Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Authors
Books
Features
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • An Unquenchable Thirst
  • Written by Mary Johnson
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780385527484
  • Our Price: $16.00
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - An Unquenchable Thirst

Buy now from Random House

  • An Unquenchable Thirst
  • Written by Mary Johnson
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9781588369864
  • Our Price: $11.99
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - An Unquenchable Thirst

Buy now from Random House

  • An Unquenchable Thirst
  • Written by Mary Johnson
    Read by Mary Johnson
  • Format: Unabridged Compact Disc | ISBN: 9780307876133
  • Our Price: $50.00
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - An Unquenchable Thirst

Buy now from Random House

  • An Unquenchable Thirst
  • Written by Mary Johnson
    Read by Mary Johnson
  • Format: Unabridged Audiobook Download | ISBN: 9780307876140
  • Our Price: $27.50
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - An Unquenchable Thirst

An Unquenchable Thirst

    Select a Format:
  • Book
  • eBook
  • Audiobook

A Memoir

Written by Mary JohnsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Mary Johnson



eBook

List Price: $11.99

eBook

On Sale: September 13, 2011
Pages: 560 | ISBN: 978-1-58836-986-4
Published by : Spiegel & Grau Random House Group

Audio Editions

$50.00

Published by: Random House Audio

Read by Mary Johnson
On Sale: September 13, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-87613-3
More Info...

Read by Mary Johnson
On Sale: September 13, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-87614-0
More Info...
Listen to an excerpt
Visit RANDOM HOUSE AUDIO to learn more about audiobooks.


An Unquenchable Thirst Cover

Bookmark,
Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - An Unquenchable Thirst
  • Email this page - An Unquenchable Thirst
  • Print this page - An Unquenchable Thirst
ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PRAISE PRAISE
READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY KIRKUS REVIEWS

“A candid, generous, and profound spiritual memoir that deserves a great deal of thoughtful discussion.”—Anne Rice

 
At seventeen, Mary Johnson experienced her calling when she saw a photo of Mother Teresa on the cover of Time magazine; eighteen months later she began her training as a Missionary of Charity, a nun in Mother Teresa’s order. Not without difficulty, this boisterous, independent-minded teenager eventually adapted to the sisters’ austere life of poverty and devotion, but beneath the white-and-blue sari beat the heart of an ordinary young woman who faced daily the simple and profound struggles we all share, the same desires for love and connection. Eventually, after twenty years of service, Johnson left the church to find her own path, but her magnificently told story holds universal truths about the mysteries of faith and how a woman discovers herself.
 
Includes new material: Two reading group guides—for groups that wish to take different approaches to the book; a conversation between Mary Johnson and Mira Bartók, author of The Memory Palace; and Mary Johnson’s recommended reading list
 
“A wonderful achievement . . . Johnson opens the window on a horizon of spiritual questions [and] takes an unflinching look inside her own heart.”—The Christian Science Monitor
 
“An incredible coming-of-age story . . . [It] 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.”—Slate

“Reads like a novel . . . an exacting account of a woman growing into her own soul.”—More magazine
 
“Engaging, heartfelt and entertaining . . . [Johnson] articulates her struggles with her God in words that will hit home.”—Los Angeles Times
 
“An inspiration that transcends any particular religious belief . . . An Unquenchable Thirst is a journey that captivates, but its resonance lies in the life examined.”—The Denver Post

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Day One

Summer 1977

South Bronx, New York City

The cardboard box on the rack above my bus seat held what was left of my possessions. In a few hours they would belong to God, and so would I.

I watched the street outside, mesmerized as cars wove through eight lanes of traffic. On a billboard, an electric blonde advertised cigarettes, then suddenly morphed into a giant banana flaunting a reed skirt and long, dark eyelashes.

"You been to the city before?" A man with a black T-shirt waved his hands, brushing my shoulder with his too-broad gesture. He stared, waiting for an answer.

"Yes, I was here in January."

"Really? You look like you never seen a city before. Where're you from?"

I shifted in the seat. Was it supposed to be this personal between passengers on buses in New York?

"Texas."

"Texas?" The man was loud. Other people in the bus turned their heads to look. "What's a kid from Texas doing in New York?"

I wasn't a kid. I was nineteen and I'd just finished a year in the honors program at the University of Texas, with good grades. I didn't see why I should explain to a loud man on a bus that I was in New York because the only thing I'd been thinking of for the past year and a half had been coming to this city to give myself to God. But not answering would have been rude.

