A poignant and powerful spiritual memoir about how the lives of the saints changed the life of a modern woman.
In My Sisters the Saints, author Colleen Carroll Campbell blends her personal narrative of spiritual seeking, trials, stumbles, and breakthroughs with the stories of six women saints who profoundly changed her life: Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, Faustina of Poland, Edith Stein of Germany, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Mary of Nazareth. Drawing upon the rich writings and examples of these extraordinary women, the author reveals Christianity's liberating power for women and the relevance of the saints to the lives of contemporary Christians.
Excerpted from My Sisters the Saints by Colleen Carroll Campbell. Copyright © 2012 by Colleen Carroll Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Your writing career until now has been focused mostly on journalistic and political endeavors – as a news and editorial writer, op-ed columnist, presidential speechwriter and author of The New Faithful, a journalistic study of a religious phenomenon. What inspired you to take such a personal turn in this new book?
The truth is, I was forced into it. I was drawn to writing about the themes at the heart of this book – the tensions between our human desires for both freedom and commitment, spiritual growth and worldly success, avoidance of suffering and the wisdom that comes only through trials. I was especially drawn to writing about how these tensions play out in the lives of women struggling to reconcile their Christian faith with contemporary feminism. And in the end, I found myself agreeing with Flannery O’Connor: “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way … You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” It just so happened that the story I needed to tell was my own – mine, and those of six women saints.
The personal struggles you describe and issues you confront in this book are quite contemporary, from disillusionment with the hook-up culture to difficulties finding work-life balance and moral dilemmas over hi-tech fertility treatments. Yet most of the saints you cite as guides were contemplatives and many were cloistered nuns. Did it surprise you that you could relate to these women?
Yes, it did. The outward circumstances of my life and the lives of these saints were often very different, though there were some striking parallels – such as the dementia that struck St. Therese’s father and my own father. The real basis of my connection to these women was more fundamental, though: our shared search for meaning, longings for both love and liberation, and struggles to overcome temptations and faults. The contemplative dimension of these saints was also their genius, and I learned that the true contemplative does not seek to escape life but to live it more fully and deeply. These women of prayer taught me a lot about how to live as a woman of action in the world.
You write about your attempts to find meaning in your father’s battle with dementia. Why is a spiritual lens helpful when viewing the Alzheimer’s experience?
We live in a culture that judges a person’s worth according to the categories of autonomy, productivity and rationality. By those standards, an Alzheimer’s patient does not count for much. We think nothing of describing dementia patients as mere “shells” of their former selves, as “not really there,” “already gone,” even, according to some ethicists, as non-persons. It’s natural to recoil from the changes that take place in a loved one afflicted by Alzheimer’s – I recoiled from them, too, initially – but looking at this disease through a spiritual lens allows you to see gifts in the person and the trial that you could not otherwise see. For me, this meant coming to see my father not only as still himself and still beloved by God but as a true model of unconditional love and profound trust in God – someone I could still learn from and admire, even amid his decline.
You worked as the sole woman speechwriter to President George W. Bush, a rare opportunity yet one that exposed you to the sort of work-life conflicts that confront women in all walks of life. Why was it important to you to find spiritual meaning in those conflicts and a saint to help you sort through them?
I turned to my faith to sort out those conflicts precisely because I found the secular alternatives so inadequate. On the one hand, I heard from a secular feminist establishment that gave me the “you go, girl” speech – but offered me little help in dealing with my own innate desires for marriage, motherhood and more time with my family. There were antifeminist voices that supported those desires, of course, but they often gave short shrift to my legitimate longing to do meaningful work in the world, treating it as somehow selfish or superficial. So I found myself looking to my faith, and in this case, to St. Faustina, for guidance in balancing these two competing desires – to discern where God was calling me and how I could find love and peace without sacrificing my freedom and all I had worked for.
In writing about your journey through infertility, you mention your frustration at how few books you found that helped you deal with the spiritual side of this trial. What’s missing from the way infertility is often addressed in religious circles?
