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“Mother could believe this about anyone, but she cannot believe it about you.” These were some of the last words the late Mother Teresa spoke to Mary Johnson twenty-four years ago; saints have a habit of speaking in the third-person. Johnson, a former nun turned bestselling author, provoked the world-renowned religious figure to this rebuke by leaving Mother Teresa’s religious order, Missionaries of Charity, for good. Johnson reflected on the meaning of these words in front of a small, disparate group of humanists, who shifted in their fold-up chairs with curiosity as she gave a talk about her memoir, “An Unquenchable Thirst,” two Sundays ago. Though far from the convents and cathedrals where she spent much of her life, Johnson still reads with religious theatricality, alternately projecting and whispering within the cozy Eliot St. office space that serves as the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy’s headquarters.
The Nobel Peace Prize-winning nun’s disheartened words are the epitaph to the 20 years Johnson spent rising in the ranks of the Missionaries of Charity and a part of the story contained within her memoir, which was published last year. A tale of a firm humanitarian spirit continually checked by bureaucratic nonsense, hyperbolized piety, and sexual scandal, “An Unquenchable Thirst” represents religion at its most complex and conflicted. Now a self-described “non-religious person” who no longer believes in God, Johnson has spent the majority of her years since leaving the order developing the resources and skills to flourish as a writer. “[When I was with the Missionaries of Charity], the question had always been, ‘Where is the greatest need?’” Johnson says. “Then, the question shifted to, ‘What is it that I have to offer?’ I realized that a lot of that had to do with telling my story and a lot to do with sharing some of the lessons that I had learned.”
Johnson represents an extreme case of the predicament that atheists, agnostics, and humanists face at Harvard and across the world: How does one maintain the good, important parts of formalized religion, the parts that people like Johnson find especially difficult to give up—community, dedication, and responsibility to others—if one denies the existence of a higher being? Johnson’s answer has been to find purpose and community in telling her story and aiding other female writers in telling their own tales.
In 1977, at the age of 19 and after only a year at the University of Texas, Johnson found herself following the call of God to the doors of a cramped convent in the Bronx, where her career with the Missionaries of Charity officially began. “I felt that it was my vocation,” she says, “that this is what I had to do.” Johnson had once felt a connection with Mother Teresa’s portrait on the cover of Time magazine, which she saw in her high school library. She skipped French class to read the article. The self-certain and rebellious Johnson felt an uncannily strong spiritual connection with Mother Teresa’s radical focus on asceticism and direct involvement with the plight of the poor. “How did one write about electromagnetism?” she writes in her memoir. “That’s what the pull had felt like.”
From the beginning, Johnson felt uncomfortable with the authoritarian structure of the Missionaries of Charity. Early in her memoir, she mentions her immediate uncertainties: “The Constitutions [the code of law Mother Teresa wrote], the Rules, and our superiors were…God’s voice and governed when we could speak, what we could read, how to sit, walk, or kneel, sometimes even what to think.” Once, the arbitrary authority became so overbearing that Johnson impulsively picked up her superior and shook her out of frustration.
After six months in the Bronx, Johnson was transferred to Rome, where she spent most of the next 20 years, aside from some work in Winnipeg, Canada, and Washington D.C. In Rome, Johnson ascended the ranks of the Missionaries of Charity, eventually being sworn in as a nun under the chosen name Sister Donata. Intimating Johnson’s intentions, the Italian name Donata means “the freely given one.”
Johnson’s desire for satisfaction and human connection, both of which were heavily condemned by the Rules, became real problems as she continually found herself rebuffed precisely when she began to feel fulfilled in her work. “We weren’t allowed to get anything for ourselves from the work,” Johnson says. “No pleasure, no gratitude from the people: nothing. It’s one of the reasons that our work suffered.”