"I came to see some sisters."

"Oh, you got relatives here." He seemed satisfied, but his conclusion wasn't accurate.

"Not those kind of sisters. Catholic sisters. Nuns."

"You're coming to New York City to see nuns?"

"To become a nun."

He drew in a whistle as his eyes traveled my body, perhaps looking for some sort of deformity, or maybe, if he was Catholic, a halo. I possessed neither. I didn't expect him to understand. Even my family didn't understand.

The man grew quiet, and I grew less tense. Soon I didn't see the buildings or the billboards anymore. I saw Mom, Dad, my five sisters, and my brother all lined up on the tarmac that morning, waving their eldest off. Four-year-old Heather's hand had never stopped waving-only she seemed to understand the joy of my adventure. Kathy, just thirteen months younger than I, had cried most of the night. She'd said, as she had for weeks, "Mary, you're wasting your life." I'd told her that I'd chosen the best life possible, a life of love, but that morning she'd refused even to look at me. Mom waved but didn't smile. She'd been so insistent that I at least finish college. I'd explained that when God calls, you don't put Him on hold, but she didn't get that, either.

It had been even worse when Dad had taken me to the airport in January for the preliminary week the sisters called "come and see." The plane was delayed, and while we sat waiting, he put his hand on my knee and looked into my eyes, then at my suitcase, the floor, then me again, without saying anything. When tears began to puddle in his eyes, he left without a word or a glance back.

The bus jerked to a halt at Grand Central Terminal. I reached for the rack above, but the man in the black T-shirt saw me and lifted the box before I could. "Best of luck, kid," he said as he placed the box in my hands, then added under his breath, "Pray for me, okay?"

I nodded and smiled, edging my way along the aisle. I told myself to be more careful about judging people in the future. As I stepped off the bus, a wave of heat slapped me-not the familiar heat heavy with refinery fumes and Gulf Coast humidity, but an undulating heat of asphalt, steel, and bodies. I looked for the man in the T-shirt, but he was gone. All I saw were swarms of people-hurrying, determined people who all seemed to know where they were going.

I knew where I was going, too. I'd taken a taxi in January, though the first three cabs to stop had refused to venture into the South Bronx. This time the sisters had sent directions, and I'd memorized them: shuttle bus to Grand Central, the #5 subway, a five-block walk. God, I prayed, lead me through this scurrying city. Lead me to You.

I walked down steps that smelled of urine. On the platform, I flinched a little as trains rushed past, then marveled at their jackets of neon graffiti. I clutched the strings on my box. I'd heard stories of men with knives on subways, and lately the evening news had dwelt on the "Son of Sam." The serial killer, who police said believed he was possessed by the devil, shot women with long dark hair. My hair was sort of dark but short. According to Walter Cronkite, women in New York had bought out the city's entire stock of blond wigs and were on the verge of panic. God, take care of me. I'm working for You now.

When the #5 pulled up, I found a seat and cradled my box. A suitcase would have been easier, but the sisters had said they didn't use them, or purses, either. I'm going to live free, I told myself, like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.

The heat and the crowds and the news stories had made my stomach queasy. I checked my pocket for the envelope I'd safety-pinned there- my passport and money were safe. I'd collected the $700 from my summer job as a technical writer, my savings, and money from selling my French touring bike and electric typewriter. The sisters had insisted on money for airfare to return me home if things didn't work out, or to send me to Rome if they did.

My friends had thrown a "penguin party" for me a week earlier, a beach party-"black and white dress required in honor of Mary's new wardrobe." These public school classmates of mine didn't even know my nuns wore white saris trimmed in blue, yet they squatted around the campfire debating the odds of my perseverance. Some claimed the girl who took on the school board in editorials was constitutionally incapable of a vow of obedience, that a star of the debate team, known for humiliating her opponents, wouldn't last ten minutes in a convent. Others countered that I was the kind of person who, once she decides something, will see it through, even if it means taking the layouts of the school newspaper home with her, working on them all night, strapping them to her bicycle the next morning, and delivering them personally to the printer to avoid missing a deadline. They said once I put the habit on, I'd die in it.

