Unquenchable Thirst (Johnson)

An Unquenchable Thirst
Mary Johnson, 2012
Speigel & Grau (Random)
560 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385527484

At seventeen, Mary Johnson experienced her calling when she saw a photo of Mother Teresa on the cover of Time magazine; eighteen months later she began her training as a Missionary of Charity, a nun in Mother Teresa’s order.

Not without difficulty, this boisterous, independent-minded teenager eventually adapted to the sisters’ austere life of poverty and devotion, but beneath the white-and-blue sari beat the heart of an ordinary young woman who faced daily the simple and profound struggles we all share, the same desires for love and connection.

Eventually, after twenty years of service, Johnson left the church to find her own path, but her magnificently told story holds universal truths about the mysteries of faith and how a woman discovers herself. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Texas, USA
Education—diploma, Gregorian University (Rome);
  B.A., Lamar University; M.F.A. Goddard University
Currently—lives in Nashua, New Hampshire

At the age of 19, Mary Johnson joined the Missionaries of Charity, the group commonly known as the Sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Trusted by Mother Teresa, she rose quickly in the ranks and was sent to study theology at Regina Mundi, a pontifical institute aggregated to the Gregorian University in Rome.There she received a diploma in religious studies, summa cum laude.

For fifteen of Mary Johnson's twenty years as a sister, she was stationed in Rome and often lived with Mother Teresa for weeks at a time.

After leaving the sisters in 1997, Johnson completed a BA in English, summa cum laude. She subsequently received an MFA in Creative Writing. She also married.

A well-respected teacher and public speaker, she has led retreats, workshops, classes, and training sessions of various kinds for nearly thirty years. She currently teaches creative writing and Italian to adults and is Creative Director of A Room of Her Own Foundation's retreats for women writers. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
A wonderful achievement.... Johnson opens the window on a horizon of spiritual questions [and] takes an unflinching look inside her own heart.
Christian Science Monitor
An incredible coming-of-age story.... [It] has everything a memoir needs: an inside look at a way of life that most of us will never see, a physical and emotional journey, and suspense.

Reads like a novel...an exacting account of a woman growing into her own soul.
Marcia Mentor - More Magazine

Engaging, heartfelt and entertaining.... [Johnson] articulates her struggles with her God in words that will hit home.
Shari Roan - Los Angeles Times
An inspiration that transcends any particular religious belief.... An Unquenchable Thirst is a journey that captivates, but its resonance lies in the life examined.
Robin Vidimos - Denver Post

Johnson, a writer and Fellow of the MacDowell Colony, left the Missionaries of Charity in 1997. She overshares the 20 years she spent as a nun under the direction of Mother Theresa.... Johnson writes candidly of self-flagellation, humiliation, and her furtive exploration of her sexuality.... The epilogue, covering her life after she left the order, teases with riches never mined.
Publishers Weekly

Johson presents a remarkable, elegant spirital memoir showcasing her journey, and a fascinating view inside of Mother Theresa's organization. —Nancy Richey
Library Journal

(A Best Book of the Year.) Beautifully crafted memoir of one woman's experience in Mother Teresa's order, the Missionaries of Charity. Early on, Johnson compares prayer to immersion in water: "I could close my eyes and float on the river of God's Love almost at will." Readers, too, will find themselves transported into another world by this powerful, revealing memoir.... [But as] it became increasingly clear to Johnson that the Missionaries of Charity's vision and management were diverging from her own beliefs and values, she struggled with her place in the order and eventually made the decision to leave after two decades of service.... [L]likely to be controversial; her memoir is exceptional.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. An Unquenchable Thirst is a spiritual memoir, but it is also a coming-of-age story. How does the book mirror the traditional story of a feminist awakening? Do you consider Mary Johnson a feminist?

2. The narrative of An Unquenchable Thirst pulls the reader through extreme situations, intense emotions, and quietly fought battles. When did you empathize most with Sister Donata? What experiences in your life allowed you to understand some of what Sister Donata went through? Were there also times when you found her hard to relate to?

3. Discuss the book’s title. What do you think Mary Johnson was really thirsting for all along? Does she succeed in finding what she was looking for, or is her thirst inherently “unquenchable”?

4. Mary Johnson believed, as a teenager, that she was “too ugly to have a boyfriend,” then goes through a sexual awakening during her years with the MCs. Discuss the trajectory of each of her affairs, the motivating force behind them, and how they represented different aspects of romance, lust, and mature love. Can you relate to her experiences?

5. Mary Johnson chooses to join the Missionaries of Charity—and stays even when she experiences doubts—because she believes it is her calling. Discuss the concept of a having a “calling” in life. Do you believe there is such a thing? Is there a secular equivalent? Is experiencing a “calling” freeing, or can it inhibit growth? Discuss the implications of the concept as it relates to Mary’s story and to your own experiences.

6. For Mary, the lack of stimulating reading material and the lack of value placed on scholarship was one of the most challenging constraints of being an MC, and she seizes any opportunity for intellectual development and creativity. Discuss the different outlets for intellectual stimulation that Mary encounters. What does she learn from each of them, and which had the greatest effect on her personal development?

7. Mary Johnson’s trip to Sweden with Mother Teresa is a turning point in Mary’s development. How does that trip change Mary’s perspective? What does she learn about Mother Teresa, and what does she learn about herself?

8. Among the reasons for Mary’s decision to leave the MCs is her desire for intimacy and connection. Are those feelings universal? Do you think the other sisters were suppressing similar desires?

9. Mary has doubts about the way the MCs minister to the poor, questioning whether the order makes the best use of their resources and funds. What do you think the best way of giving is?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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