Saturday, 11 January 2014

Puzzled - Wondering - Disturbed

I recently read a book - a 'horrific' (for me) and challenging book. It connected me with my 'old' self (and therefore partly still self) as well as raising life and theological questions big time. 

The book is An Unquenchable Thirst, a memoir by Mary Johnson who was a Missionary of Charity (Mother Teresa's community). It is over 500 pages, and once I began, I couldn't put it down until I had finished it - even though I was feeling sicker and sicker as I read. Literally. Once I had completed it, I cried and cried. Then I looked her up on the internet and found a page about the book and wrote her a brief note in a private comments section. Second sentence - "I feel really sick," I leaped up, grabbed my blue bucket and towel I'd had handy in case,  and vomited. That is how powerful the book was and is. And I am not a barf-type person. It is many, many years since I have done so. Can't even remember when.

So - what is the power of this book? I wrote a few paragraphs it for myself first - and it's more personal than I am willing to share in a blog. 

I hope I'm not in trouble for sharing part of Mary Johnson's story. I need to say up front that she felt called by God as a quite young woman (about 18) to join the Missionaries of Charity. To give her life to God and to serve the poorest of the poor. She loved God. She loved her Sisters. When I told Jim, my brother, how ill reading the book had made me, he asked me why I'd kept reading. My response: "I HAD to."

I suppose if you want to, you can read the book. You may not feel you need to - and unless you were a nun in the 'old' days, maybe it won't have any of the same shocking and disturbing effect. Most communities have grown with our understanding of the human person and community life and our understanding of God. I don't know what the MC's are like now. I know SSM has grown.

After all these years of hard work in therapy and simply growing in understanding, I look back and see some of the unconscious reasons I joined SSM. 

The unconscious, folks:  I was terrified of growing up. Of having a body. Of being a woman. Of letting anyone close to me emotionally when I couldn't know myself. All of the above originated in my terror of people dying suddenly and abandoning me - or sending me away. Walking a tightrope. Life and death. A God that I believed (had to) could be controlled with prayer if I just prayed hard enough. Well, someone had to be in charge and I'd learned early on that neither adults nor God seemed to be in charge - able to protect vulnerable children ...  So - three year old Ros did what three year olds do in chaos - they imagine themselves responsible for everything and everyone. No one else is. Someone has to do it if we are to believe we can survive.

Like Mary, I also loved God and wanted to serve. I loved my Sisters. Still do. It wasn't all about being broken and not knowing it. I see it as part of God's plan - except that I used to believe God's plan came to us from outside ourselves - and now I don't. "Tell me what to do!" "Tell me what you want!" "Tell me - just tell me - and I'll try to do it or not do it so I can feel safe." Guess what!? It doesn't work!

In later years I found some helpful quotes;

"I found God in myself and I loved her. I loved her fiercely!"  Still working on that :-)

"God speaks in your gut. Listen."

Oversimplifying, of course - and not the whole story... but a start.

The old way - which btw had begun to change by the time I arrived in the religious life in 1967 - and may never have been so negative - was also what I held in my unconscious and was, therefore, in some way seeking. Deny the body. Walk -more like a glide, hands folded in sleeves. Nothing showing except face and hands. It was what I needed to hold me together. And it did. So, I don't blame community. And yet, community needed to grow. And did. And does.  Yes, I was also angry. Anger isn't blame - though I probably didn't know the fine distinctions then. :-( I felt I was dying - and I was - but life can come from death.

It's so complicated. Haiti was part of my undoing - because in Haiti people have bodies. Life is real and earthy and challenging and transformative. The poverty and inequalities of life brought long-buried anger closer to the surface. But I was GOOD. Or trying desperately to be. I began to realize I had a mind - but it took a long time to speak my mind AND accept that there is more than one way to do something. 

When I had my 'breakdown' - there were lines that held me...

Psalm 139.
 O Lord, you have searched me and known me. 
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away. 
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways. 
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely. 
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
   and lay your hand upon me. 
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
   it is so high that I cannot attain it. 

7 Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence? 
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 
9 If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast. 
11 If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’, 
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you. 

"A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out... (till he has brought justice through to victory.)"  Matthew 12.20

Threads to hold onto in the Pit.

Back to An Unquenchable Thirst:

Disturbing questions for me.

The Sisters (MC) used the discipline. Cords with which to beat themselves. (See the 1980's movie, The Devil's Playground, and the interpretation which we would find elsewhere that the discipline is an act with sexual under or overtones.  They wore an arm band and/or waistband that cut into the flesh as discipline of the body. 

I felt I needed to suffer. And a theology of my time in our community was "Offer it up." Well, Jesus suffered way more than I did, didn't he? ... it suited me... my theology was also poor. I don't need to go into the reasons it suited me. It's enough for me to know. We each have our own stories of suffering - and why we sometimes ?? set ourselves up to replay our stories until, if we're fortunate enough and willing to work hard enough, we find a measure of healing. Whether it's re-creating abuse or chaos or crisis-creating when things get calm ... whatever it is it's likely what we know how to live with because we grew up with it.

Mother Teresa did amazing work. Something Beautiful for God, as Malcolm Muggeridge wrote.  Mother Teresa was way human as well. I don't understand it. Maybe I should. But some of it feels evil to me. And again - there are connections ... questions ... one can be a saint without being perfect. It's the human saints that touch me and encourage me. Who struggle on. Like Anne Lamott - who probably wouldn't call herself a saint. Like Jean Vanier who knows his own weaknesses and wouldn't of course, call himself a saint. P'raps the saints are the ones who were abused as children and held on (I can think of some) - or were institutionalised and are still able to love. 

Mother Teresa never spoke of herself in the first person. She called herself Mother in conversation. Weird. Sisters who cried were chastised for 'just looking for attention." That one resonates big time for my three-year-old Rozzie. Except tears have other purposes. And are real. And btw, sometimes we DO need attention - especially when we're 3 and feel the world is falling apart. 

Illness was often not properly taken care of. Holidays?? Not that I could see. Days off - I don't see that either. Getting enough sleep ever? Nope.  Power struggles. Unbelievable power struggles at the top and in mission houses. Outright cruelty. 

Where do power struggles come from? Maybe from our own insecurities? P'raps when we're able to stand somewhere and be ourselves, in our weakness and our strength, we don't have to enter into them. 

P'raps we can even learn to rejoice in others' gifts. P'raps we can rejoice in our own gifts and share them without fear of being put down by someone else who is insecure. 

I received such a gift - about three sentences - from one of my former Sisters (who is still my Sister in the deepest sense) about my writing. A beautiful affirmation that she had known long ago that I could and would write. Long, long before I knew it myself, actually.  That is grace. That is love. That is community. 

Question - why do we have to LOOK for suffering? Suffering comes. Suffering is part of life. Are we sooo bad that we have to deny ourselves any and every comfort? That's not grown-up. That's a small child's approach when we feel we are very, very bad. I was 43 when I allowed myself a teddy bear (having given my Bear-Bear away to my cousin at age 2). What a good girl I was - sadly. I found that one of our children with leukemia was dying, and I went out to La Baie that night and bought a teddy bear, told myself it is alright  to be comforted, and Emily Millicent (my Gram's name) is still a comfort.

Is there not enough suffering in caring non-stop for the poorest of the poor? Do there have to be disciplines as well? No attachment to anyone or anything? Shifting beds regularly, even, so you don't become attached to a place or space. 

HOW, I ask myself do we love others if we do not love ourselves? How do we even love God if we don't love ourselves and believe God loves us imperfect as we are? I wonder if Mother Teresa had loved herself, and treated her sisters affectionately (in a healthy way, obviously) if she might have known God's comfort sometimes during those 50 years?

And you know what REALLY scared me? Mary suggested (after Mother Teresa had had several heart attacks) that p'raps she (MT) could allow herself to slow down a little. The response? MT shouted "I CAN'T!!!"  Oh, God. What a terrifying way to live. Anyone else hear echoes of that in your own ministry? I did and do - though being half-retired (sort of) helps.

She, and the community leaders knowingly life professed at least two Sisters whom they knew were sexual predators towards younger and/or more vulnerable Sisters. (Please note: this is not about being lesbian, it is about manipulative, overt, shameful abuse.)

