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The Salve Of Secrets- A Women Peers Into A Secret Life

“Mother Teresa would have called my secrets blasphemy,” Mary Johnson writes in the introduction to her spiritual memoir An Unquenchable Thirst, “but I call them freedom. I even call them love.”

I met Johnson at AROHO’s Summer 2011 Retreat, which brought together 90 women writers. On the closing
 night, she read from her book and gave each of us a copy, one month prior to its publication. We were in on her secrets.

Johnson, formerly Missionary of Charity Sister Donata, examines every aspect of her twenty years of yearning towards good in the proximity of Mother Teresa, replete with the challenges one would expect of the archetypal Heroine’s Journey: adulation of an idol, despair at the disparity between ideal and reality, growth through adverse conditions, and a final confrontation between one’s idol and oneself. Add to that a number of unexpected rogue and essential sensual blossomings, and you may find yourself up till 3 a.m. reading, as I did.

As I inch determinedly towards self-actualization, I am drawn to the kind of unapologetic and gritty reflections about the female psyche that Johnson provides in An Unquenchable Thirst. She satisfied for me answers about an alternate life I secretly fantasized about as a kid, when my family lived on an Illinois commune where spiritual ideals were betrayed. My mother, one of ten children in an Irish Catholic family, never hesitated to recount the hours she spent being rapped across the knuckles and dragged around by her hair the nuns of her childhood. In direct rebellion to that upbringing, she raised my siblings and me to be “free.” But the commune too ultimately had its own share of contradictory teachings and abuses; we left after five years, completely disillusioned.

Even after I finished graduate school, I kept an image on my wall of a group of vestial virgins, their veils trawling off their shoulders, a cascade of blossoms in their arms. Surely sisters, true sisters in a convent, would, in their daily contact with God, be loving, have better answers.

My friend writer Mary Allen and I used to drive through the snow to New Melleray Abbey for weekend retreats, plunking down a duffle bag with clothes and a blank journal, throwing tarot cards on the brown bedspread in hushed whispers, waiting to be booted out like teenage girls. As a visitor, it was easy to assume a convent lifestyle would be rife with hours of peace.

In An Unquenchable Thirst, Johnson describes precisely that kind of postcard scene: “For Sunday recreation Sister Fatima sometimes let us first-years loose in the field behind the aqueduct—twenty women in white running, jumping, singing, chasing each other through the field. We plucked wildflowers and waved oleander branches in the air when we processed back to the convent, where we laid the flowers at the feet of Our Lady’s statues.”

Into the landscape of Sister Donata’s assumption that if she just works hard enough she’ll be able to help others and grow closer to God and Mother Teresa come a cast of devastatingly selfish Superiors working the system to their own ends without checks and balances. Though these Superiors seem bent on crushing the joy out of Sister Donata at each turn, Johnson trains her focus equally on Sister Donata’s own perceived shortcomings. Little by little her wish, “to get as close as [she can] to the heart and mind of Mother Teresa,” comes true, revealing Mother’s predicament as a global public figure in constant demand, health failing.

Through Sister Donata’s access to Mother Teresa’s correspondence, we learn of a great number of “letters from Mother begging Superiors to be kind to their sisters.”  While she falls in love with Mother Teresa on paper, Sister Donata struggles to reconcile that Mother Teresa with the one capable of doling out annihilating judgments such as, “Your problem is that you like to be consulted.”

The trespasses in An Unquenchable Thirst, which stemmed from power abuse, from superior to subordinate sisters, didn’t surprise me. I felt the variations of physical seduction and longing Johnson unflinchingly detailed present as reverse trespasses—in several cases subordinates seducing “up” to their superiors, which changes the dynamic, but doesn’t change the reach of the inner devastation one can inflict upon oneself when passions rear and one acts unexpectedly on those impulses.

I remain inspired by Johnson’s frank tracking of the things she told herself along the way. I’m grateful she stumbled on at least one person who broke through to her and made her see the value of loving herself. To keep secret the seductions, in my opinion, would have been an unnecessary modesty. I think the revelation of her secrets will save lives, metaphorically, if not literally, and I’d expect her to hear from grateful sisters struggling with their own sensual selves as well as their isolation.

One of my favorite moments in the book occurs when Johnson describes her arrival in New York. Clutching only a box of her possessions on her lap: she “flinched as the trains rushed past, then marveled at their jackets of neon graffiti.” I also enjoyed the cheeky personality of the young Sister Donata. Horrified when she learns how Mother Teresa’s feet came to be so curled, so deformed, she allows herself the thought, “Nowhere do the Gospels record that Jesus ate pine cones or deliberately chose sandals too small for his feet.”

I can see An Unquenchable Thirst on the shelves of The Women’s Spiritual Archives (a library I dreamed of several years ago) along with The Book of Margery Kempe and the illuminated manuscripts of Hildegard of Bingen, only An Unquenchable Thirst would be filed in the “reality” section. And I mean that as a compliment. It is a book about love, delivered with love.

The day after the AROHO retreat, while waiting for my flight home, I ran into a fellow retreat attendee. “I am almost finished reading Mary’s book,” she said, and whispered, “But it was so intense, I left it on one of the bookstores shelves here at the airport.”

Her reaction made me all the more curious about the book. As was true of many moments at AROHO’s summer 2011 retreat, I felt this random act a perfect metaphor for the feral intersection of our 90 collective hearts and minds. You never know what will happen next when you give, and give deeply, of yourself.

I kept imagining a customer, several hours after we’d all boarded our planes, approaching the counter with An Unquenchable Thirst. The confused airport bookstore clerk, trying to locate a listing on her computer and discovering that the book had not yet been published. Did the clerk sell the book, pocket the $27, and use the cash to buy a nice dinner? Did she shrug and allow the customer to walk off with book in hand, no charge?

Or did she slip that crisp hardbound volume into her purse at the end of her shift. Only to find herself up til 3 a.m., unable to sleep after living vicariously through Sister Donata’s trials. Examining her life for the times she, like Sister Donata, had taken risks, been silenced, found a way to love. Asking herself, have I gone the distance? Will my dreams deliver? What might my secrets offer the women I love?

...From Tania Pryputniewicz, cross-posted from AROHOSpeaks: Writer to Writer Blog Tania Pryputniewicz’ recent poetry has appeared on-line at Autumn Sky, The Blood Orange Review, Connotation Press, andLinebreak. Her debut photo/poem montage “She Dressed in a Hurry, for Lady Di” (set to the music of Scriabin) was hosted by The Mom Egg this spring. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is the poetry editor atThe Fertile Source and documents the process of mothering while writing at Feral Mom, Feral Writer. She teaches in the English Department at the Santa Rosa Junior College. Mind Stretch, Small Group, and Consultation Contributor.