Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVII, No. 4
Linking Our Lives to the Saints
One Life and One Story at a Time
Interview with Colleen Carroll Campbell
Editor’s note: Colleen Carroll Campbell, a member of the Voices editorial board, has just published a new book, My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir (2012. New York: Image [Random House], 224 pages $22.99). It is fascinating, in the way that well-written memoirs often are; and this effect is very much enhanced by the author’s insightful spiritual commentaries on the saints who influenced her at crucial stages of her life. We congratulate our colleague, and are pleased to publish this question-and-answer interview with the author.
Your writing career until now has been focused mostly on journalistic and political endeavors as a news and editorial writer, op-ed columnist, presidential speechwriter, and author of The New Faithful, a journalistic study of a religious phenomenon. What inspired you to take such a personal turn in this new book?
The truth is, I was forced into it. I was drawn to writing about the themes at the heart of this book the tensions between our human desires for both freedom and commitment, spiritual growth and worldly success, avoidance of suffering and the wisdom that comes only through trials. I was especially drawn to writing about how these tensions play out in the lives of women struggling to reconcile their Christian faith with contemporary feminism. And in the end, 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.
The personal struggles you describe and issues you confront in this book are quite contemporary, from disillusionment with the hook-up culture to difficulties finding work-life balance and moral dilemmas over hi-tech fertility treatments. Yet most of the saints you cite as guides were contemplatives and many were cloistered nuns. Did it surprise you that you could relate to these women?
Yes, it did. The outward circumstances of my life and the lives of these saints were often very different, though there were some striking parallels such as the dementia that struck Saint Thérèse of Lisieux’s father and my own father. The real basis of my connection to these women was more fundamental, though: our shared search for meaning, longings for both love and liberation, and struggles to overcome temptations and faults. The contemplative dimension of these saints was also their genius, and I learned that the true contemplative does not seek to escape life but to live it more fully and deeply. These women of prayer taught me a lot about how to live as a woman of action in the world.
You write about your attempts to find meaning in your father’s battle with dementia. Why is a spiritual lens helpful when viewing the Alzheimer’s experience?
We live in a culture that judges a person’s worth according to the categories of autonomy, productivity, and rationality. By those standards, an Alzheimer’s patient does not count for much. We think nothing of describing dementia patients as mere “shells” of their former selves, as “not really there,” “already gone,” even, according to some ethicists, as non-persons. It’s natural to recoil from the changes that take place in a loved one afflicted by Alzheimer’s I recoiled from them, too, initially but looking at this disease through a spiritual lens allows you to see gifts in the person and the trial that you could not otherwise see. For me, this meant coming to see my father not only as still himself and still beloved by God but as a true model of unconditional love and profound trust in God someone I could still learn from and admire, even amid his decline.
You worked as the sole woman speechwriter to President George W. Bush, a rare opportunity yet one that exposed you to the sort of work-life conflicts that confront women in all walks of life. Why was it important to you to find spiritual meaning in those conflicts and a saint to help you sort through them?
I turned to my faith to sort out those conflicts precisely because I found the secular alternatives so inadequate. On the one hand, I heard from a secular feminist establishment that gave me the “you go, girl” speech but offered me little help in dealing with my own innate desires for marriage, motherhood and more time with my family. There were antifeminist voices that supported those desires, of course, but they often gave short shrift to my legitimate longing to do meaningful work in the world, treating it as somehow selfish or superficial. So I found myself looking to my faith, and in this case, to Saint Faustina, for guidance in balancing these two competing desires to discern where God was calling me and how I could find love and peace without sacrificing my freedom and all I had worked for.
In writing about your journey through infertility, you mention your frustration at how few books you found that helped you deal with the spiritual side of this trial. What’s missing from the way infertility is often addressed in religious circles?
For starters, compassion. When you are dealing with infertility, you get a lot of unsolicited advice: Just pray! Just relax! Just adopt! But advice is usually the last thing you want. What you really want is a baby. And failing that, you want someone to acknowledge your grief and its validity without giving you a lecture about why you should not take your childlessness so hard or which remedy you should try next. In my case, I had the resources to figure out my medical options and to understand, on an intellectual level, the moral implications of various infertility treatments. What I most needed was a way of making sense of my trial and getting through it. I needed help understanding my value as a woman even if I never bore biological children. Where did I fit in the kingdom of God if this were to be my permanent lot in life? What was the meaning of my marriage if it could not bear fruit in this way? Why had God given me this intense desire to bear a child if He did not intend to fulfill it? Those were the questions that led me to discover the writings of Saint Edith Stein, a philosopher who wrote poignantly and, for me, very helpfully about the meaning of a woman’s maternal desires and the way those desires can be fulfilled in all walks of life.
There seems to be a renewed interest in the saints in recent years, even beyond the Catholic Church. Why do you think that is, and why should readers especially non-Catholics get to know the saints?
Christianity is an incarnational religion. We believe that God became man in a specific town, on a specific day, in the womb of a specific woman. So the personal and specific matters in Christianity, and the personal stories of Christ’s followers matter, too. Each life testifies to some unique aspect of God’s love; each human person bears God’s image in a unique way. Getting to know the saints allows us to get to know Jesus in a new way, to see His qualities magnified through a new lens or situated in a new historical context. I like the way Father Robert Barron put it when I asked him this question on my EWTN show Faith & Culture. He said that looking at Jesus is like looking directly at the sun: His virtues are brilliant, blindingly so, and they give light to everything else. Looking at the saints is like looking at the moon: They reflect the light of Christ, but in a way that’s a little easier for our imperfect eyes to take in. When we’re striving for holiness and intimacy with God, it helps to look at these little moons to look at the men and women who faced the same struggles as us and emerged victorious.
Most of the women saints you highlight lived in modern times and all but one left behind voluminous writings about their own spiritual journeys. Do you see this spiritual memoir as an attempt to follow in their literary footsteps?
Well, I certainly would not claim to have written the next Interior Castle or Story of a Soul, but I do see My Sisters the Saints as part of that long tradition of Christian writers linking their personal stories to the great story of Jesus and His saints. In the contentious, sound-bite age we live in, I think it’s tempting for Christians and especially Catholics to get so caught up in debates over doctrine or ecclesial politics that we lose sight of the intensely personal character of Christianity, a religion that is all about a personal God reaching out through the person of His Son to touch the personal lives of His followers. That’s not to say that doctrinal disputes or the public implications of Christian beliefs do not matter; I think anyone who has followed my work knows that I take those things seriously. But at the end of the day, God changes the world one heart, one life, and one story at a time. This spiritual memoir is my attempt to share how God used the stories of His saints to change my heart and my life.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is a St. Louis-based author, former presidential speechwriter, member of the Voices editorial board, and television and radio host of “Faith & Culture” on EWTN. Her website is colleen-campbell.com.
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