I enjoyed confounding their expectations. These were the people who had voted me Most Likely to Succeed. I wondered if they knew how little that title meant to me. That gathering on the beach was only the second party I'd been to since moving from Michigan when I was twelve. My first act at my new junior high had been to speak to a group of kids in a corner of the gym. Seconds later a spitball smacked my head and I heard-as did everyone else-a boy on the bleachers shouting, "Nigger lover." No one, not the five black kids at school nor the seven hundred white kids, accepted any of my approaches for the next three years. When I started earning debate trophies some of my teammates began to tolerate my presence, and Kathy and Kelley and Monica seemed to enjoy working on the newspaper with me, but boys continued to spit on me on the bus, where I was the only rider over sixteen. My classmates all had cars or hitched rides with friends. The penguin party was a nice gesture, probably prompted by their curiosity about my choices, but I doubted these acquaintances understood my outsider's pride in values beyond the mainstream. They didn't know the secret thrill I felt on the streets of Austin when, watching couples walk hand in hand, I savored my relationship with the Creator of the Universe, who shared my every moment, awake or asleep. They didn't know that living the gospel of poverty and love with God constituted real success.

I got off the train at Third Avenue and 149th Street and began the five-block walk from the subway to the sisters' house. Pulsing Spanish lyrics pushed thoughts of home away. A fruit stand hawking ma and papayas caught my eye, until I sensed boys in front of an electronics shop eying me. I shifted my box nervously from hand to hand. God, keep me safe, I prayed.

A train passed overhead. Kids my own age break-danced under the el, their boom box momentarily overpowered by the train. The smell of hot dogs increased my nausea. I stepped around some broken glass and turned onto East 145th Street. My heart beat a little faster when, midway down the block, I spotted a three-story building behind a high brick wall, barbed wire coiled at the top, a small sign to the left of the gate: Missionaries of Charity. I opened the gate and stood before the door. I swallowed, and hesitated just a moment.

I juggled the box, smoothed my hair, then rang the bell, my hand trembling. Staring at the door, I saw Heather's last wave, Kathy refusing to look.

Dear God, I prayed, please send someone to open the door.

I set the box on the sidewalk-and the door swung open.

A short, dark woman with puffy cheeks, a blue apron over her white sari, smiled at me. "Welcome," she said. The door clicked as she shut it behind me.

Sister Rochelle took my box and nudged me up a short flight of stairs toward the chapel. "Say hello to Jesus," she whispered.

I knelt on the rough carpet. A large wooden crucifix hung behind the altar, with two words pasted on the wall next to Jesus' head. When I read them, I felt as though Jesus spoke those words directly to me: I thirst.

I'd barely begun my silent prayer when Sister Rochelle said, "Come now. We'll take your things." She led me upstairs, climbing quickly. I heard chickens clucking. Nuns keeping chickens in the South Bronx-what surer sign of self-sufficiency and disregard of convention could I have asked for?

"This is the refectory for you aspirants," Sister Rochelle said as we entered a room with a long wooden table, benches on either side. "These are your plates." She pointed to a bookcase marked with numbers cut from calendars. Above each number sat a large white enamel bowl with a small plate, an enamel teacup, and a saucer. Everything was simple, clean, orderly. Above the shelf a plaque read, The Aspirancy Motto: He must increase; I must decrease.

"There are going to be twelve of you," Sister Rochelle said. "You are number nine." There'd been nine of us at home. Nine was a good number.

Another bookcase stood nearby. "Your Bible goes here. Number nine."

She took me up another flight of stairs. On the landing, we set my box down in front of a large wooden bookcase with a sheet hanging over its shelves. Sister Rochelle pulled back the sheet to reveal clothes folded more neatly than any I'd ever seen, each little pile above its own number.

"Number nine?" I asked, and she nodded.

The next door led to a room with a slanting ceiling, a linoleum floor, and thirteen cots crowded close, with barely room to walk between them. A bare bulb hung from a black wire, and simple muslin curtains covered the lower halves of the room's three small windows.

"This is your bed, number nine." Sister Rochelle smiled again as she patted a thin mattress in the corner. "I hope you brought your sheets," she said, and I nodded. "The dormitory is a sacred place and no talking is allowed, but your mistress will tell you all that."

Sister Rochelle headed for the stairs. Over her shoulder, she said, "Now unpack your things and feel at home." Already halfway down, she added, "The bell will ring soon for adoration."

I sat for a moment on bed number nine, eager to absorb the quiet. The attractions of the convent were pure, minimalist, essential-life without the additives. Everything about the convent seemed to proclaim: Only God matters.

I was stacking my clothes on shelf number nine, as neatly as I could, when I heard footsteps. A tall woman with straight, shoulder-length brown hair and sparkling green eyes rounded the corner.

"Hey, Mary!" she said, stretching out her hand. "Sister Carmeline told us to expect another aspirant today-I'm so glad it's you."

