Many forget that the church is an institution . . . a theocracy is just another power play
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
Mary Johnson

Convent politics are an old genre. I remember reading them in high school when they tended to be intermixed with the issues of WWII, all the passion and debris of human aspiration and suffering. They made great movies, esp. all those crippled and emotionally shattered men and the angels in white who moved among them. And then, later, who can ever forget the evil nun of Louise Erdrich’s tales of the rez and their dueling sorcerers?

An Unquenchable Thirst about Mary Johnson’s struggle to survive in the religious order founded by Mother Teresa is interesting because it IS about Mother Teresa -- such a puzzle, that woman -- and because it’s against the backdrop of the modern crisis of the global Catholic church as it tries to hold its configuration in a molten world. So many forget that the church is an institution: the furnace and not the fire; the stove and not the heat; a means for managing something quite inhuman that humans seem able only to touch glancingly. How does one “manage” (MAN - age?) a community of good intentions without sliding into hardship, jealousy, political plotting, and self-destruction? How does one prevent devotion from becoming narcissism? Lying on a cold floor on one's face with arms extended doesn't seem to do it. Anyway, for a temperamental loner like me, the looser the community, the better. Imposed discipline? Perish the thought. It always comes back to individual versus group.

Mary Johnson was raised with biological sisters, loves sisters and shines among them. This provokes an opposite and unequal reaction from certain others. I share her predicament in one aspect: she is too useful to be discarded, but too problematic to be wholly embraced. A person in this teeter-totter position can strive to get in -- which is what Mary did -- or decide to leave -- which is also what Mary did. In addition, one can make camp on the boundary, which is sort of what I do.

The dramatic Sister Cruella in this story -- surely Niobe is a pseudonym and her appearance is disguised -- ignores the community circle and draws her own bull's eye around herself. If she were a man slamming women up against walls and forcing her tongue into their mouths, she might be arrested. (Well, maybe not in Italy. Or the military.) Priests, some of them, do it neither physically nor sexually but by slamming anyone “lesser” with their institutional power. By the time we get to the end of the memoir, we hear the cry of the rapist and child molester, “Don’t tell! Don’t tell or I’ll kill you.” Mother Teresa, with a hidden dark heart, rather openly sucked up to all the popes and it worked. I am deliberately putting this in near-pornographic language, because I think that’s what it is. I think this book IS quite a bit like “Fifty Shades of Gray.” Titillating. Revealing little secrets that everyone knows already anyway.

Mary Johnson’s body fought her all the way through her career with excessive vaginal bleeding, mono, sinus infections, etc. so it seems only fair that her body, responding to what I must say is ordinary human affection (hugs), began to take her out of this constant circulating through Stations of the Cross. But in the end it was her mind she valued and her talents she used -- exactly the aspects that took her into achievement and jealousy -- then took her out and probably will do exactly that all her life. As it does with all of us. In, out. It moves.

Stepping out of Holy Orders doesn’t mean escaping into the world any more than Taking Vows was a safeguard in the first place. It’s like marriage: Sometimes the wedding takes hold and sometimes it’s the divorce that works. What’s troublesome is wedding vows, heartfelt intentions, tenacity of dedication, that works but in a marriage so destructive of one’s identity that a technical divorce is granted -- but the heart won’t let go. When I said, “But I vowed until death do us part!”, a minister counselor suggested, “The death was the death of the marriage.”

The Christian claim is vegetative: that there is no death, only transformation -- all corpses are compost. Jesus is just the Green Man in disguise and vines will grow out of his torn open side, his half-closed eyes. (If I’m Christian at all, it’s in a Celtic way, with a nod to St. Patrick.) Is it possible to design an institution that is truly organic, that doesn’t chop and mutate and make Roundup Ready until machinery crushes all the poetry and dancing out of the wild seed? It appears that there’s always an interplay: the pendulum goes one way and then the other. One comes out of the other. Mary’s next forty years will be produced by her past forty years.

One could easily accuse this book of being a drama queen’s account with very little in it about why people are poor, what society must do to prevent extreme poverty, what poor people are really like, what helps the poor here and now -- and yet the whole point of being a nun is supposed to be to help the poor. What in this account helps the poor? All that obsessing and confessing? Aren't the poor the point?

Seems like it’s meant more to help over-romantic young women who haven’t really thought about the grit and grunge of nun-hood. If a priest said to me, as one said to Mary, that nuns should not be educated because then they will want to leave, I realize the same as Mary did, that in some ways she was no better than an 18th century Mississippi slave and I would shed my chains, prongs or no prongs, just as she did. (The sisters self-afflicted for penance by wearing chains with prongs that dug into their flesh.) But Mary Johnson is now in the jaws of agents and publishers. They don’t want prescriptions for helping the poor -- such books don’t sell. It was easy to take a vow of poverty when someone else fed, clothed and housed her, no matter how poorly.

I still don’t understand how a shriveled and wrinkled little old Albanian woman with a heart laden with depression, a fetish for suffering, (and a LOT of money she refused to spend on the poor) can emotionally or spiritually seduce a woman like Mary Johnson. Was it the fact of being on the cover of Time magazine? Was it the prizes for peace? I conclude the irresistibility wasn’t in Mother Teresa at all, that she was a construct of the culture for its own reasons, so nations as a whole need feel no responsibility for their poor as long as they can push that off onto religious institutions defined as sort of service NGO’s, like the Lions. Then government can ignore the vital and moral demand of the Holy and Sacred by maintaining a separation between church (institution) and state (institution) and by defining virtue as obedience to institutions. This is NOT meant to be a pitch for a theocracy. It is meant to show that a theocracy is just another power play.

Two pop forces address this dilemma. One is the real image of dystopian refugee camps, people heating cans of beans over little campfires in front of tarps rigged up as tents. The other is the horror images: the zombies, the werewolves, the vampires -- the invasion of the “Other” smelling of brimstone. A theology or a theologically-based institution that doesn’t bring misery and sin and the uncanny into the circle will not succeed. So tell us something we don’t already know. What WILL succeed? I’m hunkered in this doorway thinking about it.

Mary Scriver is a writer living in a small village at the edge of the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. She has been an English teacher, a famous sculptor's wife, a Unitarian Universalist minister, an animal control officer and a clerical specialist for the City of Portland. On her eclectic blog she posts a thousand-word essay daily on almost anything, including religion and sex.

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