So what is it about this book? Comments welcome. Enough for today. I'm crying - and it's not just to get attention! I'm crying because I was touched by the message from Sister Marjorie Raphael, and that I was known way back then before I knew myself. I'm crying because what was an issue in community many years ago is an issue in our church today - we share very little of our successes and strengths. Are we afraid of being put down? 

I'm crying because I was heard, as well as able to listen. I had the most amazing meeting the other day. I was really worried about it. It went so well, I practically danced home. Something I've worked so, so hard on for quite a few years has moved a step farther towards justice. 

There is so much wonder-full stuff going on out there in our church - diocese - tell me a wonder-full story someone. Someones. Dance and rejoice and share! Please. I promise I will rejoice with you.


  1. Sounds very powerful, Ros, in a sad kind of way. I recently read the book on Mother Teresa's private letters, which reveal decades of inner depression and darkness, with no sense whatsoever of the presence of God. Here's a Washington Post article about the book. I would imagine there would be some link - tho twisted - between her inner state and her outer practices. Thanks for your openness in sharing, as always. (N. F.)

    1. thanks nancy. I read it. I really wonder - a saint - yes - but some pretty awful and sad approaches to life, humanity, to her Sisters and how they lived.

  2. I met you when you were at your absolute darkest- and to me, you were a bright beacon of light. I always knew you would write-because you knew WHAT to READ! (I used to write volumes- now I just want to live...) I don't think God wants us to MAKE ourselves suffer as a lesson or to become closer; God suffers enough through our lives, and takes on our suffering when we ask and when we let God in. There is no "fair" in life; and First World suffering will never compare with Second and Third World suffering. But there is faith; there is human dignity; there is compassion in our world and "their" world. I used to think holy was uplifted and spiritual. The holiest thing I have ever done is wash my father's body after his spirit left; it was with absolute love and absolute joy that I made him ready (with my sister) for the family to sit and say goodbye. And I did not have grief for months because that holy feeling uplifted me in my soul, and still does. I like to think that Mother Theresa and her congregation had moments like that when a simple act of love and dignity and CONNECTING sustained them from the daily grind of overwhelming poverty and disease. You have known me in so many of my dark, dark moments; that should have been a dark day in my life, yet it is a point of light that so often sustains me. I think so much of your ministry to the poor, the abused & the voiceless is made possible by your ability to pierce the darkness and understand that other eyes see it as Light.

    1. Thanks :-) Love always to a wonder-full friend.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Ros. I don't think I want to read that book, but I will read your blogs!

    1. :-) Funny - once I'd written it, I put the book away. It's enough.

    2. Long lost cousin.....found!!!! Lost no more. I read this blog with sadness......I feel your life direction took a wrong turning somewhere. I don't know you as well as others, but through your blogs have come to learn of your life. There is a nurse in you somewhere!!!
      I was taught by nuns......worked in Papua New Guinea surrounded by nuns. Some were great and we became friends. Others I always felt resented the fact that I was a lay person in such a large religious community. I felt they envied my freedom to come and go as I pleased to visit the villages and friends outside. Some were downright nasty but in a very subtle way!!!
      However as a nurse from the age of 18 I grew to have the life experiences that would have helped them understand people's lives better. I was no shrinking violet.....I would argue the toss.....I would question their thinking and ways. Was I the devil's advocate???? Was I placed there for that purpose....I would like to think so. I was a mature person with life experience in a place with people without it!!!! To be sure It sometimes got to me but hey ho there was a job to be done and nurses to train.
      In the physical sense I was very well looked after by the sisters but mentally and emotionally I had to keep a tight hat on. I often ask if they were "glad to see the back of me" more long debates regarding sociology, phsycology or even biology.
      God deals with us as he sees fit and we have to "bloom where we are planted". He expects us to love one another as he loves us. If we don't love ourselves as he loves us how on earth can we love anybody else!!!! Show love and it will be shown back.
      But my philosophy in die if you worry - you die if you don' why worry. Enjoy life!!!

    3. Hi, Ann. Not a wrong turn. A journey with bends in the road. The 'negatives' were only part of the story. I loved the religious life, I loved my sisters, and the life prepared me through prayer, and all that it brought for the inevitable break-down that was waiting to happen. Life came out of it all. I think in many modern communities, communication of emotions including anger is much improved, and people are more rounded. You got the sense of it, though! We'll get together again next time I come across the pond. :-)