Spiegel & Grau ($27)
by Chris Beal
The less we think of ourselves, the more God thinks of us. —Mother Teresa, as quoted by Mary Johnson
Nineteenth-century novelists may have thrived on the theme of forbidden sex and its consequences, but in the modern era, there are few contexts in which sex is forbidden. Adultery—even the word sounds old-fashioned—along with other kinds of what used to be called “illicit” sex, is now too ordinary to be the stuff of drama. But there is one place in Western culture where all sex is still forbidden: Catholic religious orders. It is not surprising, then, that a no-holds-barred memoir by a former nun would focus on this most human of desires and her struggles to overcome it.
Sister Donata, as Mary Johnson was called, is still a virgin when she becomes a nun in 1977. She is well into her training when a very forward sister, Niobe, comes on to her. Donata relishes feeling special to someone, as well as the delight of touching and kissing. Afraid she will give in to more, she asks God to save her from this temptation, and He appears to do so when Niobe is transferred to another site. But this memoir reads like a novel, so readers know that Niobe is bound to show up again. And she does so some time later, when Johnson is in a supervisory position over other nuns. She confesses to an understanding priest, Father Tom. Gradually, she and “Tom”—he asks her to drop the “Father”—become secret lovers and again Johnson must question her calling.
After Sister Donata has completed her first year of training in New York, she is sent to Rome, where she lives during most of the rest of her twenty years with the Sisters of Charity. There she soon learns that something has been omitted from her training in New York: the discipline. The “discipline” is a rope with which a sister is to beat herself every night.
Denial of the body's needs doesn't stop there, though. During virtually all of Johnson's years as a sister, she suffered sleep deprivation, dragging herself around to each activity but not daring to ask for more sleep than her sisters were getting or to refuse on the grounds of exhaustion any task asked of her. Even sickness was looked upon as weakness, and a nun had to collapse before receiving medical attention, as Johnson did more than once.
One of Johnson's accomplishments in this book is the immediacy with which she describes experiences she had decades ago. She has somehow been able to put herself back into the frame of mind she had as a young girl, new to the Sisters of Charity, naïve and enthusiastic about helping the poor and giving herself to Jesus, just like Mother Teresa. And then she lets us see how she gradually loses that enthusiasm as she faces obstacle after obstacle. She wants to work with the poor, and loves the assignments she has when in training—especially working with children. But once she takes final vows, she is given one supervisory position after another, training junior nuns. Her goal then becomes to help these mostly young women, rather than have them fear her, as they feared their prior superiors and as Johnson had feared most of her own superiors. Through everything, her deep faith that God has called her to this profession keeps her going. She interprets everything that happens to her as a message from God and spends much effort trying to decipher what He is asking of her.
Gradually, as the order grows more politically and socially conservative and she herself more open-minded, Johnson finds herself at odds with the superiors she is supposed to obey. Toward the end of Johnson's life as a nun, education of women is even frowned upon; women are to serve and obey, period. Any exploration of new models of spirituality—for example, the enneagram—are branded blasphemy. Views of birth control or abortion differing from those of the Vatican are, of course, out of the question.
All through her time as a nun, Johnson reminds herself of the picture she saw of Mother Teresa on the front of Time Magazine when she was a teenager which had inspired her to give her life to the Sisters of Charity. She believed it was a call from God. But toward the end of her story, in a moment of anger, she regrets the day she first saw this picture; the reader knows then that her days as a nun are numbered. Another pivotal moment comes when she realizes that Mother Teresa, while eschewing all material possessions, wants more than anything to be canonized. Ambition can take many forms, Johnson realizes.
The reader can't help wondering how Johnson coped after 1997, when she left the order to which she had given her life, and an epilogue written ten years later offers some details. It would have been wonderful to hear more of that part of her story, told in the same intimate manner with which Johnson recounted the rest of her tale. But with the book already at 526 hefty pages, clearly that was not feasible, so Johnson summarizes her considerable post-convent struggles. This book is a testament that she made it through. She has written a memoir detailing a world about which most of us know little at the same time as she invites us into her journey to find both authenticity and peace.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012