Mary Johnson believed she was born to be a nun. But reality led her to a different path. She explores how she lost—and found—her faith in her moving memoir An Unquenchable Thirst. Today, she sits down with O's books editor Sara Nelson to discuss how she transformed her personal story into a discussion for us all.
You left the Missionaries of Charity nearly fifteen years ago, why did you decide that now was the time to write An Unquenchable Thirst?
I left the Missionaries of Charity in 1997. I began writing about my experience the day I left, on the plane to my sister's house. At first, I wrote just for me. After years of journal writing, I realized that I had a story to tell others. An Unquenchable Thirst took ten years to write, not only because it took time to learn how to write well, but also because I needed the perspective, strength, and courage to tell my story, even the embarrassing parts, with real honesty.
Are you in contact with any of the Sisters, or others you knew during that time? Have any of them read the book? What kind of reaction have you gotten?
Several women who were sisters at the time but who have since left, have told me they're proud of me and that they hope the sisters will read the book and learn from it. Some say they couldn't put the book down—doesn't every writer want to hear that?—and that they're impressed by the book's courage. My mother told me she'd never realized how hard that life was for me. The Missionaries of Charity haven't contacted me directly, but a journalist-priest in Kolkata reported that Sister Prema, the current Superior General, said, "This is indeed a most humbling moment for us... Jesus must be telling us to make serious introspection and work harder to rectify allegations made in the book." I hope the sisters understand the book as a gift of love and a call to honest renewal and transformation.
Do you see your time with the Missionaries as positive? What did you learn from that time that has helped you to have a happy life?
As a Missionary of Charity, I was privileged to share life with some truly remarkable women—brave, generous, loving people. In each sister I discovered both a desire to be of service—a desire that was encouraged and sometimes exploited—and a desire to know herself as loved and valued by others. Even when we're dedicated to loving others we must allow ourselves to be loved—that's a positive lesson I learned the hard way. I still value the silence that I learned to practice as a nun, silence that allows me to enter more deeply into myself and to relate to others more surely. As a nun I learned compassion for others and eventually for myself. The practice of weekly confession helped me develop a rigorous honesty. I also learned to live simply—we don't really need as many things as we think we do.
Do you consider yourself a religious person today?
After I left the convent, I began to reevaluate questions about God and meaning. I have great respect for the ancient intuition sometimes expressed in Judaism and Buddhism in which practitioners refuse to give a name to mysteries they experience. It seems to me that we damage ourselves and our communities when we claim infallible conclusions based on subjective spiritual experience or ancient tradition. I don't consider myself a religious person today. I believe in living life to the fullest. I try to live mindfully and to treat others and myself well. I believe in the power of love and in the importance of exploring the world around us and of speaking honestly about what we find. Until we can be honest about our own experiences—the joys and the pains, the mistakes and the triumphs—we won't really know how to make our communities better.
What would you say to young people considering a life of faith today?
Here's what I tell myself every day: Life is a wonderful thing. Open yourself to the marvels of the world that surrounds you. Engage with life. Don't be afraid of making mistakes and always allow yourself to change your mind when new evidence presents itself. Open your heart to give and to receive. Become a person whose life has meaning. Love others. Love yourself. Live gratefully.
Published on October 20, 2011