"Louise! Great to see you." Louise had been in charge of the catechism program at St. Rita's Church, just next to the convent, and we'd met in January. She was just a few years older than I-a recent graduate of the University of Virginia-and played the guitar at Mass. Her hand was warm in mine. "What's an aspirant?"

Louise laughed, throwing her arms up in the air. "I'm developing a new vocabulary. We're aspirants because we're aspiring to be sisters, or something like that."

We walked together to the dormitory, and Louise pulled back the blue and white checked bedspread on number nine, revealing a homemade mattress, not more than an inch and a half thick, resting on the cot's iron netting. As we stretched out the bottom sheet, the smell of fabric softener reminded me of home. "You mean you're joining the sisters, too?" I asked Louise. "I thought you'd decided not to."

"Yeah, well, I talked to Sister Andrea about it a lot. It's been great to work in the parish, but I do feel something missing. I want to give God everything, and I guess it's worth a try." Louise pushed the tiny pillow into my way too big pillowcase and fluffed it up as much as she could. "The sisters are excited that we'll be the first group of aspirants in the U.S. Till now they've only had a few American vocations, and they've all gone to London for aspirancy."

Suddenly a short woman stepped up so close that I nearly lost my balance. A finger to her lips, small crucifix pinned to her blouse, she shook her head with its closely cropped black hair and whispered with a light Hispanic accent, "The dormitory is a sacred place. We do not speak in the dormitory."

I froze, but Louise shook her head and laughed lightly. "Sister Elvira," she said, "this is Mary. She's just come, and I think we ought to say hello."


From the Hardcover edition.
Mary Johnson

About Mary Johnson

Mary Johnson - An Unquenchable Thirst
MARY JOHNSON joined the Missionaries of Charity, the group commonly known as the Sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, at age 19. Mother Teresa trusted her and she rose quickly in the ranks. Mother Teresa sent Mary to study theology at Regina Mundi, a pontifical institute aggregated to the Gregorian University in Rome, where she received a diploma in religious studies, summa cum laude. For fifteen of Mary Johnson's twenty years as a sister, she was stationed in Rome and often lived with Mother Teresa for weeks at a time. After leaving the sisters in 1997, Johnson completed a BA in English, summa cum laude. She subsequently received an MFA in Creative Writing. She also married. A well-respected teacher and public speaker, she has led retreats, workshops, classes, and training sessions of various kinds for nearly thirty years. She currently teaches creative writing and Italian to adults and is Creative Director of A Room of Her Own Foundation's retreats for women writers.
Praise

Praise

“A candid, generous, and profound spiritual memoir that deserves a great deal of thoughtful discussion.”—Anne Rice

“A wonderful achievement . . . Johnson opens the window on a horizon of spiritual questions [and] takes an unflinching look inside her own heart.”—The Christian Science Monitor

“An incredible coming-of-age story . . . [It] 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.”—Slate

“Reads like a novel . . . an exacting account of a woman growing into her own soul.”—More magazine

“Engaging, heartfelt and entertaining . . . [Johnson] articulates her struggles with her God in words that will hit home.”—Los Angeles Times

“An inspiration that transcends any particular religious belief . . . An Unquenchable Thirst is a journey that captivates, but its resonance lies in the life examined.”—The Denver Post

Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

A Conversation with Mary Johnson

Mary Johnson sat down to discuss An Unquenchable Thirst with her longtime friend Mira Bartók, author of The Memory Palace, winner of the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography.

Mira Bartók:
I’ve often thought of the writing process as a kind of monastic experience. You spend long stretches of time alone, wrestling with the angel of creation and sometimes with your demons. Writing also requires an immense amount of discipline and sacrifice, not unlike being a sister with the Missionaries of Charity. I couldn’t help wonder, while I was reading your book, whether or not you found some similarities between these two dissimilar vocations.

Mary Johnson:
I do find some similarities. As a nun I had to censor myself all the time, and as a writer I get to speak my mind, but the ritual of writing and the introspection that it requires are familiar to me from my time as a sister. I usually write first thing in the morning, just as I used to pray first thing. To get to the best writing, I need to enter a space deep within myself, and I’m sure that years of meditation and confession prepared me to access that sort of naked honesty. I like that now I can eat more dark chocolate, the elixir of many a good writer.

MB: Is there anything that you miss about life as a nun?

MJ:
I miss my sisters. I miss the shared purpose that comes from living so intensely in community. Sometimes I miss the simplicity of having only two sets of clothes, but most days I love having choices.

