Our culture has an overwhelming treasure in the rich history of good, strong, dynamic, courageous women who understood the human condition, lived lives of service, sacrifice, rigor, joy and the truest freedom. Catholics begin the month of November every year celebrating the feast of All Saints, a crowd that includes some of the most impressive women who have lived, in all walks of life. Politically and culturally, the modern day seems to have a misunderstanding about the Catholic Church’s approach to women. Getting to know women like Teresa of Avila and Edith Stein and so many others tells such a different tale. In her new book, My Sisters the Saints, Colleen Carroll Campbell tells a very relevant story about a young woman coming of age with all the biases of mainstream feminism, rediscovering the faith of her youth with all the wealth it offers a contemporary woman, as she faces the deeply painful struggles of family illness and infertility. Campbell talks about the book, the women, and going forward in an interview.
KJL: “What is the source of that gnawing sensation inside me, and why does my pursuit of pleasure and success only intensify it? Is it true that there are no real differences between the sexes, or does my femininity — and female body — have something to do with my desires and discontent? If the key to my fulfillment as a woman lies in maximizing my sexual allure, racking up professional accomplishments, and indulging my appetites while avoiding commitment, why has following that advice left me dissatisfied? Why do my friends and I spend so many hours fretting that we are not thin enough, not successful enough, simply not enough? If this is liberation, why am I so miserable?” What is your evidence that these are the questions of the hour? Aren’t those just the questions of a repressed Catholic schoolgirl?
CCC: Actually, those were the questions that I asked at a time in my life when I was following the pop culture’s recipe for finding happiness, not the Catholic Church’s. And as I recount in that opening chapter of My Sisters the Saints, embracing the work hard/play hard mentality of my college campus had left me feeling less liberated, not more. This book is the story of my personal journey intertwined the stories of the six women saints who guided me on my way. So I make no claims to speak for all women everywhere. But I think there is ample evidence that there are women of all ages experiencing the same dissatisfaction I felt, from the spate of recent books chronicling the disadvantages of the hook-up culture for women to the 2007 American Psychological Association report showing how the distorted messages of our culture hurt girls and the 2009 study noting declining rates of female happiness. The questions that launched my spiritual search are ageless, but I think they have particular urgency for women today.
KJL: What is “spicy, messy, and meandering” about Teresa of Avila and why was she so compelling to you as a college gal?
CCC: Teresa was a party girl, a vivacious and beautiful woman who found herself trapped for years in a tug-of-war between her spiritual longings and her worldly preoccupations. I could relate to her frank and often comic confession of her faults, her natural intensity — used first for selfish purposes but ultimately for God’s glory — and her meandering road to spiritual greatness. (She experienced many spiritual awakenings but her conversion didn’t really “take” until she was nearly 40 years old.) Teresa was the first saint I encountered as an adult woman, the first to model a mixture of faith, femininity and freedom that I could admire and appropriate for my own life.
KJL: How do you even think to pick up Teresa of Avila when there is a whole wide real world of living women out there to hitch a tent to?
CCC: I tried that whole wide world first. The saints were not my first choice for heroines to emulate; I initially figured they were too musty and goody-two-shoes to understand my life and struggles. But after combing the popular culture and secular feminist philosophy for answers, I found myself coming up empty. Around that same time, during the Christmas break of my senior year in college, my father gave me a copy of Marcelle Auclair’s biography of Teresa of Avila. Had I not been stranded with my parents in a new city where I knew no one, that book probably would have wound up on the shelf collecting dust with all of the other religious books my parents had given me over the years. But I was bored enough to crack it open, and once I did, I was hooked.
KJL: “Better to be labeled shallow, stuck-up, drunk, or debauched-anything but devout.” Is it really that bad trying to live an authentically Catholic life?
CCC: The challenges to living your Catholic faith vary according to the stages of life, but yes, I think living your faith on a college campus today can be particularly tough, even on a Catholic campus like mine. It’s okay to have a little faith, but having too much — or, to be more precise, taking the implications and teachings of that faith too seriously — can be a lonely endeavor. Perhaps it’s gotten better in the years since I graduated in the late 1990s, because there’s a more overt effort on the part of today’s “new faithful” to find fellowship. But the obstacles to leading a faithful Catholic life are more numerous and obvious, too.
KJL: You worked for George W. Bush. Isn’t Dorothy Day a lefty saint? Why would you be drawn to her?
CCC: My mother was a social worker who kept Dorothy’s Catholic Worker newspaper on our coffee table at home and Dorothy’s quotes about the spiritual life on her desk at work. Dorothy was popular in social-justice circles at my alma mater Marquette University, where her papers are archived, and I spent some time volunteering at one of her Catholic Worker houses in Milwaukee. My political views have changed somewhat since my college days but I don’t think you have to agree with every element of Dorothy’s political views to learn from her. I admired Dorothy for some of the same reasons I admired Teresa — her boldness, intelligence and willingness to stand on principle regardless of the social or personal cost. And I liked that Dorothy’s passion for God animated everything she did and informed (and trumped) every other commitment she had. Dorothy is not one of the six women I profile in depth in My Sisters the Saints — she actually served more as a connector to another saint, Therese of Lisieux, about whom she wrote a beautiful little book — but she remains a model for me of radical, countercultural commitment to Christ.
