A new book recounting the true story of one woman's faith voyage encourages women to turn to the saints as they strive to embrace their dignity amid the struggles of the modern world.
“The saints are amazing guides for us on our journey,” said Colleen Carroll Campbell, journalist and author of a new spiritual memoir, “My Sisters the Saints.”
Published in October by Image/Random House, the book details Campbell’s journey, discovering that her struggles and decisions were reflected in the lives of the saints and coming to embrace the Church’s teaching “as powerful and relevant and true.”
Campbell told CNA that she was struck not merely by the academic writings of the saints, but by their personal stories. As she learned about their lives, she found a deep connection with them, leading her to ask for their intercession and eventually see their subtle activity in her life.
“My Sisters the Saints” begins during Campbell’s junior year at Marquette University, where she played the dual role of campus partier and overachieving resume-builder. Although she had been raised in a Catholic family, her faith got compartmentalized in college, and she found herself “checking the box on Sunday” without being truly engaged.
Feeling empty, she sought answers in a feminist philosophy class, where she agreed with the early ideas of equal dignity and rights but found herself increasingly “stifled” by the more radical ideas presented as the movement progressed.
The longing for a “transcendent horizon” eventually drove her to her knees, where she asked God to show her who he was and help her find answers in her life.
A breakthrough came when Campbell's parents gave her a biography of Carmelite nun St. Teresa of Ávila over Christmas break, and she found it to be a “compelling” account of an accomplished woman with a “zest for life.”
“In her, I really saw for the first time a woman saint to whom I could relate,” she said, pointing to the saint’s experience of being pulled in different directions on the search to embrace God.
She explained that St. Teresa offered a mix of “femininity, freedom and faith” that she could aspire to, while making holiness feel like an adventure.
Campbell’s spiritual journey continued when her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease during her senior year of college. The news caught her off-guard, and she quickly found herself filled with emptiness and dread, which led to impatience and frustration.
She found solace, however, in St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the young French nun known for her “Little Way,” whose father suffered from dementia in his later years, an experience that the saint described as an epitome of suffering in her own life.
“She had a very strong view of redemptive suffering,” Campbell reflected. “She saw meaning in his trial.”
“That really changed my perspective,” she continued, explaining that she found hope that she could relate to in the midst of a culture that rarely sees dignity in suffering.
Like St. Thérèse, who saw her father gradually conformed to Christ on the cross, Campbell watched as her father – a devout and hopeful Catholic – grew in his own faith. While it was still difficult to watch a loved one suffer, the friendship of St. Thérèse provided a “lens through which to view it,” she explained.
Later, Campbell turned to St. Faustina, a simple and illiterate Polish nun, in struggling with the balance of family and career while she worked as a speech writer for the White House as her fiancé was in medical school in St. Louis.
She discovered the connection between humility and trust and realized that marriage is not a dead end to freedom, as the culture surrounding her would have her believe, but “an avenue to a deeper freedom” that the world does not recognize.
Struggles with unexplained infertility led Campbell to seek the wisdom of the saints once again. Caught between a secular world that failed to understand the depth of her pain and the judgment of some Catholics who scorned her for failing to have children, she found herself ashamed and “near tears” on multiple occasions.
She grappled with the feeling that there was something wrong with her womanhood or her marriage and that God somehow viewed her as having less worth as a woman.
Wrestling with the question of why God would give her desires for motherhood without fulfilling them, Campbell discovered the writings of St. Edith Stein, a German philosopher and nun who converted from Judaism to Catholicism and died in a concentration camp. Before entering the convent, the saint gave talks in Europe on the dignity of women.
“She saw the beauty in recognizing your feminine dignity and embracing it,” Campbell said, explaining that the saint saw motherhood as a gift imprinted in every woman’s soul but expressed in various ways, including spiritual as well as physical manifestations.
Campbell realized that there were ways that she could be a mother in her present state, bringing her maternal gifts to her work and caring for ailing father.
Reading both St. Edith Stein and Bl. Pope John Paul II’s writings on the dignity of women “answered some fundamental questions about my value in the eyes of God,” she said.
Campbell hopes that her book will inspire readers to learn more about the saints.
She explained that contemporary readers may think that saints who lived hundreds of years ago are “inaccessible.” She hopes to dispel this idea by blending the stories of saints with her own modern-day story, so that readers may be able to see parallels in their own lives.
Women today are looking for heroines and role models, she said, adding that her own journey has shown her that her questions about life are universal, and saints are the ones that “have run the race and come out with satisfying answers.”