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"A heartfelt, personal story of the gradual awakening of a woman who comes to see that preferring the 'human to the perfect' does not alienate her from authentic spirituality but allows her to live more fully."

Kathleen Norris,
author of The Cloister Walk


CHAT: Darlene Chandler Bassett Interviews Mary Johnson

Darlene Chandler Bassett, founder and president of A Room of Her Own Foundation, and Mary Johnson. photo by Richard StartzmanOn my way to Los Angeles to record the audio version of An Unquenchable Thirst, I stopped in New Mexico to visit my friend Darlene Chandler Bassett. Together, we began A Room of Her Own Foundation in 2000. Ever since, Darlene has been tracking the progress of my memoir, watching as I struggled to put my experiences on paper. We decided to let readers eavesdrop on a conversation. Sitting back to back, connected by instant message, we engaged in a session of dueling laptops on January 14, 2011. Typically, Darlene began by jumping right in.


Darlene:  Mary, in your memoir your mother says, “’God made you the eldest, which means He wants you to help your mother.’”  You go on to say "Predictably, I'd grown up thinking of myself as unlovable and of my worth as defined by what I could do to help others.  I also nurtured more than a little resentment."  Help us understand who that 19-year-old girl was who decided to follow Mother Teresa.

Mary:  Ah, that 19-year-old me.  It wasn’t always easy to get in touch with her as I wrote--she could be very elusive.  She is very idealistic, and really smart, voted Most Likely to Succeed by her high school class, but that doesn't mean a lot to her.  She knows her brain doesn't earn her any friends--in fact, being smart seems to make friendship harder.  She never felt really accepted, always on the outside, and that feels miserable.  She doesn't think anyone should have to feel that way, so when she hears Mother Teresa say, "Loneliness is the greatest poverty," that reverberates with her.  She wants to devote herself to something that matters, and she thinks Mother Teresa can teach her to love.  I could go on about the nineteen year old, but the question I really wanted to explore wasn't, “Why did this girl join the convent at 19?”  The question I wanted to explore was, "What happens once she gets there?"

Darlene:  Okay, you are in the Missionaries of Charity, following Mother Teresa there.  Is it safe to say that few MCs had as close contact with her as you?  What was your relationship with Mother Teresa?

Mary:  Many sisters interacted with Mother more than I did.  The MCs officially began in 1950; I joined in 1977.  Mother was most frequently in India; I spent most of my time in Rome.  That said, I was perhaps the sister who had studied Mother Teresa’s writings more than any other.  I was acknowledged as an expert on her spirituality, and was sent to convents all over Europe to explain her teachings.  I was entrusted with the preparation of sisters for final vows and with rewriting some of the fundamental documents of the Missionaries of Charity.  I think I may have understood some of what Mother was thinking more than most of the sisters, but I'm not really sure anyone understood Mother all that well.  Mother was a very private person, and when her letters to her spiritual directors were published, everyone was surprised.  Mother hid a lot of what was going on inside her, and she didn’t seem to allow herself the luxury of sharing her inner life with any of the sisters.  I did see Mother for at least a few days each of the twenty years I was a nun, and more frequently during the fifteen years I spent in Rome.  I traveled with Mother on three occasions, and it's certainly fair to say I knew her better than most sisters did.

Darlene:  Was Mother Teresa your spiritual mentor?

Mary:  While I was a Missionary of Charity, whenever I had a problem or a question, I always turned to the Gospels and to Mother's writings first.  When Mother was around, I sometimes asked her advice, but we sisters never got as much time with Mother as we would have liked.  That said, my whole existence as a nun was filtered through Mother Teresa's understanding of what God expected of a Missionary of Charity.  From Mother I learned to value each individual, though I eventually came to see that Mother often valued people more for the fact that each person represented Jesus than for any inherent value in the person--which was one of the main flaws I saw in Mother Teresa's spirituality.  Mother often seemed to value people as a means for her to encounter Jesus, rather than valuing people in their own right.

Darlene:  "Sometimes embracing your suffering is the only comfort."  Both the metaphor and the physical manifestation of suffering are explored widely and deeply in your memoir.  How did you rationalize your suffering while you were with the MCs?  How has your thinking changed since then?

Mary:  Suffering was central to Mother Teresa's spirituality.  The Missionaries of Charity existed to satiate the infinite thirst of Jesus on the Cross for love and for souls.  Mother believed that by embracing our suffering, we united ourselves to Jesus.  Since Jesus saved us on the cross, our suffering became redemptive when united to his.  She often told people, "Suffering is the kiss of Jesus."  Mother didn't distinguish between suffering that can destroy or diminish a person and suffering that can challenge a person to grown spiritually.  I think there is a distinction, and I don't think suffering should be sought in itself.  Suffering is a very complex reality and alleviating suffering is normally a good thing.

photo by Richard Startzman.Darlene:  The discipline and sacrifice demanded of the MC sisters seems unthinkable to me, yet you write, "Being close to God was the most exciting adventure in the world."  Can you help readers both Catholic and non-Catholic reconcile the two?

Mary:  Imagine it:  The creator of the universe looks upon you and chooses you for a very special mission.  You are his partner.  God needs you to do something in the world.  This is very heady stuff, and you start interpreting everything that happens to you as coming from God.  Someone brings you groceries--God sent this person.  A poor person shows up on the doorstep in need of food and clothes--God both waits within that person to receive your love, and God gives you the grace and strength and material goods to fulfill that person's needs.  Further, this life is a test and preparation for a life of eternal bliss.  Talk about an exciting adventure!  On another level, MCs were sometimes posted in exciting places and we got to meet incredibly interesting people.  Life had purpose.  Every moment had meaning.  Never mind that it was hard--that was part of the adventure.  There's a part of me that's always been drawn to a challenge.  The Missionaries of Charity are like the Green Berets of the Catholic Church.  A few good people, chosen, trained, sent into dangerous spots to do important missions.  So much depends on the stories we tell ourselves.
Darlene:  So, as you say, it didn't matter that it was hard, but at one point you wonder whether the "exhaustion and stress" weren't somehow a strategy "to keep the sisters in our places," going on to say that "resting would look self-obsessed."  I remember feeling exhausted and famished along with you when you were with the MCs.  Do you think you realized then how difficult it really was?

Mary:  Oh, yes, there were times when I was truly exhausted, stretched almost beyond the possible.  This is that distinction between suffering that can make us stronger and suffering that diminishes us.  When a person is truly exhausted, famished for human intimacy, misunderstood, and without opportunity to offer a truly creative contribution, things have obviously gone too far.  Working with the desperately poor while also living a poor life can be very draining.  I do believe the MCs sometimes used exhaustion to keep sisters in their places.  Sisters got depressed, had breakdowns of various sorts.  And we were always told, "Offer it up.  Jesus suffered more.”  Did I realize then how difficult it was?  Well, at a certain point, I said, "No more."  And towards the end I frequently asked for rest.  I knew I couldn't keep on as I had been.  

Darlene:  You say that a big part of the "most exciting adventure” is being God's partner.  Upon taking your final vows you became the spouse of the crucified Christ.  Yet, with all of the other MC sisters you felt like you were part of a harem.  You wrote, "I wanted to be a partner.  I wanted to count for something."  Weren't you really a jealous wife?  How could that have ever worked out?  

Mary:  The whole partner thing is strange in the MCs.  Before I joined the sisters, I’d often felt close to God.  I used to talk to God and we'd sort things out together.  Like when I was in the fourth grade and trying to decide whether to play the cello or the flute, God and I had long conversations about this.  In the end, he said,  "I like them both.  You choose."  When I joined the sisters, there was no longer any space for God and I to decide things together.  My superior spoke in the voice of God, and she made all the decisions.  She hardly ever asked what I thought about anything.  I felt more like a slave than a partner.  Yes, I officially had the title, "Spouse of Jesus Crucified," but I received all my marching orders from my superiors.  God and I could still talk, but the superior always had the last word.  That's what I mean when I say it felt more like a harem, and the superior was the head wife.

Darlene:  Father Tom, the priest with whom you had a love affair, says to Sister Donata, "This business of superiors who speak for God sounds scary to me."

Mary:  It was very scary.  But we were taught that it was the way of holiness.  When Tom told me that it sounded scary, he was the first person who had said such a thing to me since I'd joined the sisters.  It was like a breath of fresh air and common sense.  With Tom, I could say what I thought, and know that what I said counted for something.  I started to feel a sense of partnership again, at least intellectually, because Tom cared what I thought and didn't mind that it contradicted what my superiors said.

Darlene:  During your time with the MCs you experience for the first time both lesbian and heterosexual sex.  This is somewhat shocking; after all, as readers we hope for some sexual sizzle--but you offer up a bonfire!  Which relationship did you think was the most romantic?  Did you experience both lesbian and heterosexual love?

Mary:  Romantic--that's a term with lots of meanings.  I think I had three very romantic relationships while I was an MC.  The first was with God.  God made me feel special in the beginning, and gave little signs of his love, some of which made it into the book, and some of which didn't--like on my twentieth birthday we had Kix cereal for breakfast--we NEVER had cereal, but that day we did, though no one there knew it was my birthday and that I’d prefer cereal to the usual stale bread.  But the romance with God died after a while because things just got so very, very hard.  Then a sister showed me that I was special to her.  Niobe was the first person who ever told me that she loved me, and I was swept off my feet.  But when that relationship turned manipulative and I saw that she didn't respect me, then believe me, there was no more romance in that.  The relationship with Tom started off with an attraction that I think both of us felt, but didn't acknowledge for years.  We were friends for a very long time before there was any overt expression of sexuality.  Eventually when we did begin to express our feelings, we had already established a very strong bond of respect and love.  There weren't many opportunities for romance, but we took what we could find.  Part of what made any sort of relationship with another person in the convent so electric was the fact that it was all so forbidden.  We weren't supposed to have friends, much less lovers, and we were always in danger of being discovered.  Whether the person was male or female didn't really matter in several senses--it was all forbidden, every thought, every word, every look, every touch.  Which made sex in the convent very hot.  And very confusing.  And -- well, that's part of why I wrote the book.

Darlene:  "Particular friendship" is the euphemism for relations that cross the boundaries within the MC sisters.  Should "don't ask, don't tell" be considered for religious societies?  Are "particular friendships" inherently a danger to the integrity of closed groups?

Mary:  Closed groups often fear intimate relationships between individuals.  Your example of the military is very apt.  I think that friendships are very important, and that intimate relationships, whether they have a sexual component or not, are some of what makes life worth living.  Groups have to find a way to balance the need for group cohesion with the legitimate human needs of their members.  This is always tricky.  But when members of a group vow chastity or celibacy, as priests and nuns do, things are complicated even more.  You want to remain faithful to the promises you make, but you feel these human longings.  You are told that you can't serve God in an official capacity within the Church and have an intimate human relationship.  Most people find that very hard at a certain point.  I think priests more often have relationships on the side than do sisters.  Don't ask don't tell is one way they've been dealing with that, but it really doesn't work.  If it's a relationship between a priest and a woman, the woman gets strung along way too often.  What is needed isn't "don't ask, don't tell," but the option to both serve and have a relationship.  There are priests in the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church who are allowed to marry--this is a far better approach, I think.  Sisters will never be allowed to marry--the vow of chastity is essential to that way of life.  But many communities of nuns, especially in Western countries, are more relaxed about nonsexual friendships than the MCs are, and I think that’s a good thing.  There’s also a place for new communities where people could both serve and have honest, open, loving, intimate, committed relationships.