KJL: Is Edith Stein someone you see young women coming to encounter in a big way as a New Evangelization matter?
CCC: Yes, Edith Stein is enjoying a well-deserved resurgence of interest right now among young women. Her Essays on Woman, which I discovered while journeying through infertility and struggling to make sense of my identity as a woman in the Church and world, are as timely today as when she wrote them in the years leading up to World War II. A brilliant philosopher and insightful writer, Edith speaks with clarity and originality on a whole host of issues, from the human person’s search for meaning to the issue of how a woman can embrace the best of modern feminism’s emphasis on equality without losing sight of her feminine distinctiveness. She’s a gem and her work deserves a wider audience.
KJL: What is this whole New Evangelization business about, as far as you are concerned?
CCC: It’s about rediscovering the riches of Christian tradition while finding new ways to present and apply those riches in the contemporary world. The saints, as Pope Benedict XVI reminded us last month when convening the international Synod of Bishops, are an integral part of that process. They are, as he put it, the “pioneers and bringers of the new evangelization” because they “show the beauty of the Gospel to those who are indifferent or even hostile” and invite “tepid believers to live with the joy of faith.” That’s exactly what the saints did in my life: They took a tepid believer who doubted their relevance and showed me that the quest for intimacy with God can be a rollicking and rewarding adventure. In a relativistic age where people shrug at proofs for God, the saints and their stories still have the power to change hearts and lives. I know, because they changed mine.
KJL: Sister Faustina requires a lot of emotional buy-in, doesn’t she? Why is she important and how is she best accessible in helping one on a journey to embracing Divine Mercy?
CCC: Like many of the women saints on my journey, Faustina was not one who initially attracted me. She was a hidden soul, an uneducated and sickly nun who lived decades before me in a convent halfway around the world. The reports of supernatural phenomena surrounding her initially turned me off. But I was drawn to her almost in spite of myself, after discovering the Divine Mercy chaplet that she introduced to the world, and later, in reading her Diary. The message of her life and the devotion she promoted is simple: Unwavering trust in God. Trust always had been a struggle for me. At a time in my life when my trust in God was particularly challenged, Faustina — and especially, her trademark Divine Mercy chaplet — became an anchor.
KJL: Surely one of your saint sisters is your favorite. Your go-to resource.
CCC: Mary, the mother of Jesus, is my favorite. I can admire and relate to elements of each of the women saints I introduce in My Sisters the Saints, but the Mother of God is the one who brings all of those elements together. She is a true mother to the pilgrim who searches for God, and on my journey, I came to know her as a mother in a very real way. In a culture that measures a person’s significance in soundbites, Mary’s example of quiet, trusting surrender can be mistaken for weakness. But she is the model Christian disciple, an example for men as well as women and a paragon of authentic liberation for today’s women. Christ gave her to his followers as their mother, and when you seek out her maternal intercession in matters big and small, she is there.
KJL: You were going to leave your speechwriting job to get married. “I’m leaving the White House to get married,” you recall. “Merely mouthing the words mortified me, making me feel like one of those pitiable, pre-makeover characters slouching through the opening scene of a Lifetime movie.” Has Lifetime destroyed a generation of women? And hurt men indefinitely? As we know they are all secret murderers.
CCC: Well, I won’t blame Lifetime for everything that ails the modern woman (though it’s tempting). Its programming is probably more a symptom than a cause. But the cumulative effect of all of the Lifetime-style TV networks, women’s glossies and me-first messages of our pop culture is a deep suspicion of sacrifice. And that can be a burden when you are wrestling with work-life conflicts that are rarely as neat-and-tidy as those confronting a Lifetime heroine.
KJL: How can Alzheimer’s ever be a blessing? Infertility?
CCC: I wouldn’t wish either Alzheimer’s disease or infertility on anyone. Yet God and his grace — and his saints — were there for me in the midst of them. In the case of my father’s 12-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease, I discovered so much about his character, his faith and his intrinsic dignity that I may not have learned any other way. In the case of my own battle with infertility, I was forced to let go of my cherished illusions of control and confront some fundamental questions about what it means to be a woman — and a mother — that I never would have faced otherwise. I would never have chosen these trials, but I discovered through them that my father and his favorite passage from St. Paul was right: Everything works together for good for those who love God.
KJL: When did you get to the point where you realized you’d be writing a memoir of sorts, but walking with saints throughout?