MB:
Speaking of choices, before I began my memoir, The Memory Palace, I kept trying to write other things, but I eventually realized that my mother’s story needed to be told. I’m curious to know if you started with the intent of writing An Unquenchable Thirst or if you tried to write something else but your memories of life with Mother Teresa got in the way.

MJ: I knew I wanted to write about the Missionaries of Charity, but I didn’t start out telling my story. Marilynne Robinson read one of my early pieces, an essay about my experience as a sister, which was an immense privilege. More than a decade later Marilynne told me that she’d never forgotten that essay because it was the only piece of autobiographical writing that she’d ever read that abstained from the use of the first person singular pronoun. As a good sister, I had obliterated the word “I” from my piece. I wrote about Mother, about the life of a sister, about the poor. It took a long time before I realized that I needed to write about me.

MB:
Since your book came out, have you heard from anyone you knew before you left the order? If so, what has their response been?

MJ:
I don’t imagine that sisters are encouraged to contact me, but those who have written are mostly concerned that I’ve lost my faith. Father Joseph phoned me when I was still working on An Unquenchable Thirst. We had several long, beautiful conversations. He died shortly before my book was published, and I feel that loss very keenly. Sister Prema, the current Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity, told a journalist that my book was an opportunity for the sisters to examine themselves—probably the best reaction I could have hoped for. Sister Priscilla died two weeks after the book came out—when I heard, I worried that my not-always flattering portrait of her might have killed her. Several former sis ters and brothers told me my book has helped them come to terms with their own experiences, and that their friends and families understand them better after having read my story.

MB: If you could go back and give your nineteen-year-old self advice, what would you say?

MJ:
If I could, I’d tell my nineteen-year-old self, “Mary, I know you think God wants you to do this, but isn’t it a rather strange God who would give you a mind and a will and the ability to connect deeply with others, then ask you to renounce these gifts? Is that the sort of God you want to dedicate your life to?” I would hope that teenage Mary might reconsider, but I have my doubts.

MB:
If I had known you back then, I would have suggested you start keeping a journal to help prepare you for becoming the writer you are now. I’m so thankful that I kept all my old journals because I constantly referred to them while working on my memoir, particularly because, as you know, I suffer some memory loss from a past brain injury. Was it difficult for you to remember your past, given your limited access to writing materials with the Missionaries of Charity?

MJ:
In the convent we didn’t have journals, but neither did we have distractions—no TV, radio, newspapers, novels—just our own little lives. As sisters we reviewed those lives all the time: examination of conscience twice a day, confession every week, general confession at the annual retreat. I had plenty of opportunities to commit my experiences and thoughts to memory. Also, my parents had kept my letters to them—imagine how excited I was to discover twenty years of letters in old shoeboxes and files! As I wrote my book, I was also able to tag events in my life to the public records on Mother Teresa, which helped me work out the chronology. My memory had a lot of help.

MB: Mary, rumor has it that one early version of An Unquenchable Thirst was around a thousand pages! I read part of an earlier draft of your book and when I read the final version, I was struck by how many amazing scenes you had cut. How did you decide what to cut? Did you have help along the way?

MJ:
My MFA advisor Sarah Schulman told me to write everything down before I forgot it, so I did, during my MFA work and for several years after that. My other MFA advisor, Kenny Fries, kept insisting that my manuscript be no longer than 250 pages, but, de spite his advice, I ended up with this behemoth of a first draft, mostly dialogue, because that’s what comes to me first. My husband and I read through everything—yes, all thousand pages—then marked what each of us thought could stay and what could go. I called this Mary’s Unquenchable Thirst Fat-Reduction Plan. My editor, Julie Grau, and her assistant, Laura Van der Veer, helped make it even leaner, and my agent, Dan Conaway, was a huge support al ways. I’ve got enough outtakes on file to fill another book, if I wanted to.

MB:
I always tell aspiring writers to cultivate a supportive artistic community, otherwise you run the risk of writing in a vacuum. I think it’s also crucial to champion others, especially emerging writ ers. Would you mind talking about the community of writers at AROHO (A Room of Her Own Foundation), the nonprofit organization that you helped found to support women writers? How significant a role do AROHO women play in your writing process?

