The feminine soul, created in love and for love, can be a lovely thing to encounter. One of the joys of my life these past 10 years has been the spiritual direction of young women on campus. The soul of a young woman, searching for her own mission and vocation in life, and for a foundation upon which to build her life, has a certain aptitude for discovering the Lord’s love and offering a response to it.
Working with the young women at Newman House on Queen’s University campus is to come to love the feminine soul, which brings a certain beauty to the life of a Catholic chaplaincy. The world looks upon young women rather superficially, noting the physical attractiveness which accompanies youth, but the feminine soul has a beauty from within that contributes something to the loveliness of the faith.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is a lovely soul who has had something of a difficult road in discovering the love of God and the loveliness of faith. In her case, she is typical of young Catholic women, in their university years and afterward. The ambient culture doubts whether love is truly possible and whether the feminine heart can find an enduring answer to its deepest desires. Campbell’s book My Sisters The Saints tells the story of her soul and does so in a distinctively feminine way. Those who observe the praiseworthy custom of giving books as gifts should buy not one but several copies of Campbell’s book and give them to the Catholic women they know.
Campbell’s spiritual memoir opens with a familiar campus scene. A night of partying has left her surprisingly empty. A Catholic girl not terribly serious about her faith — observant but not fervent — she has discovered that campus life, ranging from the superficial to the debauched, has left her wanting something more. It is the story of St. Augustine told once more — the mind searching for enduring truth, the heart searching for deeper meaning, the soul searching for fulfilment.
“Better to be labelled shallow, stuck-up, drunk or debauched — anything but devout,” writes Campbell about the campus scene in telling words. She became reluctantly devout, which began a surprising adventure in faith.
What follows after graduation is an astonishing series of events in which Campbell confronts almost all of the issues that Catholic women confront. She faces the challenge of reconciling her professional aspirations with the decision to marry; the challenge of caring for a father suffering dementia; the challenge of dealing with infertility in the light of the moral law; and the challenge of combining a deeper prayer life with the demands of successful career as a professional writer, author and television commentator.
Campbell’s memoir stands out because she finds, at various times in her life, profound guidance in great women saints. Teresa of Avila in moving from superficiality to spirituality; Therese of Lisieux on dealing with her father’s descent into second childhood; Faustina on trusting in God when making career and family decisions; Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) on motherhood when suffering from infertility; Mother Teresa on darkness and suffering in the face of her father’s death; and the Blessed Virgin Mary as the model disciple. Sisters in Christ are speaking to each other across the centuries, and Campbell draws inspiration and illumination from the women who went before her. Not only a testament to the power of holy women to draw others close to the Lord Jesus, Campbell’s pilgrimage is one that brings alive the reality of the communion of the saints. It is a Catholic story as ancient as the Gospel and as new as the headlines.
This book will resonate deeply with Catholic women, but men should not be dissuaded from reading it. Men who wish to understand the feminine soul but are not spiritual directors will learn something of how grace works in the lives of their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters and friends. For priests, it will assist them in the care of souls and give them a source of encouragement to offer young women who are seeking to be faithful disciples. Such contemporary testimonies are essential, for the transmission of the faith and the formation of Catholic culture has been from time immemorial something more accomplished by women than men.
One example from Campbell’s book makes that point. She writes of learning the Memorare prayer — Remember O most gracious Virgin Mary — as a school girl and it became her favourite. It too is my favourite, and the one that most often comes to mind spontaneously. It is perhaps the most Catholic of all prayers, turning all matters over to the Mother of God in confidence that no child of Mary is ever left unaided. I love the prayer too because I remember my own mother teaching it to me. Every time I pray the Memorare I am thus inserted in a conversation between my own mother and the Blessed Mother. The whole history of the Church is shaped by the conversation between the mothers of every time and the Mother of God — a distinctively feminine conversation. Campbell’s book allows us to listen into that conversation, and it is lovely to do so.