Sharing a birthday with Mother Teresa, an international female icon, made me more aware of her than most of my non-Catholic friends. Mother Teresa is regarded as one of the greatest women on the planet by a lot of people who generally wouldn't revere a religious leader. I'm not one of them. There's such a dearth of recognizable female leadership that Mother Teresa, who was really one of the world's biggest tools of global patriarchy, gets conveniently trotted out as a beacon of women's leadership whenever needed. How tragic! To me and other feminist men and women, using Mother Teresa -- a key player in rolling back reproductive rights -- as a role model for women is akin to Rush Limbaugh being made a poster boy for feminist causes.
When friend Carol Franzblau, newly transplanted from the East Coast, mentioned that her dear friend, Mary Johnson, had written a revealing book about her time as a sister of the Missionaries of Charity, my anti-Mother Teresa radar clicked on. During Women's History Month, Johnson, who joined Mother Teresa's order in 1979, is on her national tour to promote the paperback version of her book, An Unquenchable Thirst.
Mary Johnson's book tour itself should be a Women's History Month event. After reading her beautifully written memoir, I picture her as a singularly iconic, nerves-of-steel young woman, much like that man in Tiananmen Square facing off with a communist Chinese army tank. Only in this instance, Johnson confronts the spiritual, materialistic and male-dominated "tank" that is the Catholic Church.
In her book, Johnson reminds us of the power of the national press. As a high school student in 1975, she saw Mother Teresa's picture on the cover of Time magazine. That was it for the youngster from Texas. Her spirit burned for a life of service to the poor, and she would have it, despite her family's less than enthusiastic support of her dreams.
An Unquenchable Thirst is a compelling, unflinching look inside a sister's heart, as well as some of the houses within the constellation of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. There's so much I loved about Johnson's memoir, which could have been a genuflect and tell (as opposed to a kiss and tell), but instead is primarily an authentic search for Johnson's soul, not one bound and beaten by ritual, although there are actual bindings and self-beatings described in this book.
I found it fascinating that one of Johnson's paths to her true voice came through the good old 12-Step process. Gloria Steinem, the closest icon we have to a "saint" within the women's movement, has said for decades that she'd like to see the movement toward gender equality be run like the 12-Step programs developed so many years ago by Bill W. and his wife, Lois. At their core, the 12 Steps are about full human self-expression and liberation from compulsive behavior -- the exact opposite of strict Catholic doctrine, as practiced by Mother Teresa.
I had a chance to speak with Johnson while writing this column. I asked her, "What do you wish people would ask you in interviews, but don't?"
Johnson said she truly wished her experience would lead to a serious public conversation about celibacy and the impact that vows of chastity have on church leadership. Although some people will bring up this issue in conversation, she'd like to see more of it and be part of it. She's truly an expert at what it's like to have repressed sexual longings, which manifest themselves in ways both sacred and profane.
What a year it's been for Catholicism. My husband and I had just watched one of the best documentaries we've ever seen, HBO's Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, a scathing expose centering on sexual assaults by priests at a school for the deaf, and two days later Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. It's likely that the release of this truly astounding film was a major factor in his announcement. The former Cardinal Ratzinger's fingerprints are all over the files of priests who, for decades, raped their way through boys' and girls' dorms in parochial schools all over the world. Johnson has a lot to contribute to a public discourse about the role of religion and liberation.
If you liked Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, you'll also enjoy An Unquenchable Thirst. It's like watching a quiet religious political thriller. "Will she leave the Missionaries of Charity? Will she make it out, spirit intact? Will she come out and tell everyone what happened?"
Thankfully, after 20 years inside the MC order, Johnson did make it out and does tell us what happened with great beauty and generosity of spirit. Welcome home, Mary.
(NOTE: This article appears in a slightly altered form in the March 14th issue of the Pasadena Weekly, for which it was written.)