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BY Jeanette DeMelo
This week on Register Radio I spoke with author, journalist, and TV host Colleen Carroll Campbell.
Our conversation centered on her latest book My Sisters the Saints, published in 2012 by Image Books, a division of Random House. Campbell received a Christopher Award in May.
Campbell is a journalist by training and her first book The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, published in 2002 by Loyola Press, was a journalistic endeavor. The book reported on a growing movement of young people toward orthodox faith despite the countercultural demands that such faith required. I loved the book because I was one of those young people and felt a sense of encouragement and pride in being one of the “new faithful.”
My Sisters the Saints is a much different style of book. As a memoir, it is deeply personal.
In the interview, Campbell described herself “as a woman trying to make sense of both my Christian faith and a culture shaped by contemporary feminism and … gradually coming to discovering that my faith was an avenue to liberation and that the saints became models to me of what it means to be a truly free and fulfilled woman in Christ.” It’s a discovery that she came to make in 15 plus years.
She said her memoir developed out of a desire to “share some of those truths I discovered but I found that as I began to write that there was no way to share the truth without sharing how I personally came to discover them — through the circumstance of my life and the friendships of the six saints, who I chronicle in My Sisters the Saints.”
The book begins with Campbell as a college student, looking at her life of parties and résumé building, and wondering “Is there more than this?”
Said Campbell, “There came a point late in my college career where I was feeling lost and empty … I felt rudderless and I found myself wondering if it had something to do with my relationship with God,…(which) was very much on the sidelines.”
Her quest didn’t immediately lead her to the saints. Rather she signed up for a feminism philosophy class and searched in other ways until in the end she finally read a biography of St. Theresa of Avila, that her father had given her.
She didn’t think she could relate at first to the pristine images of the saint.
“Instead I found she was a woman who really struggled, who was almost 40 until she got her act together spiritually speaking, who struggled a lot with worldliness and other things I could relate to,” said Campbell.
“Yet she found in Jesus the right way to direct all that natural passion and energy she had … to find fulfillment that lasted forever,” explained the author. “In Teresa I saw a model of what I could aspire to be someday if I ever took God seriously enough to try and that launched a journey that eventually took me to several other women saints.”
Campbell’s memoir chronicles her personal experiences of trying to navigate the hook-up culture of college life, the pressures and ambitions of pursuing a career while also maintaining work-life balance and the desire for marriage and family, the struggles of dealing with infertility, and the challenge of her father’s early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and his 12 decline into dementia. In each of these moments she is accompanied by a female saint: St. Teresa of Avila, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Faustina, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Blessed Mother Teresa, and the Blessed Mother.
My Sister’s the Saints shares Campbell’s personal journey but it also gives compelling introductions to the life of each of these saints.
It’s easy to identify with some part of the Campbell’s journey. One thing that stood out to me was the witness of the author’s parents. Campbell is first introduced to the saints and daily prayer through her parents. Exposure to her parents’ friendship with the saints and God through daily prayer (which sustained them in all things including her father’s illness) helped Campbell to turn to the saints and God when she lacked peace in her own life. What Campbell has to say of her parents’ witness is a true encouragement to parents who are wondering if their children have absorbed any of the faith they have sought to pass on.
In the last part of the interview, I asked Campbell about her new program to debut on EWTN in September, “EWTN News Nightly with Colleen Carroll Campbell.” I’ll definitely have Campbell back for a full interview about this new endeavor but for now this is snippet what she said:
“Basically we aim to bring the best news and commentary from across America and around the world to our viewers and specifically to do so through a Catholic lens to help our viewers make sense of the contentious and often complicated debates of our age by hearing from the sharpest minds and Catholic thinkers as to how we should think of these debates, what are the different points of view we should be considering and how our catholic faith inform the way we look at the world.”
Listen to the interview to hear all that Colleen Carroll Campbell had to say about her book and the new program.
Saintly Friendships—Take Two
In the second half of the show, Dan Burke spoke with author Heather King about the book Shirt of Flame. Here again we have a woman of faith telling her story of meeting a saint in the midst of her life experience. But King’s story is very different from Colleen Carroll Campbell’s. She’s a sober alcoholic, an ex-lawyer, and a Catholic convert. Her journey shows that the saints are companions for everyone.
Shirt of Flame chronicles King’s experience of a year spent in spiritual companionship with St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Her journey offers a compelling path to bringing faith into secular culture.
King has two other memoirs: Parched; and Redeemed. She also writes for Magnificat and has been a featured writer for Fr. Robert Barron’s Word on Fire apostolate.
In the Register Radio interview, King describes what she calls an “unlikely pairing” between her life and that of St. Therese.
Compared to the French school girl, who entered a Carmelite convent at age 15 and lived in the cloistered walls until she died of tuberculosis at age 24, “my life has been a very different life. I was 20 years as a black out drunk, bar fly very promiscuous (of course I have a very different life now),” said King. “What I found, of course, was parallels of how our … hidden life is on fire with love of Christ and all the sort of tragic comedies that ensues.”
King talked of the challenges of the Little Way and pointed out that the hardest people to love are often the ones closest to us.
She said that like Thérèse who struggled to accept the irritations she experience with the other nuns in her cloister, “we all have our own little circle, our cloister of people…a cloister is a frame in which we get to die to ourselves.”
Burke followed up on this description of the cloisters we experience outside of convent walls: “The cloister is the circle of people God puts us in connection with…the people who test us, try our patients.”
King explained her understanding of St. Thérèse’s spirituality, “The Little Way to me … is really utter, utter surrender—total abandonment to Christ, realizing by myself I can do nothing.” That abandonment, King said, includes letting Christ have control of every part of our lives, withholding no area where we act along on our own will.
Toward the end of the show, Burke asked a couple questions from readers of his blog. One was: What is the simplest way to grow in the little way?
King’s answer: “The old school, the only way, the new way — the sacraments!” and she listed elements of her own way, including daily mass, daily prayer, the divine office, read the scriptures, and fellowship with others.
To hear more of Heather King’s story, listen to the interview or follow her blog.