When I was studying Medieval Literature at Oxford (I just rewrote that phrase about 20 different times in an attempt to make myself sound less obnoxious. This is the best version I came up with), I was surrounded by people who had a wide variety of motivations for studying the time period. I thought it would be cool to learn to read Middle English and to spend an intensive period of time learning about the English mystery plays. A small handful of my compatriots–well, fellow American expatriates in our big communal house in Shoe Lane–had other interests, including but not limited to feigning British accents to take back home with them to Kansas or Iowa (nearly everyone in the house but me, the lone Californian, seemed to be from Kansas or Iowa) or scouring the Oxfam shops to find tweed coats with elbow patches and pairs of flat-front pants to make themselves look scholarly.
I was chatting with one such guy–who I’m fairly sure ended up a local Republican politician somewhere in Kansas or Iowa–one morning before a lecture we were about to hear on medieval monasticism. He told me that he had entertained the idea of becoming a monk, but sighed and said that “the monastery just isn’t what it used to be. It’s so service-oriented these days.” I had to chuckle. Of course, my KansIowan classmate wouldn’t be any Abelard, able to keep a lovely lady on hand in the back room while he philosophized the day away. He would have to work with the poor, with the indigent, with the sick. Not what it used to be indeed.
But if I’m honest, I’d have to admit that I too had had a fascination with cloistered life. In fact, I think many of the young women with whom I grew up in a highly religious community felt, at one time or another, that if there were some sort of Protestant version of nuns, we’d sign ourselves up. While I no longer align myself with any religious group, I still understand the draw of that sense of purpose, of contemplation, of service, and of love. Of a radical commitment to an ideal rather than to the proscriptive path of marriage and family.
It was with that sense of fascination with the cloistered life that I found Mary Johnson’s new memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst. While I’m not generally a great reader of memoir, I practically gorged myself on this book. Johnson tells a fascinating story of growing from a young college student into a novice, a postulant, an avowed sister in the Missionaries of Charity–the order of nuns founded by Mother Theresa.
Johnson manages a nearly impossible feat in her book: balancing the incredible amount of detail and background information a reader will need to understand the nuances of the Catholic church and the lives of “the religious” (as avowed members of Catholic orders are called) with her own poignant life story of struggle, commitment, and growth. The particulars of life as a Missionary of Charity and as a Catholic nun would have made my classmate squirm–the MCs are committed to living under the same conditions as the poorest of the poor. For Johnson, this means bathing in buckets, foregoing necessary medical care, wearing the same sari until it is so full of holes that it cannot be mended. It’s a study in squalor that aims to bring the nuns closer to God and to the poor as they distance themselves from physical concerns.
Added to the nuns’ poverty are are the disciplines of self-flagellation (I, for one, thought the practice had largely died out in the dark ages, and was stunned to learn that there are still quite a number of young nuns whipping themselves across the legs as a method of penance for their own and others’ sins), total and unquestioning obedience to the dubious demands of superiors, and a complete lack of interpersonal physical contact and affection (at least in theory–the several romantic and sexual subplots in this memoir made me rethink my notion of what goes on behind the cloister’s walls).
But aside from the stark, frightening, and even scandalous details of religious life, Johnson tells a tale that is universal in its appeal and message. As she struggles to reconcile her belief in God’s love with the dominating personalities, pedantic attitudes, and seemingly needless austerities in her order, Johnson begins to question at what point a commitment to an ideal becomes a lost cause, at what point obedience becomes enabling of unhealthy power structures, and at what point selflessness becomes self-destructive.
These questions hit home for me as a reader–as I suspect they have for many others–though I have very few points of commonality with Johnson in terms of my life’s path. If we’re lucky people, we have what we feel are callings in our lives. We feel we’re supposed to climb the unending mountain toward being successful in our chosen pursuits, toward being good spouses or good parents. Good friends or good role models. But there are, this book seems to suggest, inevitable points at which we must look at our paths, make a brutally honest assessment about why we’re doing what we’re doing, and then find the resolve to change if we cannot live with what we find.
Find Mary Johnson’s An Unquenchable Thirst here.