CCC: This book did not begin as a memoir. I initially hoped to write about the themes in this book in a more conventional essay format, drawing heavily from the writings of Edith Stein and Blessed John Paul II. I spent nearly two years off and on working on a manuscript in that vein. But those early drafts fell flat. They did not convey the power of what I had experienced personally, of the truths that had literally transformed my life. And I finally realized that there was no way for me as a writer to separate those truths from the context in which I had learned them, which is to say, in the midst of my own messy, surprising and sometimes painful journey. As a journalist, I was reluctant to tell my own story, but 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.
KJL: What’s the message for women, who, as you know, there is a war against, and from Catholics and your Republican party?!
CCC: Well, for the record — and this is probably just my Irish orneriness — I’m a registered Independent. But I’ve been plenty vocal in recent months about my frustration with this notion that all American women are united in their demand for “free” birth control pills — pills that come at the cost of their own or another’s religious liberty. My Sisters the Saints is not a partisan book and it deals with more timeless questions. But I think it is relevant to this debate because it challenges the idea that a woman’s freedom depends on externals: how she looks, how large her paycheck is, what goodies she can get from the government, how completely she can control her fertility. The lives and the joy of the women saints suggest that true liberation is the fruit of an interior journey. It is inextricably linked to one’s relationship to God. And that relationship, the saints would remind us, can be strengthened by fidelity to the very age-old wisdom so often dismissed as sexist or retrograde by today’s self-styled “defenders” of women.
KJL: Let’s say I am reading this and I am intrigued but skeptical about these dead women and what relevance they could have to say my 20-something life, or my 50 something life even – recovering feminist-studies major, recovering feminist?
CCC: I can relate. I started out a skeptic, too. That’s partly why I wrote this book. So often, people assume that if you are a committed Catholic who stands with her Church even on hot-button issues, it’s because you never encountered any struggles or doubts or alternative perspectives that challenged your own. That’s not my story and it’s not the story of most of the committed Catholic women I know. It’s not even the story of most women saints. Skeptics who read My Sisters the Saints will see: They are not alone in their doubts or the spiritual hunger that persists despite those doubts.
KJL: Does the “new feminism” stuff John Paul II talked about really work? Does anyone really want anything to do with the f word anymore anyway?
CCC: There’s a legitimate debate over the pros and cons of using a term like “feminism,” but I fall squarely in the camp that says that a pro-life, pro-faith and pro-family feminism is both possible and desirable. I have been inspired by John Paul’s vision of a “new feminism” that blends the riches of the faith with the best of modern feminist ideals — including the emphasis on a woman’s equal dignity and her calling to use her gifts in the world as well as the home. Part of what inspired the spiritual search I chronicle in My Sisters the Saints was my frustration at finding myself caught between the secular feminists and their hard-core anti-feminist critics and not finding voices in either camp that spoke to my deepest longings and most complicated questions. The saints did, and I think they are perfect models of the “new feminism.”
KJL: What’s your advice to someone watching a loved one slowly die, as you did with your father?
CCC: I’m always reluctant to give advice, as I find it easier to tell my own story on a subject this sensitive and let others take whatever benefit they can. That said, I suppose my most basic piece of advice would be to live in the moment. Try to love and appreciate dying loved ones — and, especially loved ones suffering from dementia — on their own terms, and their own timeline, rather than yours. I found that when I did that, when I allowed myself to slow down and enjoy my father despite his debilitation from Alzheimer’s, I experienced some of the most profound moments of connection with him that I had ever known in my life, before or after his diagnosis. And the time I spent with him in that way gave me memories I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.
KJL: What’s your advice to parents watching their child drift a bit away? Maybe going to church on Sundays but not living life as if she truly believed?
CCC: I get this question a lot, partly because of my previous book, The New Faithful. For parents whose children still live at home, there is much you can do — encourage youth-group participation, watch which friends are cultivated, introduce good spiritual reading and, most importantly, model a vibrant spiritual life of your own. Once a child leaves home, though, your options are more limited. That’s when prayer becomes particularly important. The person or book or experience that puts your child on the road to conversion probably won’t be the one you expect, but your prayers can offer that extra jolt of grace that helps your child seize that opportunity when it arrives.
KJL: Is there anything men can take from your book? And who are some of your favorite male saints?
CCC: I’ve received a lot of good feedback from the men who have read my book (and no, not just from my husband!). In a certain sense, I think the journey I took and the questions I wrestled with are familiar to anyone, man or woman, who has ever felt a sense of emptiness and wondered: “Is this all there is?” As for male saints, I have many favorites. Blessed John Paul II was obviously an inspiration for much of what I wrote in this book. St. Francis of Assisi is another I particularly love and admire. I can certainly relate to Augustine of Hippo, and his Confessions was an important book on my journey. So were the works of Francis de Sales, John of the Cross and John the Evangelist — his Gospel is my favorite. Lately, I’d have to say the male saint I feel closest to is Joseph. He is silent in Scripture but his example of trust, humility, strength and fidelity speaks volumes. And like his wife, he is a powerful intercessor for those who turn to him in matters great and small.