MJ:
I think you and I are especially supportive of other writers— you through the tremendous resources of your Mira’s List blog and I through AROHO—because we’ve each experienced our own need for support. Darlene Chandler Bassett originally founded AROHO to help me write An Unquenchable Thirst. That she believed in my story meant everything to me. That women at AROHO retreats leaned forward in their seats whenever I read, that they gave me feedback on early drafts, that I found a group of local women writers unconnected with AROHO who read draft after draft of my book proposal—all of this was essential, not only to the quality of my work, but to keep me motivated during those ten long years of writing.

MB: Obviously, the name of your organization, A Room of Her Own Foundation, comes from the much-loved seminal essay by Virginia Woolf. At AROHO retreats one can feel Virginia’s vibrant spirit just about everywhere. I’d love to know which other writers, living or dead, inspire you the most.

MJ:
When I need to be urged toward raw honesty, I read Meredith Hall and Toni Morrison. When my imagination needs to be shaken loose I read Jeanette Winterson and Marguerite Duras and Gabriel García Márquez. To make my language more robust I read Rebecca Brown. For elegance and honesty, I read Joan Didion, Mary Gordon, Natalia Ginzburg, Kate Gale, Kathryn Harrison, Ruth Kluger, and Marilynne Robinson. For life guidance I read Alice Walker, Kathleen Norris, Viktor Frankl, Pema Chödrön, Karen Armstrong, and Joan Chittister. When I need to remember why I write, I go to an open mic of beginning writers with the courage to put their hearts out there. When I need a laugh I read Christopher Moore and Christopher Buckley and Caitlin Moran. For poetry in my prose I read Alessandro Baricco (in Italian). There was a time when I read St. Augustine’s Confessions every year, but now I’m more likely to turn to Sam Harris to provoke thoughts about life’s important questions.

MB:
That transition from Augustine to Harris describes your spiritual journey fairly well, but I don’t sense any bitterness in you.

MJ:
Life is too short to waste in bitterness. I just want to live and to love well. I keep growing toward honesty, toward living without illusion—it’s a great life!

MB: So, Mary, here’s my million-dollar question: What’s your next project? I’m dying to read more of your work.

MJ: I’m working on a follow-up memoir about life outside the convent walls—navigating the guilt and doubt, learning to pump gas and use a microwave, falling in love, gaining a sense of inner freedom, and building new communities. Like so many other people, I’ve abandoned organized religion, but the yearnings for meaning and purpose, strength and connection remain. I hope that my continuing journey can be a gift to folks hungry for an honest, fulfilling life beyond religion. And it won’t take me ten years to write this time, I promise!

Discussion Guides

1. An Unquenchable Thirst is a spiritual memoir, but it is also a coming-of-age story. How does the book mirror the traditional story of a feminist awakening? Do you consider Mary Johnson a feminist?

2. The narrative of An Unquenchable Thirst pulls the reader through extreme situations, intense emotions, and quietly fought battles. When did you empathize most with Sister Donata? What experiences in your life allowed you to understand some of what Sister Donata went through? Were there also times when you found her hard to relate to?

3. Discuss the book’s title. What do you think Mary Johnson was really thirsting for all along? Does she succeed in finding what she was looking for, or is her thirst inherently “unquenchable”?

4. Mary Johnson believed, as a teenager, that she was “too ugly to have a boyfriend,” then goes through a sexual awakening during her years with the MCs. Discuss the trajectory of each of her affairs, the motivating force behind them, and how they represented different aspects of romance, lust, and mature love. Can you relate to her experiences?

5. Mary Johnson chooses to join the Missionaries of Charity—and stays even when she experiences doubts—because she believes it is her calling. Discuss the concept of a having a “calling” in life. Do you believe there is such a thing? Is there a secular equivalent? Is experiencing a “calling” freeing, or can it inhibit growth? Discuss the implications of the concept as it relates to Mary’s story and to your own experiences.

6. For Mary, the lack of stimulating reading material and the lack of value placed on scholarship was one of the most challenging constraints of being an MC, and she seizes any opportunity for intellectual development and creativity. Discuss the different outlets for intellectual stimulation that Mary encounters. What does she learn from each of them, and which had the greatest effect on her personal development?

7. Mary Johnson’s trip to Sweden with Mother Teresa is a turning point in Mary’s development. How does that trip change Mary’s perspective? What does she learn about Mother Teresa, and what does she learn about herself?

8. Among the reasons for Mary’s decision to leave the MCs is her desire for intimacy and connection. Are those feelings universal? Do you think the other sisters were suppressing similar desires?

9. Mary has doubts about the way the MCs minister to the poor, questioning whether the order makes the best use of their resources and funds. What do you think the best way of giving is?


Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: