An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life, by Mary Johnson

Deciding to join a religious order is often referred to as “being called.” Sisters, brothers, priests—most if not all of them experienced their calling in a single moment, when something about their understanding of their place in the world that had previously been vague or ill-defined became crystal clear. Mary Johnson experienced hers in 1975, when she was 17 years old, standing in her school library and looking at Mother Teresa on the cover of Time magazine. In her new memoir, Johnson writes that she skipped her French class to read about Mother Teresa’s work with the poor and sick, and she knew that she was “meant to follow this nun in Calcutta who loved those most in need of it.”

Johnson was raised in a religious household in Texas, but her family was against her choice from the beginning. Johnson had never been very popular socially—she graduated from high school without having been kissed—but she was known for her skills on the debate team and for her fierce and challenging editorials in the school newspaper. Most people she knew wondered aloud how she was going to submit to such a strict way of life. And it was strict: as an aspirant to Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, Johnson rose each day at 4:40 a.m. By the time she had breakfast, at 7:40 a.m., she had already prayed and meditated, made her bed, seen to housework, tended to the washing, and attended Mass.

Personal friendships between sisters were discouraged, which was the only part of the life she found lonely, because she’d imagined having so many women around to confide in and talk with. It was years before the sexually innocent Johnson understood the lesbian subtext of this rule. But the rules, in general, weren’t a negative part of life in the order. As Johnson recounts her progress from aspirant to novice to fully professed nun, we learn that the rules are synonymous with devotion to God and to the vows of the order, which demand that the nuns live just as the people they serve— in poverty. Following the rules is considered an act of love. Every action the sisters took was supposed to be guided by that principle.

Johnson served in Rome for nearly the entire 20 years she spent in the order, struggling to understand her calling and Mother Teresa’s plans for her. She was increasingly unhappy with the work she was assigned to. Though she saw some poverty, the sisters in Calcutta and other such economically deprived locations lived in much closer communion with the people she had vowed to help. Johnson’s obvious intelligence kept her in service to the administrative side of the work and prevented her from being able to work directly with the poor and suffering, because she was viewed by the order’s leadership as organized and particularly suited to office work. This was ironic, because in addition to her difficulty with the vow of chastity, the biggest reason Johnson left the Missionaries of Charity in 1997 was the increasingly dim view the order took toward scholarship among the sisters.

Johnson is so intelligent yet unworldly (at least, when she was still in the order) that the debates she has with herself about love and lust bring into focus the most meaningful aspects of romantic connection. Johnson’s longing for emotional interaction and intellectual stimulation and her propensity to want to change others’ minds when she thought she was right were character traits she continually tried to subsume inside her love for God and for Mother Teresa. Eventually, free will won out.

Spiegel & Grau, 526 pages

This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo