How many things attracted me to My Sisters the Saints, A Spiritual Memoir, by Colleen Carroll Campbell (Image Books, $22.99, 212 pp.)? Let’s just say many. That said, I would add that I might have trouble enumerating the many things that made me not want to continue reading this book. In what is an apt metaphor for faith and religious practice, it seems that the ambiguity, the great “both/and-ness” of living a life of faith, that counts in the end. And along those lines, I found myself turning the pages in rapid succession.
I’ll begin with the attraction. My Sisters the Saints, A Spiritual Memoir – the title alone entices me, while inspiring a blush of envy. Can’t that be my book’s name? The topic is as seductive to me as the scent of freshly baked bread. A book filled with saints and memories of a spiritual life. What’s not to love?
The author is a gifted writer who employs a personal and conversational style that I enjoyed. The book is easy to read, and the words flow smoothly, carrying the reader along on a very personal current. That quality, along with carefully crafted prose that has the tone of an intimate conversation made “My Sisters” a pleasure to read.
As someone a bit older than the author, I still find myself in a position not unlike hers, when I recollect the days of my youth, and how those days were spent. (Hint: not always wisely.) My own rearview mirror reveals clear images of days spent in some less than savory ways. That is where Campbell and I begin to part company. Although I enjoyed her story very much, especially the parts when she was challenged to make hard choices, I can’t really relate to her particular trajectory.
For Campbell, the path out of one part of life and into another is a bit too much “either/or” for me, and much less the “both/and” that defines my own experience as a Roman Catholic woman. Yet because of that “both/and” place, I pressed on with this book, and grateful that I did so.
The volume is well crafted, with an interesting story to tell. The temptation to, in social media terms, “unfriend” anyone with a different point of view, is not only ridiculously easy (click!), but it is remarkably sad, if you ask me. So although I found myself uncomfortable at times, I did not put the book down and I was never disappointed in what I read. This reminded me of an important question; when is it a good idea to avoid discomfort? Especially in our conversations about our relationship with God, and the choices that we exercise in life? If it is not uncomfortable, how are we ever challenged and how are we transformed?
Perhaps that is the biggest takeaway in My Sisters The Saints. This is ultimately a book about faith, surrender, choices made, and relationship with God. That relationship also involves the saints that are generously given to us by that same God. In agreement or not, I found Campbell’s interactions, with these “sisters” most satisfying. We hear about Saint Therese, Saint Faustina, Saint Teresa, and Mary the Mother of God, through tales woven with the author’s life. Other saints include women like Edith Stein and Dorothy Day, which were beautiful additions to her great cloud of witnesses.
Perhaps the most moving element of the story for me, and a real reason for my admiration of the book, was Campbell’s family history. The scenes that unfolded, with descriptions of her parents, especially her father, were deeply touching. The deterioration of her father’s life as he struggled with Alzheimer’s, was beautifully chronicled, and emotionally charged. Ultimately that is what it is all about, isn’t it? Our relationships with one another through God, or through the saints, our family, or others are what matter. That point is never missed in this story. And it is in the stories that God works with us, challenges us, changes us, transforms us, a thought that is consistently represented in these pages. How could I not like that?
Sometimes a book shows up, and I am not inclined to read it because of the title, its jacket blurbs, or because of what I know about the author. Just as My Sisters the Saints called to me because of the title, it might have sent me away for other reasons, but I stuck it out. Oddly enough, a book that feels at time too “either/or” for my taste, invited me more deeply into the “both/and” of my own life and faith. As with any good relationship, it is really important to stay with the relationship and with the stories. That may be the very best message of this book in the end, a message worth reading.
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