Wednesday, December 4, 2013
By Meredith Goad email@example.com
When Mary Johnson decided to join the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order led by Mother Teresa, she knew that vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were required.
MEET THE AUTHOR
MARY JOHNSON will be in Portland on Feb. 17 for an appearance supporting Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Maine. She will be at the Portland Club, 156 State St., from 5 to 7 p.m. for a Book Club Dinner that costs $100 per person and is limited to 10 people.
AT 7:30 P.M., there will be a reading and discussion. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door.
FOR TICKETS and more information, call 773-5437 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
LONGFELLOW BOOKS, One Monument Square, Portland, will have copies of Johnson's book for sale at the Portland Club reading/discussion, and will sell the book ahead of time at a book club rate of 20 percent off to people who are participating in the event.
What she didn't know as a 19-year-old aspirant was what those vows would come to mean in her everyday life. Her vow of chastity meant she would never again be allowed to touch anyone -- not even grasp someone's hand in thanks -- for fear it would lead to a "particular friendship," the order's code words for emotional or physical intimacy.
A vow of poverty meant taking a bath with a tin cup and sharpening pencils with a knife. The vow of obedience meant blind obedience, bullying from her superiors and embracing the idea of self-flagellation. Johnson regularly beat her legs raw with a rope to remind herself of her sinful nature.
Johnson joined the Missionaries of Charity after becoming mesmerized by a photo of Mother Teresa on the cover of Time magazine. She spent 20 years as Sister Donata working in Rome, the Bronx, Washington, D.C., and Winnipeg, and getting to know Mother Teresa personally.
Johnson grew to love working with the poor. But her daily life of extreme self-denial, the squelching of her intellect and the strict rules against friendships led to a breaking of her vows (including a "particular friendship" with a priest) and a change of heart. Johnson left the order in 1997.
Her new memoir about her experiences, "An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life" (Spiegel & Grau, $27), earned a spot on Kirkus Reviews' list of the Best Nonfiction of 2011.
Johnson was born in Michigan, but her family moved to Texas when she was 12. Now 53, she lives in Nashua, N.H., with her husband, whom she met at Goddard College when they were both working on MFA degrees. She is on the board of the A Room of Their Own Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports women artists and writers.
Today, the former Sister Donata, who was once so unhappy she would hide in the basement and cry, spends her days bike riding, doing yoga, gardening and learning to play the piano. We recently spoke to her about her book and her life in the Missionaries of Charity.
Q: A big part of spiritual growth, I think, is knowing yourself and how you interact with others in the world, and some religious institutions encourage the exact opposite -- self-denial, lack of contact with others, etc. It's like taking an advanced course in college when you haven't even gotten through first grade yet. Do you think they have got it backwards?
A: I do. In a sense, you need to know yourself before you can give yourself. You can't give something you don't really have yet. I think the best gift we can give the world, really, is to be who we are, and to start off by saying we need to deny who we are, we're depriving ourselves and others of the unique gifts that we have to give to the world.
Q: Was it hard after you left the order to adjust to the outside world and allow yourself to enjoy life?
A: It was incredible. The first time my sister took me to a restaurant and put a menu in front of me, I mean, it was just totally astonishing. No one had asked me what I wanted to eat for 20 years, and there were all of these choices. I couldn't make up my mind. It took me, like, 20 minutes to decide what I wanted to eat.
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