Your writing career until now has been focused mostly on journalistic and
political endeavors – as a news and editorial writer, op-ed columnist,
presidential speechwriter and author of The New Faithful, a
journalistic study of a religious phenomenon. What inspired you to take such
a personal turn in this new book?
The truth is, I was forced into it. I was drawn to writing about the themes
at the heart of this book – the tensions between our human desires for both
freedom and commitment, spiritual growth and worldly success, avoidance of
suffering and the wisdom that comes only through trials. I was especially
drawn to writing about how these tensions play out in the lives of women
struggling to reconcile their Christian faith with contemporary feminism.
And in the end, I found myself agreeing with Flannery O’Connor: “A story is
a way to say something that can’t be said any other way … You tell a story
because a statement would be inadequate.” It just so happened that the story
I needed to tell was my own – mine, and those of six women saints.
The personal struggles you describe and issues you confront in this book
are quite contemporary, from disillusionment with the hook-up culture to
difficulties finding work-life balance and moral dilemmas over hi-tech
fertility treatments. Yet most of the saints you cite as guides were
contemplatives and many were cloistered nuns. Did it surprise you that you
could relate to these women?
Yes, it did. The outward circumstances of my life and the lives of these
saints were often very different, though there were some striking parallels
– such as the dementia that struck St. Therese’s father and my own father.
The real basis of my connection to these women was more fundamental, though:
our shared search for meaning, longings for both love and liberation, and
struggles to overcome temptations and faults. The contemplative dimension of
these saints was also their genius, and I learned that the true
contemplative does not seek to escape life but to live it more fully and
deeply. These women of prayer taught me a lot about how to live as a woman
of action in the world.
You write about your attempts to find meaning in your father’s battle
with dementia. Why is a spiritual lens helpful when viewing the Alzheimer’s
We live in a culture that judges a person’s worth according to the
categories of autonomy, productivity and rationality. By those standards, an
Alzheimer’s patient does not count for much. We think nothing of describing
dementia patients as mere “shells” of their former selves, as “not really
there,” “already gone,” even, according to some ethicists, as non-persons.
It’s natural to recoil from the changes that take place in a loved one
afflicted by Alzheimer’s – I recoiled from them, too, initially – but
looking at this disease through a spiritual lens allows you to see gifts in
the person and the trial that you could not otherwise see. For me, this
meant coming to see my father not only as still himself and still beloved by
God but as a true model of unconditional love and profound trust in God –
someone I could still learn from and admire, even amid his decline.
You worked as the sole woman speechwriter to President George W. Bush, a
rare opportunity yet one that exposed you to the sort of work-life conflicts
that confront women in all walks of life. Why was it important to you to
find spiritual meaning in those conflicts and a saint to help you sort
I turned to my faith to sort out those conflicts precisely because I found
the secular alternatives so inadequate. On the one hand, I heard from a
secular feminist establishment that gave me the “you go, girl” speech – but
offered me little help in dealing with my own innate desires for marriage,
motherhood and more time with my family. There were antifeminist voices that
supported those desires, of course, but they often gave short shrift to my
legitimate longing to do meaningful work in the world, treating it as
somehow selfish or superficial. So I found myself looking to my faith, and
in this case, to St. Faustina, for guidance in balancing these two competing
desires – to discern where God was calling me and how I could find love and
peace without sacrificing my freedom and all I had worked for.
In writing about your journey through infertility, you mention your
frustration at how few books you found that helped you deal with the
spiritual side of this trial. What’s missing from the way infertility is
often addressed in religious circles?
For starters, compassion. When you are dealing with infertility, you get a
lot of unsolicited advice: Just pray! Just relax! Just adopt! But advice is
usually the last thing you want. What you really want is a baby. And failing
that, you want someone to acknowledge your grief and its validity without
giving you a lecture about why you should not take your childlessness so
hard or which remedy you should try next. In my case, I had the resources to
figure out my medical options and to understand, on an intellectual level,
the moral implications of various infertility treatments. What I most needed
was a way of making sense of my trial and getting through it. I needed help
understanding my value as a woman even if I never bore biological children.
Where did I fit in the kingdom of God if this were to be my permanent lot in
life? What was the meaning of my marriage if it could not bear fruit in this
way? Why had God given me this intense desire to bear a child if he did not
intend to fulfill it? Those were the questions that led me to discover the
writings of St. Edith Stein, a philosopher who wrote poignantly – and, for
me, very helpfully – about the meaning of a woman’s maternal desires and the
way those desires can be fulfilled in all walks of life.
There seems to be a renewed interest in the saints in recent years, even
beyond the Catholic Church. Why do you think that is, and why should readers
– especially non-Catholics – get to know the saints?
Christianity is an incarnational religion. We believe that God became man in
a specific town, on a specific day, in the womb of a specific woman. So the
personal and specific matters in Christianity, and the personal stories of
Christ’s followers matter, too. Each life testifies to some unique aspect of
God’s love; each human person bears God’s image in a unique way. Getting to
know the saints allows us to get to know Jesus in a new way, to see his
qualities magnified through a new lens or situated in a new historical
context. I like the way Father Robert Barron put it when I asked him this
question on my EWTN show, “Faith & Culture.” He said that looking at Jesus
is like looking directly at the sun: His virtues are brilliant, blindingly
so, and they give light to everything else. Looking at the saints is like
looking at the moon: They reflect the light of Christ, but in a way that’s a
little easier for our imperfect eyes to take in. When we’re striving for
holiness and intimacy with God, it helps to look at these little moons – to
look at the men and women who faced the same struggles as us and emerged
Most of the women saints you highlight lived in modern times and all but
one left behind voluminous writings about their own spiritual journeys. Do
you see this spiritual memoir as an attempt to follow in their literary
Well, I certainly would not claim to have written the next Interior
or Story of a Soul
, but I do see My Sisters the Saints
as part of that long tradition of Christian writers linking their
personal stories to the great story of Jesus and his saints. In the
contentious, sound-bite age we live in, I think it’s tempting for Christians
– and especially Catholics – to get so caught up in debates over doctrine or
ecclesial politics that we lose sight of the intensely personal character of
Christianity, a religion that is all about a personal God reaching out
through the person of his Son to touch the personal lives of his followers.
That’s not to say that doctrinal disputes or the public implications of
Christian beliefs do not matter; I think anyone who has followed my work
knows that I take those things seriously. But at the end of the day, God
changes the world one heart, one life and one story at a time. This
spiritual memoir is my attempt to share how God used the stories of his
saints to change my heart and my life.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, print and broadcast
journalist and former presidential speechwriter. Her newest book,
Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir, will be published by the
Image imprint of Random House on Oct. 30.