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Tuesday
Aug092011

Reads Like A Novel

     An altruistic, unworldly teenager, who never quite "fit in," the author joined Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity shortly after high school. As an aspirant, she was assigned to a convent in the South Bronx, about as different a place from the small Texas town where she grew up as a place could be.

     The author knew she would be embarking upon an austere life, that she'd be living among the poor as the poor lived. What she could not have known was that the life of a Missionary of Charity was deliberately designed to be as full of deprivation as a life could be, not just materially but emotionally. As Sister Donata, Mary would find the fact that breakfast might consist only of Crisco on stale bread easy to get used to compared with the fact that friendships, even normal conversation among the nuns, were not merely discouraged but punished. To serve humanity, the nuns were expected to deny their own human needs. Suffering for suffering's sake was encouraged. The world of the convent was a world of rules, many of them so irrational as to border on the comical. Indeed, the nuns were encouraged to "spy" on one another and report any infractions to the sister in charge. A sad consequence of all this was that over time, many of these sisters grew to become bitter, angry and so emotionally stunted that they were probably unable to recognize the cruelty with which they treated one and another for what it was.

     Sister Donata stayed with the order for 20 years, an extraordinary testament to her desire to serve the poor, given how inwardly - and rightly - disdainful she was of many of the rules and how much she yearned for true emotional connection with others, including a sexual connection. As readers we know from the start that Sister Donata will eventually leave the order. Still the author does a masterful job of depicting the emotional, intellectual and spiritual journey that led to that decision. Remarkably, the author leaves without bitterness and retains her high regard for Mother Teresa and for the work of the order.

     Along with relating her spiritual journey, the author transports the reader to the many places where she served, which included the South Bronx, Washington D.C., Sweden and several locations within Italy, including the Vatican. The sights, foods, smells, and especially the people Sister Donata meets are described vividly. Through Sister Donata, we, of course, get to know Mother Teresa. The author provides insight into what compelled Mother Teresa to continue her work into an old age plagued by health issues. Mother Teresa appreciated the limitations of what her order could accomplish, that while it could make an difference in the lives of the poor they touched, billions would continue to  suffer.  But she also understood that perhaps her greatest impact came through her ability to draw the world's attention to the problem of poverty and inspire others to perform good deeds. Indeed, there is no doubt that her insistence that the sisters themselves lead lives of deprivation served to amplify the impact of the order's message on the global collective conscience.  The portrait she paints of Mother Theresa is of an extraordinary human being, yet one who was more than capable of arbitrary application of her orders' rules and of fixating on the trivial. In one especially cringe-worthy scene, we witness Mother Teresa giving a commencement speech at Georgetown University. Instead of encouraging the graduates to perform acts of charity, Mother Teresa uses the opportunity to implore them to remain virgins until they marry.

This is a lengthy book but so well written it reads like the best of novels. It is also unlikely to be a book you will read and forget. This memoir is not just about the author's experiences as a Missionary of Charity. It has much to say about the immutability of human nature, how the denial of our basic needs can distort the most noble of efforts, and about how religion and faith do not necessarily have to coincide.

...From Rhonda Cutler in Newton, MA.  Rhonda Cutler worked in commercial and investment banking for 23 years in the United States and Australia. In 2000, she ditched her banking career to pursue an MFA in creative writing at Goddard College and subsequently wrote a novel, The End of Bliss, which sadly remains unpublished. In late 2004, she became involved with a charter public high school, Codman Academy, in Dorchester, MA, where she served as president of its Foundation Board for a year, after which she went on staff for three years as the school's Director of Development. Although she went off staff in 2010, she remains involved with the school. She is also hard at work on her second novel. Rhonda divides her time between Newton, MA and Sydney, Australia, where she was able to find Mary Johnson's wonderful book which was published in Australia in early 2011.

     Rhonda has a BA from Barnard College, an MBA from Columbia University and an MFA from Goddard College. Rhonda served on the board of Save the Children in Australia for five years.