Darlene:  We have all heard of abusive priests, but you encounter an abusive nun.  Are the Church's justifications for tolerating these abusers the same for the nuns as for the priests?

Mary:  Abuse should never be tolerated, and there are no real justifications.  Part of the problem is that in official Catholic teaching, EVERY sin against chastity is a mortal sin--there are no gradations in seriousness of matter between indulging an inappropriate sexual thought and adultery--it will all send you to hell.  There is inadequate appreciation for the fact that some sexual sins harm other people, and that those are actually worse.  Plus, Catholics are taught that the Christian thing to do is to forgive.  I'm sure that when Mother Teresa kept giving an abusive sister another chance, she thought it her Christian duty to forgive, the way Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery.  Jesus in the Gospels was never too concerned with justice.  Mother Teresa was the same.  But I think a mature person has to be concerned with justice, with the consequence of our actions, and not just with our intentions.  With priests, the Church has been too often concerned not with what a priest might do, but that his private actions—whatever they may be—never become public.  Sins could be forgiven, but scandal could do irreparable harm to the Church's reputation.  I'm still not sure the Catholic Church has really woken up to all the implications.  It's very sad.

photo by Richard Startzman.Darlene:  Did your ability to write about sexual desire and sexual encounters surprise you?

Mary:  Writing about sex wasn't really what I set out to do.  But I knew that I wanted to encourage people to talk honestly about their own experiences, and that the only way to do that was for me to start talking honestly about mine.  Sex is a part of human life.  Too much harm has been done by not talking about it.  I just decided to do it.  I think the fact that I had struggled with sexual desire and had spoken honestly about it in confession was a first step.  I often had to tell myself not to flinch when I decided to write about my sexual experiences in a place where the entire world could read it.  The first time I wrote about sex was in an essay I mailed to my MFA advisor, Kenny Fries.  After I sent that packet off, I wrote an email to Kenny asking him not to read what I’d sent.  He emailed back, "Ah, so at last you've written something worthwhile, have you?"  I decided to let him read it, and I just kept on trying to be honest.

Darlene:  It's ironic that your story risks being discredited precisely because of its remarkability.  What would you say to others who have stories that remain untold because of the threat of being judged too incredible to be true?

Mary:  We have to tell our stories with honesty.  People will believe us or not.  We have no control over that.  I understood early on that people who were ready for my story would recognize it as true and that people who weren't ready to hear it, people who needed nuns to be perfect, people who didn't want to see the flaws in the system, would call me a liar.  I wrote to help move the discussion along.  I know that everyone's not ready to hear what I have to say, but some people are.

Darlene:  "It's not that I'm better than them, it's just that, well, I know more about some things...I had built a reputation for myself as a person who made insightful intellectual distinctions, but now I was being asked to leave the judgment-making to others."  Is there any place for an intellectual in the MCs?

Mary:  The Missionaries of Charity can always choose to be more open to thinking about issues connected with their way of life, and I hope they will.  Until now, though, they've mostly chosen to look at issues "with the eyes of faith," rather than with reason, and this clouds their vision because faith can too often say whatever any individual wants it to say.  Signs always have to be interpreted.  A person can't argue with faith.  As long as the MCs remain a very hierarchical organization relying on faith without allowing reason a place at the table, then those in authority can't be questioned and the power players will maintain their influence.  Politics doesn't stop where religion starts.  They're connected, whether we want to admit that or not.

Darlene:  The Regina Mundi Affair and the theory that education destroyed vocations is a very disturbing look into the MCs.  Doesn't this limit the prospects for sisters who could affect healthy change in the MC Rules?
Mary:  Yes.  MCs are trained to be humble, and to never question.  It's impossible for an organization like that to grow.