“CHURCH WITHOUT THE GOD”
Johnson’s book reading was presented by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, a small 35-year-old organization that has recently garnered national attention due to the ambitions of its head, chaplain Greg Epstein. With the oratorical deliberateness of a priest and the casual, disarming manner of a youth group leader, Epstein is as personable as his believer counterparts. “Up until now in human history,” Epstein says, “religion has been a primary source of community for people. If humanism is going to provide an alternative to that, we need to study how to make it the best alternative for people. We want to learn from religious groups; we want to learn from anything that we can in order to figure out how to have the most effective community.”
Through frequent events involving prominent humanists and weekly Sunday meetings to discuss and meditate, Epstein hopes to provide the kind of community typically associated with houses of worship. Humanists have adopted the religious tradition since, Epstein says, “there is a lot of documentation that this sort of thing is helpful for a lot of people.”
For some, humanism fills a void. Stephen Goeman, a junior at Tufts University, attended church and a youth group throughout high school, so when he lost his religion in college, he felt he had lost an important means of connecting with people. Now, he attends the events of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard regularly, because, he said, “It’s like church without the God.” Creating a formal community out of a group defined by a lack of a common creed may seem a formidable task. However, Epstein thinks humanists cannot ignore the fact that natural inclination for community sometimes impedes the personal transition from a religious background to non-belief. Speaking of Johnson’s own journey, Epstein says, “[Defining your own values] is often a very scary process. I think that’s what took Mary so long, since it can be very isolating to have to leave a community that you’re from and define yourself.” Johnson’s need for community made it difficult to leave the order in which she had invested so much, but her desire for true human connection soon made it even harder to stay.
When one of Johnson’s fellow missionaries, a nun with the chosen name Sister Niobe, confessed her romantic love for Johnson during Johnson’s time in Rome, she was thrilled. Suffering from a lack of personal attachment—touch of any sort between sisters, even a simple hug, was prohibited, and private conversations were supposed to be limited to scheduled meetings with superiors—Johnson leaped at the opportunity for some intimate contact with another human being. But the relationship threatened the two sisters’ vows of chastity.
Hugs, kisses, and eventually trysts in a secluded room by night jeopardized Johnson’s faith in herself as a Missionary of Charity. However, it also proved to her a richness of experience that the order had denied her: not merely the pleasures of love and sex, but the basic joys of enjoying another’s company and feeling valued. “Niobe had taught me about my own goodness, and about the joys of tenderness,” Johnson writes in her memoir. “I was grateful.”
But Johnson’s relationship with Sister Niobe eventually became exploitative and unmanageable. Sister Niobe would take any opportunity that they had alone in an empty room to violently press their bodies together, despite Johnson’s insistent protests. Soon, Johnson found out that Sister Niobe had a history of coercing sisters into sexual relationships, and she tried her hardest to bring this to the attention of superiors, even Mother Teresa herself. “Sister Niobe was a sexual predator, which took me a long time to understand," Johnson says. “The sisters who had sexual relations with Sister Niobe were nearly all very sexually naïve adults who had really no experience. I hadn’t either.”
In addition to revealing an essential vulnerability that a life of chastity engenders, the case of Sister Niobe also exposed a fundamental flaw in the ability of Mother Teresa and the superior sisters in the Missionaries of Charity. The order was unable to deal with sexual exploitation, even if it threatened the well-being of many sisters. “Mother Teresa made it known that this was something not to be talked about,” Johnson says. “She even went so far as to imply that talking about this sexual sin was worse than anything that had happened.”
With doubts about Mother Teresa’s infallibility, a continual yearning for tenderness with other people, and her rebuffed attempts to have more contact with the poor, Johnson began questioning whether she belonged with the Missionaries of Charity. She set an ultimatum for herself. “I thought, ‘I’m going to give myself one more year,’” she said. “‘By the end of the year, if I feel like I can be myself in this group, I’ll stay. If I feel like I can’t be myself in this group, I’ll go.’ At the end of the year, it was very clear to me that I had to go.”
Leaving the Missionaries of Charity in 1997 was like stepping out of a time capsule. “I had never used an ATM before,” Johnson says. “I didn’t know what to do with a microwave. I could prepare a meal for 60 sisters over a wood-burning stove, but a microwave?” The last 20 years of her life were gone, along with any sense of the direction or purpose that accompanied them. Johnson faced a new life at 39 years old.
ROOM OF HER OWN
“I’m Mary Johnson from Beaumont, Texas, and this workshop is my fifth choice. You should know that at this point in my life I don’t trust women much, especially older women.” These were the first words Darlene Chandler Bassett heard Johnson speak in July 2000, three years after leaving the order. Bassett was a retired corporate executive also seeking a direction to lead the rest of her life. They were on the same women’s retreat at Ghost Ranch, Georgia O’Keefe’s old house in the New Mexico desert that holds many retreats and workshops. Bassett took an immediate interest in this standoffish stranger.
Once she had returned to life outside the convent, Johnson’s first instinct was to continue working with the poor through institutions like soup kitchens and homeless shelters, but she stopped when people in her life suggested otherwise. “They said, ‘Don’t do that! You’ve been doing that for 20 years, and you need to try something else now,’” she says, “That kind of made sense to me.”
Johnson wondered what was to constitute the center of her life now, without religion and the Missionaries of Charity. She decided that her primary goal was to learn how to tell her story in all its rich complexity. Most accounts of Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity at the time were motivated by dogma, from unquestioning reverence of Mother Teresa’s sainthood to Christopher Hitchens’ vitriolic and equally unsubtle view of Mother Teresa as a fraud. Johnson thought that she could bring a multi-faceted evaluation of the Missionaries of Charity based on the quotidian experience of being a sister. “What interests me is looking at the whole picture [of the Missionaries of Charity]. There are good things and there are things that need to be changed, but that doesn’t mean you have to throw the whole thing out the window,” says Johnson.
Later that evening at the retreat, Johnson expressed her innermost desire to the group of strangers to whom she had been initially so hostile: She wanted to write her story, but for that purpose, she needed a room of her own. The invocation of Virginia Woolf’s titular assertion, that women needed to be able to support themselves and have their own, personal space if they were to write, immediately gave Bassett an idea. She would provide the necessary funds to support Johnson through the writing process, as long as Johnson would help her establish an organization that sponsored and taught women writers. “The idea came to me fully formed, in that instant,” says Bassett. “I had never considered doing anything like this before.”
When Johnson agreed to the idea, A Room of Her Own Foundation was born. The Foundation began by funding Johnson’s MFA program in creative writing at Goddard College, during which she developed a behemoth of a thesis—which at one point reached around 900 pages—that she eventually tamed into her much more moderately-sized memoir. Meanwhile, A Room of Her Own has become nationally renowned as a birthplace of successful female writers. For Johnson, the organization has provided the impetus for a mutually-reinforcing sense of purpose and community: with financial support and by virtue of her own writing, Johnson spurs other women to write, forming a national network of women sharing their perspectives. “I know that I can turn to so many of these different women when I have a question, when I have a problem about technical parts of the writing process, or when I’m just scared,” says Johnson of the community the organization has created.
Now that Mary Johnson’s book rests on bookshelves across the country—ironically, often in the “Christian Inspiration” section—anyone can read about her trials, her triumphs, her doubts, her journey, and, as she characterizes them, “all the racy details” as well. Johnson feels that she has grown tremendously from the process of writing. “Whether I have a reading public or not, there’s the simple fact of writing: it’s a very healing sort of process.” However, she hopes that many are intrigued enough by her story to crack the spine of “An Unquenchable Thirst,” because, after all, honesty breeds honesty. “One of the things that’s impressed me,” she said, “is the fact that many people have gotten in touch with me after the memoir was published and they tell me things like, ‘I’ve never been able to tell anybody about what happened to me, but after reading the honest account of your story, I now have the courage to tell my story to somebody.’”
Johnson hopes her writing and the tales of other women will foster an understanding of how life could be outside the comforting and confining walls of religion. “I think that we create these ideas of perfect people like Mother Teresa because it makes us feel better about our own possibilities,” Johnson says. “We create idols, when in fact, we need to look at the real complexities of life.”
—Staff writer Patrick W. Lauppe can be reached at email@example.com.
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