For starters, compassion. When you are dealing with infertility, you get a lot of unsolicited advice: Just pray! Just relax! Just adopt! But advice is usually the last thing you want. What you really want is a baby. And failing that, you want someone to acknowledge your grief and its validity without giving you a lecture about why you should not take your childlessness so hard or which remedy you should try next. In my case, I had the resources to figure out my medical options and to understand, on an intellectual level, the moral implications of various infertility treatments. What I most needed was a way of making sense of my trial and getting through it. I needed help understanding my value as a woman even if I never bore biological children. Where did I fit in the kingdom of God if this were to be my permanent lot in life? What was the meaning of my marriage if it could not bear fruit in this way? Why had God given me this intense desire to bear a child if he did not intend to fulfill it? Those were the questions that led me to discover the writings of St. Edith Stein, a philosopher who wrote poignantly – and, for me, very helpfully – about the meaning of a woman’s maternal desires and the way those desires can be fulfilled in all walks of life.
There seems to be a renewed interest in the saints in recent years, even beyond the Catholic Church. Why do you think that is, and why should readers – especially non-Catholics – get to know the saints?
Christianity is an incarnational religion. We believe that God became man in a specific town, on a specific day, in the womb of a specific woman. So the personal and specific matters in Christianity, and the personal stories of Christ’s followers matter, too. Each life testifies to some unique aspect of God’s love; each human person bears God’s image in a unique way. Getting to know the saints allows us to get to know Jesus in a new way, to see his qualities magnified through a new lens or situated in a new historical context. I like the way Father Robert Barron put it when I asked him this question on my EWTN show, “Faith & Culture.” He said that looking at Jesus is like looking directly at the sun: His virtues are brilliant, blindingly so, and they give light to everything else. Looking at the saints is like looking at the moon: They reflect the light of Christ, but in a way that’s a little easier for our imperfect eyes to take in. When we’re striving for holiness and intimacy with God, it helps to look at these little moons – to look at the men and women who faced the same struggles as us and emerged victorious.
Most of the women saints you highlight lived in modern times and all but one left behind voluminous writings about their own spiritual journeys. Do you see this spiritual memoir as an attempt to follow in their literary footsteps?
Well, I certainly would not claim to have written the next Interior Castle or Story of a Soul, but I do see My Sisters the Saints as part of that long tradition of Christian writers linking their personal stories to the great story of Jesus and his saints. In the contentious, sound-bite age we live in, I think it’s tempting for Christians – and especially Catholics – to get so caught up in debates over doctrine or ecclesial politics that we lose sight of the intensely personal character of Christianity, a religion that is all about a personal God reaching out through the person of his Son to touch the personal lives of his followers. That’s not to say that doctrinal disputes or the public implications of Christian beliefs do not matter; I think anyone who has followed my work knows that I take those things seriously. But at the end of the day, God changes the world one heart, one life and one story at a time. This spiritual memoir is my attempt to share how God used the stories of his saints to change my heart and my life.
“A beautiful and inspiring story of a woman’s deep faith and the saints who became her sisters along the path to her answered prayers.” – Mary Higgins Clark, worldwide bestselling novelist
“Colleen Carroll Campbell has encountered most of the challenges confronting young women today—balancing dating, courtship, and marriage with a successful career, caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s, dealing with infertility—but she hasn’t faced these challenges alone. In My Sisters the Saints, Campbell introduces us to the women who helped her along the way – women like Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, Edith Stein, and, of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Completely contemporary and totally timeless, My Sisters the Saints is an engaging spiritual memoir and the perfect guidebook for anyone who is looking for a companion to help her navigate life’s sometimes difficult and confusing journey.” – Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York
“In this fascinating memoir, Colleen Carroll Campbell recounts her discovery of kinship with six great women saints at crucial junctures on her journey through life. My Sisters the Saints is the story of how a thoroughly modern woman drew inspiration and strength from her spiritual ‘sisters’ while struggling with the mysteries of life, love, illness, and death in today’s world. This lovely and highly readable book will touch many lives.” - Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Harvard Law professor, and President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences
“Fully alive, authentically feminine, making a serious contribution to culture—and faithfully Catholic? In the minds of many still, an unlikely combination, at best. In My Sisters the Saints, Colleen Carroll Campbell recounts her own life’s story and the poignant struggles she encounters in fulfilling her dreams as an author, journalist, cultural commentator and woman. Campbell’s stories will resonate in the heart of every woman challenged by today’s culture and blessed with even a scintilla of faith. You won’t put this book down until you have finished the last page. And as you read, you will hold your breath in hopefulness experiencing with Colleen the grippingly real decisions in this woman’s life—both big and small—the response to which ultimately define who one is as a person. … Thank you, Colleen, for the courage to tell your own story. It makes an important and unique contribution to the lives of women by giving flesh to the beauty, meaning, and the purposes of human life and human love lived open to the mystery of God.” – Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V., Superior General, Sisters of Life
“Colleen Carroll Campbell is one of the finest writers on the American Catholic scene, and My Sisters the Saints shows her heart, her skill, and her keen intelligence at their best. This is a wonderful, engaging personal memoir and a great witness of faith.” – Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Philadelphia
“This book is a powerful description of the long struggle Colleen Carroll Campbell had to undergo to go back to peace, to give God the place that belongs to Him: the first. The lesson she learned is not to be forgotten: When in need, let us remember that we have brothers and sisters in heaven whose lives and sufferings teach the way to peace.” – Alice von Hildebrand, author of The Privilege of Being a Woman and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand
“Colleen Carroll Campbell is a genuine icon of the ‘new feminism’ called for by Blessed John Paul II. She has been on a long journey in search of the true meaning of women’s liberation and in My Sisters the Saints she tells the story of how six women mystics and her own personal trials and triumphs have helped her find that liberation at the foot of the cross. Refreshing, well written, down to earth, and a joy to read (I’d often find myself grinning as I read it), Colleen has given us a sincere gift: not only the gift of her intellect and skill as a writer, but, more importantly, she has opened her heart and given us the sincere gift of herself. Stop wondering whether you should read this book. You should!” – Christopher West, author of At The Heart of the Gospel and fellow at the Theology of the Body Institute
“In My Sisters the Saints, Colleen Carroll Campbell shows how in our attentiveness to the saints we learn not only about the Lord and the way of life he imparts, but also how we discern the most important truths about who we are and the purpose for which we have been created. My Sisters the Saints brilliantly illuminates how the Christian life cannot be understood as an abstraction, but shows its radiant form in our friendship with heavenly companions who meet us in the real events and concrete circumstances of our lives.” – Father Robert Barron, author and host, Catholicism and founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries
“In My Sisters the Saints, Colleen Carroll Campbell has liberated these great historical heroines from dusty altarpieces and stone effigies and has brought them into the new millennium. Through her literary portraits, they become sure-footed guides through the modern day spiritual minefield of the ‘hook-up’ culture, the difficulties of commitment and family, and the ever-present reality of suffering and loss. By the end, one finds oneself with six new girlfriends whose wit, common sense and faith transcend any age.” – Elizabeth Lev, art historian and author of The Tigress of Forli
“From her own life’s story, Colleen Carroll Campbell has depicted a spiritual journey marked by waiting for and letting go. She learns of motherhood, both spiritual and biological, from the holy women whose lives reflect her own journey back to her. Her personal story teaches a universal lesson: living free is different from being in control. This is a moving and beautiful book.” – Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., Archbishop of Chicago
“The saints undo the world—for by their sheer existence, they tell us we may have gotten it wrong: all our conventions, all our agreements, all our correctnesses and easy thoughts no help when things come crashing in. In troubled times, Colleen Carroll Campbell found herself by reading the lives of the great women saints. And you might find your own self, reading Campbell’s My Sisters the Saints." – Joseph Bottum, author of The Christmas Plains and former editor of First Things
“With this intimate memoir, Colleen Carroll Campbell gives a moving witness to the ‘cloud of witnesses’ celebrated in sacred scripture.” – Dawn Eden, author of My Peace I Give You and The Thrill of the Chaste
“This is an inspiring and insightful account of one young woman’s journey through the challenges of contemporary culture, the ups and downs of life, and her encounter with the wisdom of the saints. This is the story of a journey told with refreshing honesty and great insight that will benefit many.” – Ralph Martin, author of The Fulfillment of All Desire and president of Renewal Ministries
“St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Campbell (The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, 2002) relates a provocative life story centered on her experiences as a woman in the Catholic Church. Intertwined with the author’s tale is her autobiography as a reader, her experiences with books by and about various saints who have deeply influenced every aspect of her life. … Throughout the book, Campbell describes how various women saints helped her understand her situation and move ahead. … A charming and instructive communion with saintly sisters.” – Kirkus Reviews
1. Chapter 1: Party Girl
1. In this chapter, Colleen discusses her feelings of emptiness and taking her first steps to “open the door to God.” What was your first step? What could your next step be toward God?