Darlene:  You have shared with us in the Epilogue that your incredible journey includes your passage from passionate devotion to God to thinking of yourself as an atheist.  Help us understand how your atheism isn't yet another rejection of authority that began in 1997 when you left the MCs.

Mary:  Letting go of God was one of the most difficult, painful things I've ever done.  God had been the center of my life for so long, the concept that formed the core of my worldview.  God had been connected with so many good things in my life.  I'd had many wonderful experiences of being carried out of myself into something I experienced as larger than myself.  But I gradually came to understand that what most people call God wasn't a concept I was willing to sign on to anymore.  It no longer seemed intellectually honest to hold on to a construct that didn’t seem to correspond to reality, even if the story offered me comfort and purpose.  I discovered and continue to discover new sources of purpose and meaning, sources that feel more honest to me.  Once someone told me that I lacked one of life’s essential skills:  I had never learned to lie.  I have sometimes told lies, have acted lies, but I can't stand myself when I've done that.  I have no peace unless my external and internal realities align.  I'm not a person who can tolerate cognitive dissonance.

Darlene:  "I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation.  With all respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us."  Marilynne Robinson

Mary:  Yes, I find so much mystery right here, and it's wonderful.  I love mystery.  I think one of the most important abilities a person can have is the ability to live with mystery.  We don't have to have an explanation for everything.  When I say that I don't believe in God, it doesn't mean that I have everything figured out.  It means that I'm unwilling to give an explanation to anything merely for the security of having an explanation.  I enjoy letting things be what they are, without tinting them with a meaning I impose on them--though of course we all do that to a certain extent.  I try for the most immediate encounter with reality that I can have, and I really enjoy that.

Darlene:  What, if anything, could have kept you in the MCs?

Mary:  At that time, if I'd had the freedom to have more intimate relationships, if I'd had the chance to make a more creative contribution, I might have been able to stay.  The way I framed the dilemma to myself was, "If I can be myself as an honest MC, I will stay."

Darlene:  Much has been made of the revelations of Mother Teresa's "dark night of the soul.”  There is even an "authorized" version by Father Brian, an MC priest, in his book Come Be My Light.  You write that you "worry" about all the talk of Mother Teresa’s dark night and the impact it could have for the MC sisters as well as the poor.  Why?

Mary:  If we think that God is pleased when we suffer, that the "agony" Mother Teresa described as the state of her soul is something that pleases God, then we won't do anything to alleviate that suffering.  I saw too many sisters who were told that their depression or their illness or their loneliness was a way to be close to Jesus.  These sisters were told to "offer it up."  The same with the poor.  It's dangerous.  

Darlene:  Mother Teresa was perhaps the most powerful antidote in the public relations scramble to save the reputation of the Catholic Church from ruptures caused by abusive priest.  With her death, what do you see as the future of the Church?

Mary:  The Catholic Church will write its own future.  I hope that the problems caused by abusive priests will be the occasion for a close, honest examination of the system, but I can't say I'm overly optimistic.  The Catholic Church is not easily amenable to change.

Darlene:  You wrote that with the MCs you felt you belonged for the first time in your life.  After you left the MCs you attempted to form a community with two other ex-MCs in Texas.  Ten years ago you and I created A Room of Her Own Foundation to help women writers tell their stories and a vibrant community of women has grown around our vision.  How have your need for and your definition of community evolved?

Mary:  I no longer need a community to feel good about myself, but I do feel a need for human connection, and I think community is a wonderful and necessary part of a good human life.  AROHO has become a community of brave, honest women committed to telling their stories and making art, and I am at home with these women.  They let me be myself, and are happy that I'm myself, and we create a beautiful experience together, much better than working all alone.  Writing can be a very lonely occupation.  Living can be very lonely.  AROHO is a remedy for that.  One of the great pleasures of my life now is working with and for this community.  I think we've done a great thing, and I'm very proud to be part of the AROHO community, a community that's still growing and changing and challenging its members.