As Colleen Carroll Campbell tried to settle into her new work at the White House she found that she had never been so profoundly challenged in her work but so deeply dissatisfied with her life in general. She writes:
I wanted to blame patriarchy for my conundrum., blame my job, blame John. Deep down, though, I knew something else was pulling me home [i.e. back to St. Louis]. It was the force of my own desires, desires that sprang form a soft, passionate, feminine part of me that I thought I had smothered with résumés and credentials long ago. Decades of perfectionism and compulsive achievement had not managed to kill her off. Now she was daring me to reject the smart move and take a chance on love (79).
Trying to work her way out of this she turned to prayer. She turned to the Divine Mercy chaplet, the prayers that came from the journals and insights of Faustina. Don’t misunderstand. She was reading Scripture daily and meditating in the written words of the Holy Bible. Psalm 37:3-7a became a great reminder to her soul of divine providence. She would meditate over such texts and prayed, “Jesus, I trust in you.” These words, taken from the divine chaplet, are obviously a simple, biblical expression of true faith. Eventually she chose to return home and marry the love of her life, John Campbell. Faustina had guided her along the way. By reading Faustina she learned that the true question, when it comes to faith, is not: “Do I trust God?” but rather “Is God trustworthy?” (90).
Married in 2004 Colleen then began to think about children soon after. By 2005 she and John began to more intensely pray for a baby. Eventually they met extreme difficulties in conceiving a child and were forced to seek medical help. The problem was that they both refused to violate their conscience, or the teaching of their church, about en vitro fertilization. As their trials increased their faith was profoundly tested. The story she writes about this part of her journey is like reading a magnificent novel. (I will not reveal how they handled this and what the outcome was in the end. You’ll have to read the story yourself if you want to see how faith is tested and two people trust God in darkness and light.) What really interests me here is the development of Colleen’s thinking about being a woman.
Over time this gifted, professional and competent feminist began to have doubts about her understanding of the feminine. She was asked to speak at a women’s luncheon where she writes that she was “a little hesitant to accept . . . I felt out of place in a crowd of well-heeled mostly stay-at-home mothers” (101). You get a good feel for the story, and her sense of humor, by this sentence: “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” (101). She embellishes further by writing, “I knew the women who attended this annual luncheon were sincere in their faith and desire to glorify God through their femininity. But I had no interest in telling them how to look pretty for Jesus or channel their inner June Cleaver” (102). Her response to this invitation was to say that she would speak if she could speak about a Catholic view of womanhood as articulated by Pope John Paul II. She admits that her motives were selfish because she had spent months trying to make sense of her infertility and womanhood. She began her research with a 1988 apostolic letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women. Then she read the 1995 Letter to Women and the 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life. In the latter document the pope called specifically for a new, pro-life, Christian feminism that would “affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society” (102). She came across ideas about spiritual maternity which called women to welcome the human person and to “see persons with their hearts . . . independently of various biological or political systems . . . in their greatness and limitations” (103). Even more remarkable, at least to Colleen as she silently suffered with her own infertility, was John Paul’s claim that a “woman can discover and cultivate spiritual maternity regardless of her state in life or her ability to bear children, though pregnancy can heighten her awareness of this gift. Every woman is called to be a mother, the pope says, but there is more than one way to answer that call” (103).
This new understanding of motherhood deeply resonated with Colleen. It led her to discover a new Catholic saint who helped her unpack what she was learning. This time she was a Carmelite nun, Edith Stein. Edith was a Jewish convert who died at the hands of the Nazis at Auschwitz. What Colleen devoured in Edith’s story was her deep intellectual pursuit of understanding. She spent her life searching for truth, studying psychology and philosophy. She was particularly drawn to phenomenology, a movement that emphasizes careful reflection on personal experience in the pursuit of truth (104-5). Edith’s search eventually led her to Christ and into the Catholic Church. The Scriptures and the writings of Thomas Aquinas gave her a fuller picture of human dignity and the destiny of the human person. Among the questions that intrigued Edith throughout her scholarly pursuit were those related to the nature of woman. She was a self-proclaimed feminist with little tolerance for superficial or chauvinist views of femininity. She praised the great advances of women in her day. But she also saw some very real dangers as well. She thought feminist efforts to downplay femininity had led to “feminine singularity,” which she believed destroyed feminine virtue (105). Edith’s life and views made her a beloved teacher on women’s issues in her own day. Her most famous work, Essays on Women, remains a major contribution to studies of women.
An entire series of blogs could be written about the questions Colleen raises in the chapter: “Mother at Heart.” Is there a feminine distinction? Is there something about a woman that makes her different, other, than a man? Is this only biology, or is it much more? Quoting Edith Stein we hear something of Colleen’s response: “The deepest longing of a woman’s heart is to give herself lovingly, to belong to another, and to possess this other being completely.” And she adds, “This longing is revealed in her outlook, personal and all-embracing, which appears to us as specifically feminine” (106).