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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVIII, No. 1
Lent-Easter 2013

How God Makes Beauty from Barrenness

by Colleen Carroll Campbell

The weather was still chilly on the May morning when I found myself pacing in a northern-Wisconsin parking lot, trying to find a sweet spot in the gray sky overhead where my cell phone would work. My mother and I were traveling together, taking a break from visiting my grandmother in her Green Bay nursing home. A meandering drive southward had brought us to the Spanish-style Carmelite Monastery of the Holy Name of Jesus, which was perched amid gentle hills near Lake Michigan’s shore. I was eager to peek inside at the chapel, but first I wanted to check the messages I had received while roaming out of range. 

I finally found a pocket of reception and heard the frantic voice of a Fox News producer who recently had added me to her Rolodex of go-to pundits for live TV interviews. She was planning a debate segment on a breaking news topic that day, something right up my alley. She could find a TV station for me to use wherever I was if I could carve out an hour or so for a live shot. She needed to hear from me right away. Was I in? 

I paused for an instant, wondering how I might squeeze this into my weekend, then quickly thought better of it and called her up to politely decline. “I’ll be unavailable all weekend,” I told her when she asked if the next day was an option. “I’m tied up with family.” 

After hanging up, I took a deep breath and drank in the wide expanse of farmland around me. I thought of how much easier such decisions were these days. I still struggled at times to keep my striving in check. But I had come a long way from where I was a few years earlier, when the very thought of making even small career sacrifices made me edgy. I marveled at how stealthily God works in the soul, one day and one trial at a time. He softens your edges so slowly and subtly that you can fail to notice how far you have come until you have moved on to the next problem. I wondered what other changes God might be working in my soul now, even as I saw no outward signs of progress at all.

Shivering as I realized that I had left my jacket in the car, I began strolling briskly toward the arched doors of the church. Surveying the building’s beige, brick-and-limestone façade and the dim outlines of its stained-glass windows, I thought it looked a bit stark, even barren, against the austere rural landscape. 

I changed my mind when I stepped inside. No sooner had I entered the sanctuary’s warm embrace than I saw a trio of stained-glass windows towering before me, featuring three of my favorite saints. In the center was Teresa of Ávila, holding a tiny replica of one of the Carmelite monasteries she founded and a scroll with her signature line: “God alone suffices.” To my right was Thérèse of Lisieux, standing amid roses and grasping an image of the suffering Christ beside a scroll bearing her famous words: “In the heart of the Church, we will be love.” To my left stood Edith Stein — Teresa Benedicta of the Cross — crowned by a halo of thorns and clutching a star of David and a scroll that said, “Love will be our eternal life.” 

Set aflame by the sunlight streaming through the window, the three silhouettes blazed in glory as if lit by God’s love itself. Here were my heroines, my patronesses, my friends. Aside from Mary, the mother of Jesus, I could hardly think of three women I admired more. And the realization hit me with sudden force: Not one of them had borne biological children. Not one had been a mother in the conventional sense, the sense that I once thought I had to be a mother in order to “count” in the Church and the world. Yet there they were, radiantly holy and beloved by countless spiritual children throughout the world, including me. Each had fulfilled, in her own way, what Edith described as the highest call of every mother: to nurture the spark of divine life in another’s soul. 

I realized as I gazed at the windows that the way these women looked to me now, from within the church, is how God saw them all the time. When He looked at these daughters of His, He saw beauty, not barrenness. He did not grieve their empty wombs. He celebrated their maternal hearts. He rejoiced that they had allowed Him to use those hearts in His own mysterious ways. 

I knew in that moment that God wanted to do the same with me — that He could do the same, if I let Him. He could make me a mother. He could even make me a saint. And He could do both without making me pregnant. He needed only my cooperation, my willingness to trade my own dreams and plans of motherhood for His. 

I did not know if I could give Him that. The pain of my childlessness still overwhelmed me at times. But I sensed that if I did, if I kept following, step by step, where He led, I could bear fruit beyond my imagining. 


Colleen Carroll Campbell, a member of the editorial board of Voices who lives with her family in St. Louis, is an author, journalist, and television host. Her website is This excerpt from her latest book, My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir (© 2012 Colleen Carroll Campbell) appears with the permission of Image Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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