Friends in High Places
An interview with journalist Colleen Carroll Campbell, who just released a spiritual memoir about holy women: My Sisters the Saints.
In many ways, she was on top of the world. Colleen Carroll Campbell was a highly successful 20-something journalist in the Oval Office writing speeches for President George W. Bush.
Yet something did not sit right with her. A restlessness stirred within her. Where did her career fit in to her call to marriage and motherhood?
This was not the first time that she had struggled with such questions.
From her confusion over the campus party scene of her college days to her anguish over infertility and her father’s descent into dementia, she found consoling answers and comfort in the lives of six saintly women.
Campbell’s 15-year journey is detailed in her new book, My Sisters the Saints (Image Catholic Books). The host of EWTN’s Faith & Culture show, which airs Sundays at 5pm Eastern, recently spoke with the Register about her spiritual memoir and the holy women she met along the way.
You open the book with a conversion experience that took place while you were a college student. After another long night of campus revelry, you had a strong sense that there had to be more to this life than just living for the weekends. Tell me what happened? Who were you spiritually before that fateful morning?
I never stopped practicing the faith I had learned in my devout Catholic home — at least not in the sense of skipping Sunday Mass — but the busyness and excitement of campus life left me too scattered and distracted to focus on God. I became fixated on building my résumé and reveling in the campus party scene, and prayer fell by the wayside.
My faith devolved into something peripheral and compartmentalized. Eventually, my work-hard/play-hard mentality brought me to a dead end: a feeling of inner emptiness I could no longer ignore. God used that emptiness to get my attention.
God grabbed your attention, as you note, by introducing you to a number of female saints. These holy women became real. However, this wasn’t the first time you had met the saints. Who were some of the saints that you liked as a young Catholic girl?
My favorite childhood saint was Rose of Lima, a beautiful lay Dominican from Peru known for her charity, prayerfulness and extreme penances. My attraction to Rose was fairly superficial: I liked her picture in my children’s book of saints and her name, which I took as my own at confirmation. I also admired her zeal and love for Jesus, though I didn’t quite know what to make of her penances.
My childhood impression was that sainthood was the premier career choice. If you were a saint, I reasoned, you could be more than just a successful writer or actress or artist or lawyer. You could be someone who enjoyed eternal bliss with God in heaven while being revered as a Christian superstar on earth. The aspirations to stardom weren’t perhaps very noble or humble, but I think there was some truth to that childhood insight: Why settle for worldly success when you can reach eternal glory?
Who are these six holy women that you came to know and lean on? What role has each played for you over the years?
The six saints whose stories I interweave with my own in My Sisters the Saints are Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux, Faustina of Poland, Edith Stein of Germany, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Mary of Nazareth.
The richness of their gifts and guidance and the pivotal roles they have played in my life would probably be too much to explain here.
But to put it briefly: Teresa of Avila and her tale of a struggle to overcome worldliness and status-seeking spoke to me during my frenetic college years and jump-started my spiritual quest. Thérèse of Lisieux helped me grapple with my father’s journey through Alzheimer’s disease, a trial she knew from her own father’s descent into dementia. Faustina of Poland guided me as I struggled to choose between continuing my work as a presidential speechwriter in the White House and marrying a man who was smack in the middle of medical school in a city 800 miles away. Edith Stein offered me insight and consolation in the midst of my battle with infertility. Mother Teresa did the same at a time in my life when I was feeling some of the same abandonment by God that she had described so eloquently in her recently revealed private writings. And Mary, the Mother of God, was with me all along, but in a special way in my quest for motherhood.
You note throughout the book that these saintly women have helped you discover a true feminine identity that goes against much of what society today says that women should be or should not be doing. What is this “new feminism”?
I have been very inspired by Blessed Pope John Paul II’s call for a “new feminism” that is pro-woman, pro-faith and pro-life. I think such a feminism — and perhaps more importantly a focus on what John Paul described as the “feminine genius” for radical, loving openness to God and others — is a perfect antidote to the lies and distortions confronting women today.
One of the best guides to what this sort of authentic feminism would look like and consist of is St. Edith Stein, whose writings on the dignity and vocation of women made her the intellectual leader of the European Catholic women’s movement in her day. Those writings make her an excellent guide to the new feminism in our own (day).
There are many who would say, “The saints are out of my league. I am the last thing from a saintly Catholic. Give me someone I can relate to.” How would you respond?
I know the feeling. I found the saints attractive as a child, but during my college years I was one of those people who considered the saints inaccessible and irrelevant — and a bit boring, too.
I changed my mind with the discovery of Teresa of Avila, a woman who had struggled with many of the same temptations and faults as me and had overcome them and used her gifts to God’s glory.
With each new phase in my life, I found myself confronting new problems to which the women saints could speak in powerful and surprisingly relevant ways. I came to realize the communion of saints is a living and powerful reality, and the family of God in heaven is truly also a family to us on earth. No matter what struggles we face, there is a saint who can relate — and can point us toward victory and peace.
Eddie O’Neill writes from New Castle, Colorado.