The most powerful memoirs, in my mind, are those that make you hunger for the unfolding story, crave the language, and are executed in a way that makes you feel as if the narrator is an observer, balanced, almost omnipresent, even as the most intimate of details are shared.
Mary Johnson’s memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst was this kind of book for me. As a writer myself, even if I had had no vested interest in the subject matter of Mary’s book, I would have appreciated it for its sheer craft. I found myself crawling into my bed each night, unable to stop reading. However, I had a vested interest. Like so many others, I have traveled my own complicated journey with religion, and so I appreciated Mary’s profound story, which is, by all accounts, unique, given the depth of her commitment to religious life (becoming a nun) and her relationship with the iconic Mother Teresa. And while unique, I think the story is mostly compelling because it is, at its root, a story about learning to first listen to, and then honor, one’s own, sacred, internal voice.
When I was a kid I yearned for the Catholic Church with its fractured light, incense-scented air, holy water, and elaborate altar dressing. I was raised Lutheran, on the prairie, and my home church was, by comparison, plain. At the Lutheran Church people freely talked over the pews before the service. Informal felt crafts hung from wood paneled walls. Visitors from other denominations were allowed take communion. (Why were we so flexible?) In pictures Jesus was depicted as smiling, with lambs and young children, not in blood soaked garments like at the Catholic Church. The Lutheran Church was, I thought, overlooking the glorious mystery of God.
My mom had been raised Catholic and so much of my religious rearing was flavored by Catholicism, even though she and my dad had agreed to raise my siblings and me as Lutheran. And every Christmas, because we visited my mom’s parents, we attended the Catholic Church. The formality of the Christmas services—the kneeling, the quiet, the priests draped in robes, the palpable holiness—always moved me to tears. I understand how one can be seduced by this holiness.
As my life unfolded I became more devout and ended up working as a camp counselor at a fundamentalist Bible camp. But the deeper I explored my faith, the more uncomfortable I became. I could not float easily religion’s sweet seduction without confronting complicated political and cultural underpinnings, particularly of the Catholic Church, and especially because I happen to be gay. My full story is long and not necessary to share here, aside from relating that I know how hard it is to reconcile one’s changing belief system with a deeply ingrained foundation belief system when the two aren’t aligned. And I can’t fathom how much courage it took for Mary to do so in her situation.
As Mary told her story and shared her evolving perception of the rules, rituals, and highly-legislated relationships in the convent, she peeled back layer after layer of her experience until one could see the sheer rawness of a humanity locked within paradox. That is, as we seek love and freedom through religion, we are often cutting ourselves off from both.
Reading Mary’s story was cathartic for me on many levels; somehow she delivered to me the peace of knowing that all is okay; that as humans we are capable of finding our way; that the truth does triumph (ironic as that sounds, given the connotation of “Truth” in Christianity). And Mary did so by writing a beautiful book that holds boundless wisdom, vulnerability, and humility. Her writing was an act of pure courage and art—a combination that has produced nothing short of a miracle.
Melanie Hoffert is the author of Prairie Silence: A Memoir (Beacon Press – 2013). She grew up on a farm near Wyndmere, North Dakota, where she spent her childhood wandering gravel roads and listening to farmers at church potlucks. Her work has been published in several literary journals, and she holds an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University. Melanie lives in Minneapolis and works for Teach For America. Learn more about her work at melaniehoffert.com.