Friday, March 08, 2013

Book Review: My Sisters the Saints

The cover looks a little dreamy. Muted and golden, the image hints at cozy chats, secrets shared in hushed tones, feminine confiding, and a tidy faith. In the distance, the light beckons. Ah ... all is well.

Not so fast.

All was not well, and Colleen Carroll Campbell knew it as early as her junior year in college. While nursing a hangover one autumn morning, she realized that a vague unease had settled over her, pricking at long-held assumptions, picking at a skin that had grown over unidentifiable feelings. Why did she feel such melancholy? Why was her freedom -- freedom from commitment, freedom in her career -- not forging the way to happiness?

As a young woman who grew up with feminism in her bones, in "the air she breathed," Campbell was puzzled. She was embarking on the kind of life she'd always assumed she would have, and yet something was missing. What was it?

In My Sisters the Saints, Campbell chronicles a years-long spiritual journey. Much more than a pious treatise on saints as role models, the book is a portrait of a living, breathing community that is all the more interesting because much of the community is dead. That's the ironic wonder of the communion of saints, and Campbell does a fine job of showing us how it works without pounding us over the head with its inner theological gears.

As she struggled through genuinely painful and challenging events in her life (I don't want to give them away, as they are at the core of the narrative), six saints -- Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, Faustina, Edith Stein, Mother Teresa, and Mary, mother of Jesus -- found her, or she found them. And in them, she unearthed strength, ideas, and inspiration that helped her piece together the puzzle that was her circumstance and worldview.

These are some of the very saints I was drawn to early in my conversion -- they helped me in strikingly similar ways. I was a feminist looking into the Catholic Church, and initially, those two things seemed incompatible: feminist freedom? And Catholicism? Please. I struggled to figure out how to be fully Catholic, fully a woman, fully a human being, in the context of marriage, work, children, life, and faith. Campbell did, too. Her journey unfolded in the high-power world of Washington, D.C., but the questions and conflicts are the same, whether you're an East Coast player or a midwestern middle manager: work or family? His job or mine? Children or not, and when? How do we do all this?

I especially loved the honest little details that made me laugh; I could relate. When Campbell accepted a friend's offer to speak at a women's luncheon, she was hesitant. She had attended the same luncheon the previous year, and felt painfully out of place:

The keynote had focused on faith and fashion - not a gripping topic for someone who still wears shirts she bought in high school and typically jumps on trend bandwagons just as everyone else is jumping off. I cringed when the speaker began by congratulating her audience on choosing the season's hottest new pastel-colored flouncy skirts and pumps over dark hues and pants, a sure sign that they cherished their femininity. There I was at the head table, sporting a five-year-old black pantsuit with dowdy flats and feeling like Bella Abzug trapped at a Tupperware party. Things went downhill from there. 

I think I've been at that Tupperware party. In the same flats.

I read My Sisters the Saints in one Sunday. It was surprising, touching, and edifying. In the end, the muted, golden cover fits after all. All is well, and the journey to golden is worth braving.


My Sisters the Saints is on a virtual book tour. If you'd like to follow along, you can find the full schedule, including previous stops,  here, at Image Books. Upcoming stops include:

March 9: Prints of Grace
March 11: Catholic Vote
March 12: Snoring Scholar
March 13: Maria Shriver
March 15: Catholic Mom 


Faith said...

What a wonderful review, Karen! I loved this book too. I liked peeking at all the blogs that are part of the virtual tour. So many blogs out there!

Karen Edmisten said...

Thanks, Faith. Yes, so many blogs, so little time. :)