“A beautiful and inspiring story of a woman’s deep faith and the saints who became her sisters along the path to her answered prayers.” -Mary Higgins Clark
In October 2014, I was struggling under the weight of a heavy cross to bear. I had lost three babies in miscarriage, was struggling against a neurological disease, and was trying to make my peace with the fact that trying to have more children was too dangerous for me. I was not in a great place. Amazon kept recommending My Sisters the Saints to me, presumably because I was doing a lot of book searches related to spiritual motherhood and St. Teresa of Avila.
“Feeling a mixture of anger and despair, I knelt in a nearby pew and let the darkness engulf me.” (p 9)
I was not sure what I would be getting into with this book. I have a, probably unfair, bias against modern books. I have been so disappointed by books drafted in my own time. So often they make great promises to connect with a modern reader and ultimately fail to have much substance. My expectations for this book were low.
In very little time, I was swept up in the compelling story, made even more compelling when I discovered that she was talking about the Carmelite monastery in my town. I read it in just a few sittings over three days. Campbell’s story forced me to confront some things in my own story. She addressed some fears I had and took me to places that I did not want to go.
That fall, I was angry with St. Teresa of Avila. I had just put down her Interior Castle and wasn’t very happy with her. She was the first female saint I had ever really and truly appreciated but she was writing to nuns and, while she satisfied my intellectual need for authentic theology, her writing made me feel unworthy and left out because I did not wear a habit.
I was frustrated with Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta. After more than a decade of loving the little nun and trying to adopt some of her spiritual wisdom, I was coming up empty and feeling as though she was actively pushing me away.
With the exception of Edith Stein, the other saints in this book did not appeal to me at all. I knew little about St. Faustina and what I knew wasn’t very exciting. I always grimaced at the mention of St. Therese of Lisieux. I knew that the church treasured her witness and had elevated her to the position of Doctor of the Church. And yet, I found her to be saccharine sweet, idealistic, and useless to a modern married woman like me.
As a Catholic revert (someone who is raised Catholic, leaves the church for a period of time, and then returns home), I was struggling to get over my Protestant concerns about Mary. I found her to be unapproachable because I was miserably confused about what to think of her.
“Like many Catholics born after the Second Vatican Council, which closed in 1965, I grew up viewing Mary with some ambivalence… I knew too little about Mary to feel genuinely close to her and felt too wary of Marian piety to learn more.” (p. 183)
Only Edith Stein appealed to me, and that was because I knew nothing of her except that she had been a Jew, and that she was a theologian and a feminist.
“I realized that my lingering melancholy might be connected to the intimacy with God that I had abandoned shortly after arriving at college. For more than three years, I had given God the scraps of my time and attention, put Him last on my list of sources to turn to for answers and fulfillment.” (p. 9)
Campbell’s story is different than mine, but she and I have walked similar paths. In this powerful little book, I was reintroduced to these saints in a new way, as she was, through her crises. In each chapter, Campbell chronicles a significant life challenge that she experienced as she tried to renew her relationship with the Lord and walk with Him. In each chapter, she is suffering. But in each season, the Lord’s mercy invades her experience. Each time, the messenger of His mercy is the writing and example of a sister in heaven. I began to see that just as she moved into friendship with new saintly sisters, I too could look for the companion that God had ordained for the various legs of my journey.
“And though I felt a shaky sense of peace taking root in my heart, whatever was happening inside me was still not strong enough to curb my vanity and vices. It just made me enjoy them less.” (p. 23)
When the book opens, Colleen is broken. She is a college student who has gone off the rails. She has excellent and holy parents, but she has enjoyed the fruits of the world and is starving for spiritual nourishment. As the Spirit stirs in her heart, our Lord uses the writings of St. Teresa of Avila to conquer her spiritual and intellectual pride. In the writings of St. Teresa, Campbell returns home to Christ reluctantly and by degrees. Reading the mystic Doctor of the Church, Colleen’s rational self is converted so that she can give her heart permission to be converted as well. Interestingly, St. Teresa of Avila’s writings are what converted Edith Stein from Judaism. Like Colleen, I found solace in the sound theology of Teresa of Avila.
“Teresa’s example convinced me that my journey to understand who I was and how I should live as a woman was inextricably bound with my journey toward God.” (p. 24)
Upon her return to the faith, Colleen is challenged deeply. I could appreciate her laughter at Teresa of Avila’s complaint against God: “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”. When we truly embark on this adventure, we can be sure of two things: suffering and divine support. His will does not not take us where His grace will not cover us. However, it is often to the very limits of our ability to trust in that grace.
On this journey, Colleen’s father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Like St. Therese of Lisieux, Colleen must watch her robust and saintly father suffer indignity and abuse from this merciless disease. During her father’s decline, Colleen is working at the White House as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, but her career is tearing apart her relationship with her fiance. In a radical trust fall of sorts, she must make some difficult choices that are seemingly unclear. Instead of reasoning her way through them, ultimately, she leans into the example of St. Faustina and prays the Divine Mercy Chaplet for months, “Jesus, I Trust In You.”
“Genuine spiritual motherhood lies in leading others to freedom, not dependence; in giving, not getting. But a woman cannot give what she does not first possess. Only in loving God can she find the strength and selflessness she needs to be a true spiritual mother.”
And then we get to her challenges with infertility. Her insights into Edith Stein’s writings fed my soul in a profound way. Two years and two readings later, I am still wrestling with those writings, but I know Edith’s writing continues to grow me and change me. They significantly altered my view of my vocation and gave me a peace that is still working its way deep into my soul.
Finally, Colleen journeys with Saint Mother Teresa through a very dark period of her father’s final days. And when she comes through that, she clings to the Blessed Mother as she transitions into a whole new way of life.
God has worked in my life in a way much like He has worked in Colleen’s. First, He converted my reason. Then, He converted my desire. After that, He converted my will. And now, He is working on my trust and total surrender. His mercy, patience, and grace astound me. His creativity delights me.
I owe Colleen a tremendous debt. Instead of combing the stories of the saints for spiritual answers, I am learning to study their lives for practical answers to my practical problems, which ultimately leads to spiritual answers to my spiritual challenges. In the lives of the saints, I see how the Gospel can be lived in any day and in any circumstances.
I cry every single time I see the name of her son. John Patrick. My littlest guy happens to bear the same name. Every time I see that line in the book, I cry tears of relief. I know that the Lord is listening and working in my life. I know that it was no accident that the Holy Spirit led me to this beautiful story.