And I’m back to the adult spiritual nonfiction. I actually started Mrs. Caroll Campbell’s memoir during the Triduum and have only been able to get to it snatches at a time. It’s season finale season, after all!
My Sisters the Saints achieves my highest standard for memoir: it conveys a universal truth through not just an individual’s stories, but life’s parables, that can then be woven into the reader’s own personal narrative. Mrs. Carroll Campbell adds in some catechesis to boot! Folded into her recounting of her spiritual life are mini-stories of the female saints who served as guideposts during joyous, challenging, and difficult moments as one understands her feminine identity in the context of God, the Church, and the world.
Women are the more relational gender—we seek out emotional bonds—a truth recognized by even secular psychologist (so says quotes from a recent Real Simple article on mothers-in-law). To be sure, Mrs. Carroll Campbell does have a community of female contemporaries and mentors to accompany her in her ongoing pursuit of God. But the high note of this book is the realization that the saints are part of our community, too. More than a “cloud of witnesses,” which evokes a connotation of distance and mere observance, they are immediate and acting in our lives. My Sisters the Saints chronicles not just what Mrs. Carroll Campbell has to say about the role of womanhood in her own personal life, but also what the lives of Teresa of Ávila, Thérèse of Lisieux, Faustina, Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), Mother Teresa, and Our Blessed Mother, Mary have to say about the feminine genius.
I was surprised by the passages relating Mrs. Carroll Campbell’s struggles with infertility. I had not known this about her, and in a way her honesty was refreshing and her experiences important, but it was not all that the book was about—and that too was in its own way refreshing. A woman’s fertility or lack there of can be a pretty integral part of one’s grappling of what does it mean to be woman, but writing explicitly about that would undercut her overarching thesis about the female identity to focus particularly on the ability or inability to be mother. In fact, it is her role as daughter that is most poignantly portrayed.
In the most brutal and yet beautiful chapter of the book, Mrs. Carroll Campbell casts light into her personal “dark night of the soul”—her father’s last months living out the final stages of dementia. Beautifully woven, this chapter of reflection on suffering walks nicely with Bl. Mother Teresa’s own suffering as she spends decades tormented by the perceived absence of God within herself. More than just the daughter of her ailing father, Mrs. Carroll Campbell is a fellow daughter of God, like all women are. It is an exquisite pain to love our daddies and find it hard to feel their love for us. But—to borrow a book title—this pain is useful to us; there is joy in the offering.
By the end, I was tearing up. Everything about this book is beautiful–the cover, the title, the writing, the arc, just everything. If you can only read one book this summer, make it this one.