wall, barbed wire coiled at the top, a small sign to the left of the gate: Missionaries of Charity. I opened the gate, stood before the door, swallowed, and rang the bell. Suddenly the door swung open, and a short, dark woman with a blue apron over her white sari smiled at me. "Welcome," she said.
Mary Johnson believed she was born to be a nun. But could she ever be as holy as her hero, Mother Teresa? 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. Mary Johnson believed she was born to be a nun. But could she ever be as holy as her hero, Mother Teresa? Two weeks after I arrived in the South Bronx, Sister Carmeline announced that soon we would have a visitor—Mother Teresa!
I'd been waiting for this since the day I'd spotted the nun with the watery eyes on the cover of Time. I'd skipped French class to read about how she rescued babies from garbage heaps and nurtured them to health. As I read, I felt God calling me, too. I addressed my first letter to her: Mother Teresa, Missionaries of Charity, Calcutta, India. (It went unanswered.) Though my parents told me I was too young for the convent, as a high school graduation present they sent me to the International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, where Mother Teresa would speak.
Mom and I packed ourselves into a friend's station wagon. I urged them to drive faster, but even so we missed Mother Teresa's first speech. Once there, I scanned the crowds. Mother's image hung everywhere—smiling on posters and key chains and at souvenir stands, hugging babies on mugs and plates—but I couldn't find her anywhere.
Then, the next morning, I leaned against the wall of a packed auditorium where an archbishop stopped his speech to kiss the hands of a small woman in a white sari. Everyone rose, clapping. I could hardly believe it—I was in the same room as Mother Teresa! She stepped behind the podium and disappeared. Someone brought her a box to stand on. Finally her strong voice hushed the room. "God loved the world so much that he gave his son, Jesus—the beginning of Christianity, the giving. And Jesus kept on saying, 'Love one another as I have loved you.' Every human being created by the loving hand of God has been created in his image to love and to be loved."
My throat tightened. Her simple words came straight from her heart, with unwavering conviction. While everyone stood and applauded, I pushed my way to the front, where I told the two men blocking the stage that I had to speak to Mother. "You and 8,000 other people," one of them said brusquely.
Back home, I sent another letter to Calcutta. Three months later I finally received a response—an invitation to meet the sisters in New York. I slammed the mailbox shut and rushed onto the streets of Austin. Envelope in hand, I sang as I ran past couples holding hands and around the fountain in the park.
Now, half a year later, I felt my excitement give way to unease. While the sisters went to fetch Mother from the airport, I worried. What if Mother didn't like me? If she was a living saint, perhaps she would have supernatural knowledge, like Padre Pio, the Italian priest with the stigmata, who read people's souls. If Mother knew how I used to lie to get myself out of trouble, or if she suspected how often I thought critically of Sister Carmeline, she might send me home.
Even worse than Mother not liking me, suppose I didn't like her? What if she wasn't who everyone said she was?
Suddenly, the door to the convent opened, and I watched an old, bent woman press through a crowd of sisters straight to the chapel. "I must say hello to Jesus," she said. Mother reached for the holy water and blessed herself. She genuflected and bowed, chin resting on her chest. Though the boom boxes thrummed outside, in the convent the world stood still—as if existing only for this moment. I was ready to be a better person than I had ever been before, and all Mother Teresa had done was appear.
When she emerged barefoot from the chapel, Mother placed her wrinkled hand on the head of the closest aspirant. In a deep, throaty voice, she intoned, "God bless you," then she smiled at the rest of us. As we lined up to stand before Mother, I searched frantically for something to say—I want to be like you, or Teach me to be holy. Finally, I looked into her eyes and said, "Welcome, Mother."
"Very good," she replied, placing both hands on my head. "God bless you."
Sister Carmeline ushered us to the refectory with its long tables, backless benches, pictures of Jesus, Mary, and Mother, without frames, covered in clear plastic. Mother bowed and began grace in a commanding voice: "Bless us, O Lord, and these, thy gifts."
"Isn't she cute?" someone whispered.
"I mean she's so small, and so old, and she's in charge of everything, and she's not making a big deal of it. She's eating soup just like everybody else, and the way she holds her spoon—it's just so cute."
I could see her point, though I would have described Mother as focused, eager, humble. I was pleased that she ate my soup with what seemed like gusto. Mary Johnson believed she was born to be a nun. But could she ever be as holy as her hero, Mother Teresa?
After her last spoonful, Mother rapped her knife on the table, and immediately everyone was silent.
"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?" Mary Johnson believed she was born to be a nun. But could she ever be as holy as her hero, Mother Teresa? I want you to be happy. I'd heard this soundless voice before.
"Well, I'm mostly happy," I thought. "I like the sisters, but I can't imagine why you have called me here. Sometimes things seem really weird. And I'm only working in the kitchen."
Something within me wanted God to say, "It's all a big mistake. I'll take you where your gifts will be appreciated, back to your friends and family, to your freedom."
But God didn't say that. Instead, he wrapped me in his love and washed me in peace.
I didn't yet know how many more questions would arise over the next 20 years, questions that wouldn't have easy answers like the one Sister Elvira supplied the next morning: "No showers. Fill the bucket with water, then stand in the tub and pour the water over you with an empty tin can."
When I squeezed Sister Elvira's hand in silent gratitude, she pulled back. "Don't touch," she said. That rule, too, would haunt me in unanticipated ways.
Mother Teresa expected me to become a saint. I didn't yet know how close I would draw to her, then how thoroughly I would disappoint her. I had no idea that love would surprise us both.
For the moment, all I knew was that a crucifix bobbed against my chest each time I moved. God had called me. I belonged, didn't I?