As a secular Jewish girl growing up in 1960s Brooklyn, I was fascinated by the nuns who swooped into our public school class on Wednesday afternoons to gather Catholic students for two hours of weekly religious instruction. The Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of Our Lady of the Rosary of Sparkill, New York ran St. Edmunds, a gothic church and girls prep school plunked down in a middle-class Jewish and Italian neighborhood. The austere majesty of the nun’s black habits and wimples convinced me they were teaching my classmates esoteric things and I felt envious.
With her powerful and compulsively readable new book about her 20 years with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, Mary Johnson has satisfied my own unquenchable thirst to lift the veil and see how nuns really live. Although I was always frankly a bit suspicious of Mother Teresa and annoyed at her position on abortion, I was shocked at the life she created for her nuns. The order’s near-medieval austerities included self-flagellation, severe prohibitions against any human touch, rigidly controlled daily schedules, eating what the poor ate, and physically hard labor.
Poignantly portrayed is19-year old Mary’s yearning to create a pure, authentic, and meaningful life by serving the poor. She joined the order in 1977, the same year I started down a parallel secular path—to make the world more just by working for women’s rights. The grand goals and culture of the 1960s were gone and it was hard for intelligent, strong-willed young women to know how to contribute. I identified with her desire for ideological purity and a totalizing living experience that embodied one’s values.
Mary goes through a rigorous process to become Sister Donata. A very spiritual person with insuppressible leadership qualities, she follows her instincts for compassion or right action, and invariably breaks the rules and takes the punishment. Heartbreaking is her belief that she is not working hard enough to be a good sister. She constantly tries to be obedient but cannot eliminate her critical thinking. Her attempts to subtly reform the order’s foundational text and internal politics are inspiring and doomed.
The sexually naïve Sister Donata also has confusing connections with a predatory lesbian nun and her caring confessor, Father Tom. She is courageous and honest in portraying these relationships. Ultimately it is love that propels her out of the order—not specific love of one person, but love of life and freedom.
I highly recommend this intimate, multi-layered portrait of a woman’s life—it will be released in mid-August 2011. As a writer and one of the founders of AROHO—A Room of Her Own Foundation, perhaps Mary Johnson has found her current vocation in encouraging all women to write and tell their truths.
...From Debra L. Schultz in Brooklyn, NY- http://debthink.typepad.com/debthink/ Dr. Debra Schultz is a historian and the author of "Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement" (New York University Press). She is a founder of the Soros Foundation’s International Women’s Program and served for ten years as its Director of Programs. She has taught history and women’s studies at the New School, Rutgers University, and Laguardia Community College, and was a CUNY Graduate Center Writing Fellow. She is currently working on memoir and creative nonfiction related to her international work.