Unquenchable Thirst (Review)


An Unquenchable Thirst
Mary Johnson, 2013
525 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
April, 2013
Mary Johnson married at 21, following three years of intensive courtship and study to become an exemplary wife. Sadly, 20 years into the marriage, she divorced.

Years later, sitting with her second husband, Mary glances out a coffee shop window and catches sight of the beard and flowing robe of her first spouse: Jesus. It's Good Friday, and the now ex-nun watches her man shouldering a cross as he leads a procession through her New England town.

Johnson recalls this incident in a New York Times Magazine piece published on Easter Sunday, 2013—the very day I sat down to write this review. The sight of the costumed man stunned her:

I thought I was over all that—but there it was, a tightness in my throat, a pulling in my chest. Something in me still longed for those years when I worked and prayed and laughed beside my sisters as we made the world a better place.

At 19 Mary had sat at the feet of Mother Theresa, whose order she joined and who promised her that no one would ever love her the way Jesus did. "Never allow anyone to separate you from the love of Christ.”

So what happened? The story is told in her very long, sometimes meandering but always engaging memoir. An Unquenchable Thirst recounts those 20 years Johnson spent as Sister Donata in the Missionaries of Charity.

Hunger, self-flagellation, obedience, and drudgery are the hallmarks of her order, all of which Sister Donata welcomed. These are the steps—abnegating the ego and ridding the soul of earthly distractions—required to become the bride of Jesus and carry out His work. The sisters' mysticism and unflagging energy were an inspiration to her.

What Sister Donata did not welcome was the severity, even cruelty, or the blatant power plays and self-promotion, on the part of some of her superiors. Other times it felt as if the strict Rules of the order, the letter of the law, superseded the goal of love and charity. Far worse was the isolation that led to pervasive loneliness. Of course there was the prohibition against sex, but the Rules forbade a simple hug or mere touch on the shoulder of a fellow sister. Friendships, of any sort, were considered a distraction and strictly forbidden.

This is a story, then, of longing—for both spiritual and physical intimacy. We feel keenly Sister Donata's loneliness and disillusionment, and we cheer her on in her quest for wholeness. Nonetheless, there is something of a casuist about her, someone who rationalizes away her own dubious behavior. She rarely if ever finds fault with her own actions, despite some blatant flouting of rules.

At more than 500 pages, An Unquenchable Thirst makes for a long read (one wishes for a stronger editor), but it's well worth the effort. The book abounds, chapter after chapter, with spiritual insights and human striving. Mary Johnson is an engaging heroine and storyteller—and she offers a great deal for book clubs to talk about.

See our Reading Guide for An Unquenchable Thirst.

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