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A way forward

Colleen Carroll Campbell

The immediate upshot of my encounter with Teresa was a change in my New Year's Eve plans. Ever since we parted ways for Christmas break, my boyfriend had been making daily long-distance calls from his home in Boston to convince me to join him there for the holiday. I thought it sounded fun at first, but the more absorbed I became in Teresa's story, the less the trip appealed. I knew that it would be an occasion of temptation, as his plan entailed me staying at his house, and I knew that he saw my visit as a way to cement our status as a serious couple. He recently had started quizzing me about his various postgraduation career options to see if I considered them lucrative enough to make him a good husband and provider. His affection was genuine, and I could tell that he had big plans for us. My cross-country trek would signal that I shared those plans.

The more I listened to my heart, and to God's voice speaking in it, the more I realized that I did not want to make long-term plans with a man who regarded God as a competitor for my loyalties and faith as something best kept on the margins of life. I had taken up with such men before, and I knew I would be tempted to do so again. Here and now, though, I had a choice: I could continue clutching this man as a placeholder until I found someone or something more satisfying, or I could surrender the relationship and take a chance on God instead.

I decided not to go to Boston for New Year's. And three days after I returned to campus in January, I broke up with my boyfriend. I offered a lame excuse about needing to spend more time with my friends because I was too cowardly to give the real reason, lest word get out that I had become a religious fanatic. I knew that on a Catholic college campus like mine, having a little faith was commendable. But having too much – the sort that led you to dump perfectly good boyfriends, spend your lunch breaks at noon Mass, or take controversial church teachings too seriously – was a recipe for social isolation or at least ridicule. Better to be labeled shallow, stuck-up, drunk, or debauched – anything but devout.

After the breakup, my life did not change overnight. In fact, anyone watching from afar that semester would have noticed little change at all. I became more diligent about attending daily Mass and carving out time for daily prayer and spiritual reading, but I kept those habits hidden from even my closest friends. It had not yet occurred to me to return to the sacrament of confession. And though I felt a shaky sense of peace taking root in my heart, whatever was happening inside me was still not strong enough to curb my vanity and vices. It just made me enjoy them less.

Even the breakup brought me little comfort. I had assumed that my bold if badly executed act of obedience to God's will would result in a shower of blessings. Instead, I received some devastating family news shortly afterward that left me reeling with sadness and missing my boyfriend, who had since taken up with another coed, who looked like a shorter, skinnier version of me. I spent the rest of my final semester occupied by a down-to-the-wire job hunt that collided with my overloaded class schedule to make the spring unusually stressful.

After four years of doing whatever I wanted, I finally was trying to follow God's lead. And things seemed to be getting worse, not better. Reading Teresa's writings and tales from her life, as I did voraciously that semester, I felt a pang of painful recognition when I came across a story of the sick and exhausted reformer traveling to one of her besieged convents amid a fierce rainstorm. Her horse-drawn cart hit a pothole, and Teresa hit the mud headfirst. "Lord, if this is how you treat your friends," she quipped to Jesus, "no wonder you have so few!"

My awkward first attempts at resuscitating my relationship with God were not entirely fruitless. I later would come to see them as baby steps that helped me get my bearings before I tackled a host of more complicated problems relating to love and freedom, marriage and motherhood, the mystery of suffering, and my role as a twenty-first-century woman in a two-thousand-year-old church. My search for answers would span fifteen years, take me to places I never imagined I would go, and force me to reconsider nearly everything I thought I knew about what it means to be a liberated woman. It would be years before I recognized my efforts as a quest to understand my feminine identity in light of my Christian faith and contemporary feminism, to grasp the essence of what Blessed Pope John Paul II called the "feminine genius." Still, something important already had happened by the end of my college years: I had learned that the very saints I once considered irrelevant to my search could prove indispensable guides.

Teresa was the first. Although I still had no answers to most of the questions I had asked on that windowsill eighteen months earlier, Teresa's example convinced me that my journey to understand who I was and how I should live as a woman was inextricably bound with my journey toward God. Seeing her transformation from a party girl who chased pleasure and status with abandon to a saint who marshaled her prodigious talents and energy for service to God, I felt hopeful that my own natural intensity could find a nobler outlet than barhopping and resume building. Teresa's squandered youth and stumbles on the path to sanctity reminded me that no matter how much time I had wasted in starting my interior journey, it's never too late to take the first step.


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.

Topics: Church teaching , Dating , Faith , Personal Growth , Saints , Writings of the Saints

Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, journalist, television host of EWTNs "Faith & Culture" and former presidential speechwriter whose latest book is My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir. Her website is www.colleen-campbell.com.


View all articles by Colleen Carroll Campbell

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September 19, 2014

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