My Sisters the Saints

A review of Colleen Carroll Campbell’s new book.

 

When I was going through confirmation, I chose Saint Teresa of Avila for my patron saint because I liked her name, and that she was a Doctor of the Church. I’m pretty sure that when I was fifteen, I still sort of wanted to be the first woman president, and while saints–almost–excited me at the time, what I really liked seeing was a woman getting ahead in a man’s world.

Since then, I’ve observed that while it’s easy to admire particular saints and their virtues, when it comes to patronage, the saints whose virtues I’ve most needed to aquire have had a way of choosing me.

Thus a decade later, I found myself with several small children living in a neighborhood called “Little Flower,” attending a Parish of the same name, and looking out my window every morning at the giant statue of Saint Therese of Lisieux that graced the lawn of our church.

It was not lost on me, that staying home with small kids, doing all the little things that caring for little people requires, I needed to make friends with a saint who could help me come to terms with my own littleness.

A similar juxtaposition of “Theresas” in Colleen Carroll Campbell’s new memoir, “My Sisters the Saints,” is what first drew me into her story.

It begins when Campbell is a college student with grand plans and a rollicking, yet unsatisfying, social life at Marquette University. Studying up on the feminist movement, feeling disillusioned with the fixation on power, money, and status that many second wave feminists shared with the men they criticized, Campbell first encounters Saint Teresa of Avila.

The sources of her attraction to Saint Teresa go far deeper than mine ever did. Campbell provides a lively biography of the saint as a social butterfly torn between equal and opposite attractions to both God and the world. In midlife, after having lived as a nun for many years, Saint Teresa underwent a secondary conversion, choosing to break free from her idols and devote herself exclusively to God.

Campbell writes: “Her intense love for Jesus and profound prayer life gave her the strength to launch a historic reform of her religious order, endure severe persecution from civil and religious authorities who resisted her efforts, and pen several classics of contemplative spirituality” (18).

Thus Campbell’s story begins, learning that, “who I was and how I should live as a woman was inextricably bound up with my journey towards God.”

Over the span of roughly a decade, Campbell encounters many other female saints who guide her through the particular challenges of her life. Alternating between personal anecdote, and thorough history on the life of each saint, Campbell introduces readers to Therese of Lisieux, Faustina of Poland, Edith Stein of Germany, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Mary of Nazareth. Along the way, Campbell grapples with infertility, her father’s Alzheimer’s disease and eventual death, spiritual motherhood, finding work-life balance, spiritual dryness and depression, and trusting God with her family life.

My Sisters the Saints is one of the first books I’ve read from a female Catholic Author that meditates with particular richness on women in the workplace. Campbell authored the very successful book, “The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy,” she was a speechwriter for President George W Bush, and she still provides regular news commentary on religion, politics and women’s issues. She successfully avoids the prescriptive tendencies of so many books on women’s spirituality, to view physical motherhood as an exclusive pathway to God.

She also details the particular battle to remain faithful to the Church’s teaching on the licit means of conceiving children, when after years of infertility, nearly every doctor she and her husband consults tells her how easily she could become pregnant with in vitro. I know many Catholic women who have struggled with similar issues, and yet I’ve rarely encountered a book that addressed them with such candor and good faith in the wisdom of the Church.

In spite of her difficulties conceiving a child, Campbell finds a way to honor the mothering instinct that so many women intrinsically feel. A section on spiritual motherhood was especially helpful to me, providing beneficial insight for a physical mother whose nurturing instincts have felt a little worn out. Campbell details the care she was able to provide her father as his health failed, but she also discussed appreciating the spiritual motherhood of other women, and cultivating the nurturing instinct in her work:

“Discovering Edith (Stein) inspired me to approach the substance of my work differently, too. Her description of a woman’s ‘personal and all-embracing’ outlook shed new light on my desire to make my writing more personal, to integrate my work and faith more fully, and to nurture growth in my readers, rather than simply winning debates. I had tried to squelch this desire in the past, fearing that a more personal, creative turn in my work would make me more vulnerable to criticism. Reading Edith emboldened me to reconsider. Perhaps the drive to bear fruit that I could not satisfy on a physical level could spill over into my work and make it more poignant, resonant and real. Maybe I could give myself permission to be more open about who I was and what I believed, to be truly maternal in my willingness to give to others until it hurt.” (p115)

Similar insights punctuate each chapter, making the lives of these saintly women of the past applicable to any woman desiring a richer spiritual life today.

My Sisters the Saints fills a void in Catholic literature, as Campbell writes from the unique perspective of a woman for whom motherhood has not come easily. From the outside, her life could easily be misconstrued as an ode to feminist thought and worldly ambition, while the hidden story reveals a heart yearning for God, striving to live in faithfulness to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Campbell shares each stage of her journey, without moralizing or shaming her readers, but rather inviting them into this holy sisterhood where our sufferings and trials bring us closer to God and to one another.

 

 

The Patheos Book Club is hosting a special book giveaway of My Sisters The Saints, beginning this week!  The giveaway will run for 2 weeks – Nov 12-25, 2012.  Winners will be selected one week after registration closes.
The registration page for the giveaway is live now here:   http://www.patheos.com/Books/Book-Club/Giveaway/My-Sisters-The-Saints.html
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