2. In the anecdote featuring her boyfriend, Colleen realizes that their relationship is actually a “placeholder” for something more satisfying. Have you ever had a placeholder in your life where God should have been? Do you have one now that needs to be surrendered to Him?
3. Both Saint Teresa of Ávila and Colleen speak of leading a double life. Neither was living in a conspicuously sinful way, yet they each confessed to the torturous feeling of “living in two worlds.” Do you ever feel as though you’re living in two worlds, caught between cultural norms and your faith?
2. Chapter 2: A Child Again
1. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux wrote about her “little way” which consisted of small, everyday acts of love. These included befriending a particularly cranky nun and not losing patience with others. What are some specific things you could do to better the lives of those around you, as offerings to God in the “little way?”
2. When Thérèse heard of her father’s passing, her reaction was strangely peaceful. How can you find the good—and God’s will—in bad tidings?
3. Just as Alzheimer’s made Colleen’s father more like a child in his faith, Thérèse also strove for childlike faith in God. Why? What qualities do children possess that are essential to your faith?
3. Chapter 3: Trust Fall
1. Colleen describes accepting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work as a speechwriter for the President. But this job couldn’t fill the ache in her soul for marriage. Have you ever felt the call to sacrifice something important to you for something better? How have you seen the faithfulness of God in that sacrifice?
2. Colleen describes the atmosphere surrounding the speechwriting staff as a “boys’ club.” Have you ever felt out of place somewhere that you believed God had called you to be? Write out quotes from the saints or Bible verses that remind you of your value to God.
3. Colleen writes that Saint Faustina seemed to embody the verse, “Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and do not lean on your own understanding (Prov. 3:5).” At the end of this chapter, Colleen realizes that it is not enough to say she trusts in God; she must act as though she does, whether or not she feels it. What’s the difference? Are actions or words more important? Why?
4. Chapter 4: A Mother at Heart
1. Saint Edith Stein believed that each woman has a maternal spirit. What does that maternal spirit look like in you?
2. Colleen writes about the dark side of a woman’s maternal inclinations, when those inclinations are distorted by sin. These negative traits and habits include nagging, manipulation, domineering behavior and gossip. What are some ways you have seen these weaknesses in yourself? What safeguards can you put in place to curb them?
3. Saint Edith also wrote that “objective work” and daily quiet prayer are twin ways to combat these weaknesses. What are a few concrete ways in which you can apply this doctrine to your own life?
5. Chapter 5: Into the Darkness
1. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote about the overwhelming darkness she experienced, even though her entire life was dedicated to God. Despite her depression, though, she never faltered in her good work. Is this frightening or reassuring? Why?
2. When speaking of her infertility and waiting to know whether she would ever be a mother, Colleen’s mother told her that the waiting itself was her cross to bear. What crosses have you had to bear? Which are you currently bearing? How is God seeing you through?
3. When has God made you wait for something you really wanted? How did the waiting stretch your faith?
6. Chapter 6: Triumph of the Cross
1. Colleen writes about how her esteem for Mary grew gradually, and the more she turned to Mary, the more she felt drawn to loving, serving and imitating her Son, Jesus. In what ways has devotion to Mary led you closer to Christ? In what ways has following Mary’s example helped you grow in virtue?
2. Colleen’s yearning for motherhood was her own cross to carry, but it also made her dependence on God that much stronger. What trials are you most thankful for? How have they deepened your faith?
3. After having read of Colleen’s closeness to six saints, which saints would you like to learn more about, both in reading works and through prayer?