This review could be called “The Erotics of Devotion”, or “Fifty Shades of Self-Affliction.” “The Unquenchable Thirst” by Mary Johnson was recommended to me by D. Greg Smith at the HIV-AIDS outreach workshop. He is a personal friend of hers. Johnson is a former nun in the order founded by Mother Teresa, where Johnson served for twenty years, rising in rank to Mother’s side. The book is the account of that experience and I am in the midst of reading it, but I don’t think I’ll change my mind about it very much. There are skid-marks on every page where I balked and resisted. It looks to me very much like just another way to pattern human desire into institutional power. I see that some define it as “extreme religion” which appears to be another way to say fundamentalist -- that is, unyielding and not necessarily reasonable.
It’s not much like my experience of ten years as a Unitarian Universalist minister. That denomination is a sort of mom-and-pop democracy struggling to be a modern cyber-startup corporation, much hindered by the independence of the membership -- when you can get them to admit they’re members or agree on what that means. I think Smith thought I would enjoy the book because of Mary Johnson’s high energy level, clear-eyed intelligence, and willingness finally to resist the tide of peer pressure. He meant it as a compliment. But I don’t enjoy reading about pressure to create self-doubt and then finally surrender. To me it amounts of a form of human trafficking. I’m with Christopher Hitchens’ opinion of Mother Teresa, which is not flattering though in the end not condemning.
But I did have five years of experience with something not unlike Johnson’s work: dog-catching. (Spell dog backwards: “god-catching.”) Rather than going out to the poor of Rome to teach them dogma (ahem) and material icons, I went out daily in a truck with a canopy, clutching a handful of slips of paper with telephoned complaints about animals scribbled on them. This was not the pious animal care of the humane society -- though there was overlap with their officers and sometimes a total conflation if they had the contract to enforce animal laws. This was not quite police work, since we were unarmed and our offenses were rarely felony level. But much of our work was “moral,” getting people to respect and protect the life around them. The individual animals -- dogs and cats, canaries and the occasional horse or cow -- were incidental.
The more one could feel that this work keeping order, cleanliness and obedience was a kind of service to humanity and a universal given, the easier the work was. If we were bitten or punched or simply insulted (AC officers have been murdered), one could give it up to the Great God of Law Enforcement (Our Lady of the Scales). The compassion was for the animals; you could say we ourselves were reviled into humility, if we could accept it calmly and just go on. Civilization has to push back against drug and poverty induced misery no matter who phones it in.
I doubt that anyone in the public or doing the work thought of it this way. Mostly complaint response feels more like the many levels of authority to whom Mary Johnson (Sister Donata) had to appeal for every small need (a pencil, some thread) and to whom she had to account for every deviation from the rules. (How powerful it must have felt for the small authorities to say, “NO, no new pencil. You don’t deserve it.”) Still, animal control has a mildly parallel sort of dynamics and it serves nicely to take the adolescent imagery of non-penetrative sex out of its religious version as well as its erotic version. What’s the difference between allowing some kinky millionaire, no matter how handsome, to spank or whip one, over against encouraging young woman to smack themselves black and blue with rough ropes or wear barbed-wire armlets as a way of submitting to God’s love? I hope that Jesus would have been shocked and repelled, affronted that anyone would do such a thing in His Name.
And yet wars are fought in the name of Jesus and I see the same pattern in the military: the dogma, the youthful surges of electrochemical ecstasy from risk, the breaking down to mindless obedience, and then the acceptance of decision-making that is measured in death and destruction. It’s something built into being human, maybe even into being mammal, something so plastic that it can be shaped by cultural institutions in many braided ways.
At this point in my posts I often change directions and introduce something new that might not seem at all relevant. Last night my movie was “Certified Copy,” a “conversation movie” where two people talk through issues. In this case it is marriage and certainty. Blessedly the two actors are Juliette Binoche and William Shimell (an English opera singer. If you don’t know him, check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JbhXzfMgps0 where he sings “Marriage of Figaro.” In the opera he has the same narcissism as in the movie, but the tables are turned: in the movie Binoche is the postulant, the lover and yearner, he is the one who turns away, cold. (Alas, he doesn’t sing in the movie.) Everything is as ambiguous, as questionable, as unresolved, as Johnson’s experience of her Catholic order. The religious grandeur of Italy saturates everything. In the movie one might think, “Oh, what a lot of fuss about nothing! Why can’t this woman just give it up? He’s just not that into you, honey!” The Binoche character wants to know whether her marriage was a true one or not, the same way that Johnson wants to know whether her calling is a true one or not. That’s the real thirst.
The director/writer of the movie throws in a curve ball: a son. An independent, rather overlooked but lively product of this ambiguous marriage, he is portrayed as sitting in front of the statue of David, unwilling to walk beside his mother but unconflicted. Here’s a YouTube review by a “kid” with the same haircut in case you are not of the generation or class that appreciates Wallace Shawn movies. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhNvLzL28cU
It is an “intellectual contortion” to use this movie as a guide to a book about “nuns.” (Which has a cover of a girl in a dress suitable for First Communion or marriage, while holding a purple flower just below her navel.) Johnson says frankly that she has trouble praying to either the Mother or the Son, though the Order requires it. She seeks the Ultimate Engulfment of the Father. But, geez, a girl would like a little better acknowledgement than a still small internal voice that triggers a serotonin flood.
Short of stuffing nuns into fMRI’s -- which so far has been done mostly to figure out what their brains do when they pray -- we’ll never know what is going on without their introspection. So far -- and I suspect eternally -- what we mostly know is ambiguous and as much a product of our own intentions as Response from the Universe. We do know that the Universe is in our heads: we think it up. Whether it can also be a transponder/receiver that transcends all senses, we don’t know. The Ultimate Goal of sex, war and holy orders is supposed to be total surrender. But that obliterates the surrendering entity, doesn’t it? All for a few minutes of engulfing bliss? A fleeting presence?
Abbas Kiarostami is the director of this film. Abbas means father. (Sister Donato, Mary Robinson’s religious name, means Generous One.) When the father at the end of the film steps away, is he refusing to fulfill his wife’s desire, or is he giving her an identity of her own? She has been dealing in antiques, many of them copies. Are human beings the real “original” beings, though we press them into categories and portraits? Or does their own capacity to create make them little versions of God?
I might not finish reading “An Unquenchable Thirst,” except that I went to the website www.MaryJohnson.co and saw vids that tell me she fell in love with another nun and then with a priest. That’s not in the part I’ve read so far -- it’s not a “shade of grey” I’ve come to yet. So I guess I’ll go on. After all, there’s a happy ending. She marries a perfectly nice human being (male).