Colleen Carroll Campbell’s new spiritual memoir informs the reader, very early in the book, of how her reading St. Teresa’s biography brought deep change. She understood anew why her parents read the lives of the saints as she found in Teresa a woman of passion and purpose whose journey was deeply compelling for its many detours. What she describes as Teresa’s “spicy, messy, and meandering spiritual journey cast my own struggles in a new light” (19). She saw huge differences between her life and that of Teresa but she wondered if the aching hunger that she knew, and her boredom with worldly pleasures, could find an answer in such a deep spiritual experience.
Before Christmas break was over she realized that she did not want to make long-term plans with a man who regarded God as a competitor for her loyalty (22). In her words, she “surrendered her relationship [to] take a chance on God instead” (22). Her attempts to enter into a relationship with God was, at first, one of fits and starts. She was grasping for something, anything, that would “help her get her bearings” but the journey was not easy. (Is is ever? If it is it will likely not last.) She finished college with many questions but says: “Teresa’s example convinced me that my journey to understand who I was and how I should live as a woman was inextricably bound with my journey toward God” (24). The party girl, feminist, church drop out, was now on the road home and her interior journey was about to be shaped by reading the Catholic saints.
This life-altering encounter with Christ was soon challenged when Colleen got a phone call from home telling her that her dad had Alzheimer’s. She felt numbness, emptiness and profound dread. When she graduated from Marquette, and began to make plans to move to Memphis where she would write for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, she tried to make sense of her new faith and her dad’s diagnosis. She made a simple, but deeply profound commitment, to continue a course of “spiritual reading.” The next saint that she discovered helped to shape how she retained elements of her social awareness and feminism without being formed by the secular expressions that had destroyed faith, hope and love. She discovered the more modern Dorothy Day, the Catholic social activist who had even been admired in social-justice circles at Marquette, where her personal papers are archived. (Colleen’s mom had kept copies of Dorothy Day’s penny publication, The Catholic Social Worker, on the coffee table over the years. For years she had heard about Dorothy’s commitment to the human dignity of the poor and the necessity of Christian community.) It was through reading Dorothy Day that Colleen then stumbled upon one of my favorite Catholic saints of them all–Thérèse of Lisieux, the “little flower.”
Thérèse taught Colleen how to embrace her father’s love and face his dying and her deep suffering. Thérèse was a young woman, about Colleen’s age, when she died. This allowed Colleen to readily identify with her short life. Yet Thérèse was a woman who understood grace so powerfully. The late evangelical theologian Donald G. Bloesch once told me that Thérèse was a woman who knew grace in a powerfully, personal way. She used a metaphor to describe God’s grace in salvation that Donald loved–the picture of salvation being an elevator. God invites us to enter into the elevator called grace and by grace alone he lifts us up to himself and then into heaven. Bloesch often said that if more Catholics, and Protestants for that matter, understood this metaphor, and lived their lives in the light of it, we would see and hear more about true gospel grace. For this reason it was especially fitting that Colleen met her in her early twenties. Her telling of Thérèse’s story is beautiful and quite compelling.
Thérèse was a favorite of Colleen’s dad too. She says the reason for this was because he struggled all his life with his temper, something the saint called “intellectual pride.” Colleen’s dad “was brilliant and courageous but not adept at picking his battles. He wanted to fight them all. He protected the weak with passion but had no patience for snobs, poseurs, or people he saw taking advantage of the defenseless. He often judged himself and others harshly” (45). I identify so personally. As a younger man I saw all battles, especially ones for justice and the rightness of a good cause, as worthy of a scrap for the truth. I loved those portions of the Bible that spoke about “contending for the faith” and defending the truth against false teachers! Some think I lost my nerve with age. I think otherwise. I’d rather see it as a measure of grace in sanctification and emotional security.
Colleen expresses all of this so well when she writes about her dad and Thérèse:
In spite of those struggles–or, perhaps, because of them–Dad always reminded me of the same truth that echoes throughout Thérèse’s writings: that God loves us no matter what mistakes we make, and our confidence in his providence should be boundless. Dad’s own confidence sprouted from prayer. I first learned that as a girl, when I would rise before dawn, tiptoe barefoot through my toy-strewn bedroom and the darkened hallway, and find him in his office, reading scripture and praying in silence. Spotting me at the door, he would grin and wave me inside. I would scurry toward him, my blue eyes filled with sleep and tousled auburn curls popping out in every direction as I hopped onto his lap with a mangled baby doll in tow. I would pour out my hopes and dreams, nightmares and worries. He would listen, then tell me about the heavenly father I could count on to care for all my needs. “Remember,” he would say, quoting a favorite verse from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “everything works together for good for those who love God.” (45).