When Christmas break rolled around, I found myself marooned with my parents in St. Louis, a city they had moved to after I graduated from high school and in which I knew no one. Boredom as much as spiritual longing led me to accept my father's invitation to join him each day for Mass at Saint Louis University's Saint Francis Xavier College Church, a neo-Gothic structure in the heart of the city that looked a lot like Marquette's Gesu. Unlike the spectacular sanctuary above it, the underground Chapel of Our Lady where Dad and I attended 5:15 p.m. Mass was a simple space with a sole wooden crucifix and a few dozen wood-and-wicker chairs facing a plain altar. Its sparseness seemed to mirror something happening inside both of us, a stripping process spawned for Dad by his recent retirement from work as a lay hospital chaplain and for me by my experience in Gesu a month earlier.
During our drives home from Mass, Dad would rave about the biography he was reading, Marcelle Auclair's Saint Teresa of Avila. On Christmas Day he gave me a copy. "It makes Teresa come alive," Dad told me, leaning forward in his chair as he shook the fat red paperback before me, trying to convey its value. "Reading it, you feel like you really know her."
I thanked him and tried to look interested as I scanned its staid-looking back cover. Dad probably knew that I was more excited about the sweaters and jewelry my mom had bought me and the bouquet of red roses my boyfriend had sent. He was right. I still had a fairly anemic appetite for spiritual reading, and this book looked far too dry for vacation reading. I planned to toss it onto the same dust-collecting shelf where I had relegated all the other religious books Mom and Dad had given me since I left for college.
It wasn't that I didn't appreciate their gifts. It was just that they were always gushing about their favorite saints: Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Therese of Lisieux, and dozens of others. Dad and Mom read the saints' lives again and again, swapped dog-eared tomes about mystical prayer, and cheered whenever one bought the other some obscure book on one of their beloved holy people. From my earliest years, I remember seeing my parents huddled together, talking animatedly about new saints they had discovered or new insights on scripture that they had gleaned from people they referred to simply as "John," "Teresa" or "the Little Flower." Images of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph adorned every room in our home, and our bookshelves bulged with titles by and about saints and servants of God. The names on the spines were as familiar as old friends: Augustine, Ignatius, Francis de Sales, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day.
As a little girl, I had shared my parents' attraction to the saints, particularly women saints. Sainthood seemed to me to be the premier career choice. Rather than being merely a successful writer or actress or artist or lawyer, I could be something infinitely more glorious: a person who enjoyed eternal bliss with God in heaven while being revered as a Christian superstar on earth. If I were a saint, I reasoned, I could someday do favors for my family and friends when they petitioned me from earth to intercede with Jesus on their behalf. And I could enjoy a level of renown far superior to the fleeting fame of a Hollywood starlet or bestselling author, since the esteem enjoyed by saints lasts for centuries, even millennia.
My favorite childhood saint was Rose of Lima, a stunningly beautiful Peruvian woman whose pint-sized biography in my children's book of saints was tattered from repeated readings. Rose practiced extreme penances to conquer her vanity, including rubbing her face raw with pepper so it would not inspire so many compliments. That struck me as a little creepy, but I admired Rose's love for Jesus and zeal for combating a character flaw that I recognized in myself. I also liked the sound of her name, which is why I chose Rose as my patron saint for confirmation in eighth grade.
Like so much else in my spiritual life, my interest in the saints had fizzled in college. Fixated as I was on final exams and Friday-night plans, the last thing I wanted to read was some sugary tale about a snow-pure saint whose biggest sin paled in comparison with what transpired in the first five minutes of the average kegger. But Christmas-break boredom can make a college student do desperate things, and that December it made me crack open a forty-five-year-old biography of Teresa of Avila.
Once I did, I was hooked.
Excerpted from chapter 1 , "Party Girl" of "My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir" by Colleen Carroll Campbell. Copyright © 2012 by Colleen Carroll Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Image Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.