Colleen Carroll Campbell’s My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir, which will be released on Tuesday, expresses dissatisfaction with “pat answers offered by both secular feminists and their anti-feminist critics.”
She implicitly seeks a role in what Blessed John Paul II (in Evangelium Vitae)calls the “new feminism,” which the pope described as a culturally transforming feminism that doesn’t imitate models of male domination, but is inspired by the “true genius of women in every aspect of life and society.”
Campbell organizes her book around the inspiration of dead women who seem to channel their hard won life lessons through this gifted writer. Campbell’s venerable sisterhood includes a quaternity of “Teresas” – of Avila, Lisieux , Calcutta, and Germany (St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, aka Edith Stein), plus St. Faustina of Poland, and Mary of Nazareth.
Isn’t there a way for a woman of faith to be a liberated woman – a feminist? This lover of life shares Campbell’s passion to reframe the often-contentious private and public debates that follow the question.
To reach the medieval idea of the “unity of truth,” we cannot, on the one hand, ignore the dilemma of reconciling the tenets of the contemporary women’s movement – contraception, abortion rights, and suspicion of religious practice – with our own faith perspective. Nor, on the other hand, can we give short shrift to understanding the “positive intention” behind criticism of our positions.
I won’t spoil the reader’s pleasure in discovering how Ms. Campbell resolves this quandary, but other real questions are begged: Will this woman manage to escape the ravages of radical feminism? Will her parents stand by as their brilliant, high-achieving, well-formed Catholic daughter lives a curiously double life: by day, a serious undergraduate scholar, and, by night, a denizen of dissolute weekend debaucheries – at Catholic Marquette University?
Campbell bears witness to the death throes of an American culture whose majority once aspired to virtue. She attended Marquette in the days before she might have captured the frat parties and their aftermath in the lowest forms of cinema verité – Facebook and YouTube. She did it the old-fashioned way: she kept a journal.
In My Sisters the Saints, she reveals herself to be a woman of delicate conscience, intellectual honesty, and spiritual humility. She examines sins that I daresay most priests in the confessional would consider more venial than mortal. However, she writes that in those early days of the “hookup” culture: “When it came to sex, I abided by the letter of the law I had been taught in my Catholic home – no sex outside marriage – though not its spirit.”
The wonder of it all is that despite undergrad Colleen’s frequent visits to the loud and lusty dens of young men and their coeds – and journalist Carroll’s to the equally high-decibel environs of a White House speechwriter – she was never deafened.
Even as Ms. Carroll sought (before she became Mrs. Campbell) the temporary solace of, as Christopher West describes it, the “fast food gospel,” she could still hear the Holy Spirit, whispering. Amidst her inevitable melancholy, she still had the strength to respond to those promptings, to trust that God’s loving generosity will always shine into our personal darkness.
Colleen Carroll Campbell
She endured the return of a sense of sin to her soul, the agony of her father’s dementia, and, with her husband, the shared sadness of an infertility diagnosis. But there were answered prayers too.
This lady knows the agony and the ecstasy of the Way of the Cross. Campbell aspires to help us discover for ourselves “the consoling truth too often forgotten in our individualistic age: that the pilgrim who seeks God never travels alone.”
Writing of her parents’ fidelity to her and her siblings’ salvation, she also reminds this mother of the power of parental prayers. We can each imitate another sister saint – Monica, mother of the reluctant Augustine – in the constancy of our prayers for our children (and spouses), no matter their progress in the journey to salvation, or our own.
Despite admitted perfectionist tendencies, Ms. Campbell manages to address her sins, although never salaciously. She bears witness to the arc of her journey – from humiliation to humility – and gives evidence of the actual graces that are at work in her life.
She invites her readers to do likewise: to take time to listen, to permit life to soften rather than harden our hearts, and to return to prayer.
One of my own saintly sisters is fourteenth-century anchoress, Julian of Norwich. What she wrote about the endurance of love is my summation of what Colleen Carroll Campbell has achieved in her own time in her evocative, deceptively plainspoken memoir:
Though we sin continually he loves us endlessly, and so gently does he show us our sin that we repent of it quietly, turning our mind to the contemplation of his mercy, clinging to his love and goodness, knowing that he is our cure, understanding that we do nothing but sin.
Lady Julian says that if there is any lover of God on this earth who is immune from falling, it was not revealed in her visions: “but this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always held close in one love.”