One of my all time pleasures is reading. Lots of books, usually two or three at the same time. I’ve been called a bookworm, bookhound, and bibliophile.
I would call myself a bookinista-you know like fashionista. But I thought of a Spanglish term, a hybrid of “book,” and “conquista,” hence booquista, or book conqueror.
I read to momentarily escape from my world, learn about other cultures, societies, or to see things from another point of view.
Last month I had the pleasure of hearing Mary Johnson read selections from her book AN UNQUENCHABLE THIRST: A Memoir, at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena.
I wanted to read this book because I was born and raised a Catholic during the 60’s/70’s. I attended Catholic elementary and high school. When I was around nine years old, I contemplated becoming a nun. That went out the door when I turned twelve.
I was also curious about Mother Teresa and her missionary nuns. The curiosity about cloistered life was a big draw.
When I was a kid I thought all nuns were like my grammar school principal, Sister John Bosco, who carried a yardstick with her at all times and was OCD about clean chalkboards.
I never thought about how nuns dealt with their humanness or feelings of sexuality, until Sister Rose Marie ran away with Brother Peter, the Dean of Boys at my high school.
But back to the book. At seventeen, Mary felt a calling when she saw a photo of Mother Teresa on the cover of Time magazine-18 months later (Summer of 1977) she began training as a Missionary of Charity, a nun in Mother Teresa’s order.
The story has been described as a spiritual memoir and a feminist coming of age memoir.
Mary recounts her experiences as a teenager, young adult, and mature woman facing the challenges of living an austere life of poverty, chastity, and service. It takes a strong woman to serve under those conditions, ones she freely took, but persevered. After 20 years of service she leaves the Catholic Church to find her own path. It takes a strong woman to leave when your convictions guide you to do so.
This is not “The Singing Nun,” or just a diary of a woman in a religious community. Her story goes deeper, into the culture of this particular order and her responses to her experiences. This is about her own spiritual development, faltering, doubt, hope and faith.
You may have heard that the book has been called ‘anti-Catholic,’ negative, shocking.
I didn’t see it as anti-Catholic. It was Mary Johnson’s experiences with pre-Vatican II dogma that she questioned. Heck (you know I wanted to say He**, but I still remember the yardstick). I questioned that a lot too, doesn’t make me anti-Catholic.
Yes there are some experiences that surprised me (falling in love, stalked by a sexual predator subordinate, self-flagellation). But these are precisely the things that show the woman behind the blue and white sari. She speaks of these issues with candor and empathy, not as melodrama.
The memoir reads as a novel, it’s intimate, descriptive, and intriguing. The insights into the political ‘party’ of Rome, the interactions with the other nuns and the townspeople they served, and the insider knowledge of Mother Teresa herself was very engaging.
If you love reading well written insightful memoirs that give you a peek into other societies you will find this book enthralling.