Welcome to the Beyond Belief Blog– A forum for open discussion about women’s stories finding, staying in and leaving extreme religions. Please share your story with us. This week we sit down with writer Mary Johnson whose memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst has just come out in paperback.
What interested you in contributing to Beyond Belief? Telling our stories is important, and the voices of women in religion have too often been silenced. I want to encourage people to talk honestly about their experiences with a life of intense religious faith; too often we hide behind platitudes.
What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? Writing about my experiences in the convent was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It took me ten years to write my memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst. It was stressful to revisit the painful moments, and remembering the good things sometimes made me realize how much I missed the sisters. I’d also been told that leaving the convent was a sinful thing to do, a sign of moral failure—so I had to battle a lot of shame. For the Beyond Belief anthology, I chose to write about my life post-religion—and I found that challenging as well! Good writing requires a level of honesty that we humans tend to avoid if we can.
What was the hardest part of leaving for you? Leaving my sisters behind was really hard. The Missionaries of Charity discourage communication with former members, so leaving meant I had to cut myself off from these women who had become my only family for twenty years. There were some really great women in the convent—as well as some pretty strange ones! I miss them all.
Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? I think we’re attracted to something that asks a lot of us. We’re attracted to a life of dedication, a life of meaning, a life of service where what we do matters. Problems happen when we aren’t allowed to give that life shape according to our own convictions, but allow the religion to dictate what we are to think and how we are to act. There can be immense abuse of power by people who assume religious authority.
What do you still carry with you from your religious life? I learned a great deal of compassion by working with the poor and by living so closely with my sisters. Our hours of prayer taught me an appreciation of silence and contemplation. The practice of examining my conscience twice a day helped me live with greater awareness of my actions and their consequences, and that awareness makes me a better person and a better writer today.
What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? Trust yourself. Hold on to what you know to be true, without regard for what other people say. Try to live in the reality of the present moment, without layering on all sorts of extra lenses and stories. Seek out a community where you can be yourself without fear.
Anything else you’d like to say to our readers? I’ve found that my story sometimes scares religious people. They think that because I’ve abandoned religious faith I want everyone else to do so as well. We must each be free to choose the worldview that for us most accurately describes reality. Religion is dangerous when it forbids us to think and choose for ourselves, or when it is intolerant and narrow, but religion is also a source for good in the world. I want to encourage people to tell their own stories with real honesty and to listen to each others stories with respect.
Mary Johnson’s memoir An Unquenchable Thirst tells the story of her twenty years as a Missionary of Charity, also known as the Sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. An Unquenchable Thirst has just been released in paperback. Mary’s spring tour will take her to Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Placitas, Santa Fe, and New York. She’ll also lead a weekend retreat in May at Kirkridge Retreat Center in Bangor, Pennsylvania, examining the topic “Who am I? This I Believe, This I Hold Dear.” Mary is Creative Director of A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Retreats for Women Writers. For more information, visit www.maryjohnson.co