Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting Out Into The Deep
December 07, 2012
The day before Thanksgiving was a rare treat when I had no afternoon or evening appointments. I decided to download to my iPad Pope Benedict’s third and final volume of “Jesus of Nazareth,” focusing on the Infancy Narratives, which had been released the day before.
It’s a great journey into the mind and heart of someone whom I believe one day will be numbered among the greatest doctors in the history of the Church. In it he examines the Gospel genealogies, Jesus’ conception, birth and presentation, the visit of the Magi, the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt and finding of Jesus in the Temple and applies the truths he unveils to our lives and to the life of the Church.
I anticipated, based on the first two volumes in the series, that the Infancy Narratives would occupy the rest of my day, but it’s much shorter than the other volumes and took up only a couple of hours.
So, happily nestled in my comfortable chair, I turned to another book I had downloaded a few weeks prior, Colleen Carroll Campbell’s “My Sisters the Saints.” Within minutes I recognized I wasn’t going to be able to put it down. I also grasped that, even in comparison to Pope Benedict’s new work — featuring his characteristic lucidity that has led me to devour more than three dozen of his books over the years — “My Sisters the Saints” was going to be the best work I read the day before Thanksgiving, and one of the most inspirational books I’ve read in years.
I met Colleen in August when she invited me to New York to tape an episode for her EWTN series “Faith and Culture.” I had been impressed seeing her on television a couple of times as well as reading some of her op-eds for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but I really didn’t know much about her. Google soon taught me she had been a speech-writer for President George W. Bush as well as had written an important book — “The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy” — that several people had recommended but I had never had the chance to read. When we were conversing prior to the taping, I discovered we had several good friends in common and that we were both alumni of a great summer seminar in Krakow, having missed each other by a year.
For the program she wanted to talk about how Catholics can make a compelling case for the Church’s most controversial teachings, particularly on contraception. It became obvious over the course of our half-hour together not just that she’s a very poised and down-to-earth host, but is able to articulate the Church’s teachings with clarity, personal warmth and freshness. Those traits are even more on display in her new book.
“My Sisters the Saints” is a riveting spiritual memoir in which Campbell illustrates how six female saints helped her endure, understand and sanctify four different personal crises. Along the way, we not only learn much about Campbell and about the saints who accompanied and inspired her through these trials, but, insofar as the ordeals she describes are not unique, we learn by entering into her experiences how better to approach those and other adversities with faith, courage and heavenly help.
The first crisis happened at Marquette University as an undergrad in the ’90s when she became a self-described party girl who kept the letter of her Catholic faith but not its spirit. After hangovers and courses on radical feminism, however, she recognized that there had to be something more to life than smashing the patriarchy and the pursuit of pleasure. On a trip home to St. Louis, her father gave her a biography of St. Teresa of Avila, whose “spicy, messy and meandering spiritual journey” illumined her own struggles and gave her a model of faith, femininity, freedom and good fun that she could admire and appropriate.
The second crisis happened when she was a college senior and her father Tom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. She gives a very moving account of not only her father’s virtues in his illness but the struggles she and her mother had in caring for him. The first saint who came to her aid was St. Therese Lisieux, whose own father suffered with dementia for six years at the end of his life. The other was Blessed Mother Teresa, whose struggles with spiritual darkness provided Colleen with light to understand her father’s sufferings and her own and helped her to embrace Christ in the midst of them. For anyone with a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s, this part of the book will move you and fill you with hope.
The next challenge took place when Colleen unexpectedly was offered a job as one of President Bush’s speech-writers. She was persuaded by her fiancé that it was an opportunity too good to pass up and she moved to D.C. While there was a certain exhilaration that came from putting your own words in the mouth of the most powerful politician in the world, it didn’t make up for what she knew she was missing with her family and her fiancé. As she wrestled with what to do, she befriended St. Faustina Kowalska, Jesus’ “secretary” in giving to the world His message of Divine Mercy. Praying with her the Chaplet of Divine Mercy early each morning at the White House, she learned from her Polish sister the humility, trust and courage she needed to leave a dream job at the White House and prioritize marriage and family back home in St. Louis.
The final trial she describes was to remain faithful and hopeful despite several years of agonizing struggles trying to conceive a child after her marriage. Wanting to remain true to the Church’s teachings that children are supposed to begotten of conjugal love not manufactured via in-vitro fertilization, yet worn down by years of medical interventions, pressure from doctors, unsolicited advice from those who benignly thought they had all the answers, and a litany of failed pregnancy tests, she was left in a moral and existential quandary. St. Edith Stein’s writings on womanhood and spiritual maternity helped her rediscover her femininity in light of her faith and fertility struggles. Colleen’s crisp, clear and comprehensible summary of Stein’s theology of woman is the best I’ve ever read. In our sexually-confused age, I hope every woman — and every man who loves a woman and wants to figure her out! — will ponder it.
Merely seeing her fertility struggles through the lens of faith, however, didn’t take away the pain. Her faith led her to turn in prayer to another spiritual sister, the most famous saint of all. Years of Memorares to the one whose Immaculate Conception we’ll celebrate tomorrow led finally to Colleen’s and her husband’s conceiving twins. And Mary continued to accompany all four Campbells through serious scares during pregnancy and childbirth. In this section Colleen gives far more than a grateful tribute to an intercessor. She presents a beautiful and accessible treatise on Marian devotion that will be helpful to all, and will provide special hope for those contending with similar fertility struggles.
The best gifts we can give to others at Christmas, especially in this Year of Faith, are those that can inspire them to live by faith. If you introduce your family and friends to Colleen Campbell this Christmas, she’ll bring over her six saintly sisters who may impact their lives even more than they’ve impacted hers.