Friday, April 13, 2012


I have been reading An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson, which is a memoir of her 20 years as a sister in the Missionaries of Charity (the order founded by Mother Teresa).  Like all monastic orders, the MC's have a Rule which governs the life of those dedicated to its mission, and this Rule is based on vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.   Poverty can mean anything from no curtains to changing where you sleep every month.  At the heart of this vow is Mother Teresa's insistence that one not forget the poor.  Chastity is interpreted as not touching another person, avoiding particular friendships, and embracing virginity.  Here, the primacy is put on intimacy with Jesus instead of with another person.  Obedience means that the voice of your superior is the voice of God; this is meant to teach submission to the Absolute.  As Mother Teresa often says, "Let God use you without consulting you."

Rules are funny things.  While they are meant to convey the practical application of a whole-hearted motivation, they can easily become a substitute for the larger, more generous concept behind them.   One of the stories in the book relates how, in her later years, Mother Teresa repeatedly requested to step down as General Superior of MC due to her diminishing energy and health issues (3 heart attacks).  Despite her insistence that another person be found to fill the position, the council continued to elect her as their overseer.  Johnson tells how at lunch one day, when she was recounting an anecdote to Mother Teresa in which Johnson's grandfather suggested that the aging nun should take a rest, Mother Teresa responded with an exasperated, "I can't!  It's the will of God!"  Because the council had elected her, she was bound to obedience, no matter what toll it took on her health.  Alas, Mother T found herself caught in the Rule, unable to break free from a task she was increasingly unable to perform. The Rule had become a tyrant instead of a servant.

The same thing can (and has) happen in my life.  I have at times been so dedicated to the rule of truth (believing the right thing) that I have sacrificed the dignity of others and thrown love under the bus.  Truth became a Rule instead of a Person invested in the freedom of others.  I have also been known to be so focused on the rule of responsible living (being a faithful person) that I have ignored the needs of others and registered disappointment in those who don't share my values.  Faithfulness is a response to the Faithful One, not a whip-cracking, whistle-blowing tyrant.  I have also used my level of sacrifice as a standard (rule) with which to measure others, expecting them to get in line and do likewise.  Generosity will never grow by demanding or even stealing sacrifices from others.

Jesus said that he didn't come to negate the Law (Rule), but to fulfill it.  That means we don't throw chastity, poverty, and obedience out the window.  Truth, faithfulness, and sacrifice are cherished values to God, however, the Rule must never be given the status of tyrant, pulling our strings like puppets, regardless of the state of our heart.  Any rule that is meant to serve a bigger purpose must always give way to the bigger purpose when it needs to.  All through the scriptures, we see God's mercy triumphing over judgment and Jesus offering forgiveness to unfaithful rule-keepers.  Holiness is not found in a Rule.  It is found in the presence of Jesus.  Where God is, there is holiness.

Jesus fulfills the Law by embodying all the purposes of the Law.  He is Love embodied, he is Sacrifice embodied, he is Truth embodied, he is Life in communion with God embodied.  He is the three-dimensional, perpetual model of what it looks like to belong to God.  And two-dimensional Law must bow before his personification of that intention.  Not the other way around. 

the photo:  Sheriff''s office in Pioneertown, California.  Closed.


Shelley said...

yes. and as you say, this is trickier than it sounds, isn't it. I like consistency and knowing where things lie - this makes me want rules to win the day. That way I can just blindly follow. Jesus managed to always focus on the spirit of the law - it's purpose as you say. Living like that takes thoughtful consideration, not just blind obedience and enforcement!
This book has a lot to think about in it, doesn't it!?

Matte Downey said...

It was a very well-written, honest, courageous, and intriguing account of Johnson's experience. I found myself staying up late just to get another chapter in! It does raise a lot of good questions about why we do what we do, and how the "appearance of obedience" or "appearance of poverty" can sometimes viewed as more important than the real thing - a tendency almost any relgious tradition is bound to struggle with. Missionaries of Charity and Mother Teresa are just human, after all.

I was also impressed with how she told the story with restraint, never seeking to dishonour anyone, but adamant about speaking the truth, which she believes is more powerful than painting someone or something to be almost perfect.

Thanks for the recommendation!

Shelley said...

Exactly what I liked about it too. You are welcome! :)