If I had a personal list of the best books of 2011, An Unquenchable Thirst would be on it. Mary Johnson’s memoir of her time with Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity has everything a memoir needs: an inside look at a way of life that most of us will never see, a physical and emotional journey, and suspense of an unusual kind–the reader knows from the beginning that Johnson will leave the “MCs.” The real question is what among the various sacrifices, indignities, and disillusionments of life within the order will push her over the edge.
Mary Johnson spent 20 years as “Sister Donata” and rose within the ranks of Mother Theresa’s missionaries, working directly with Mother Theresa and with those who now run the order. She describes the calling that took her, at 19, to the Bronx to work with Mother Theresa after seeing her on the cover of Time, and she bluntly narrates the struggles that follow: her confusion over how much sacrifice one’s God should demand, her eventual regret for the physical pleasures that she left behind, and her gradual realization that moral certainty can conceal a mighty thirst for power behind a veil of sanctitude, but only for so long.
An Unquenchable Thirst is much more than a single Catholic journey, and it’s far from a book only for current or former Catholics. Johnson’s is a spiritual journey much starker and more enthralling than most. It’s a courageous and often dark book—the author is unsparing in her descriptions of her own failings and those of the women (and occasionally men) around her. It’s a sensual book that vividly depicts the temptations of a life that is not only celibate, but lived as though any unnecessary physical contact was both sinful and suspect. And in its harsh examination of what it means to want to dedicate a life to service, only to realize that the image you held of that life rings hollow after decades, An Unquenchable Thirst is an incredible coming of age story. No interest in theology necessary.