Colleen Campbell walks with St. Teresa of Ávila

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"If I could have only a sliver of the impact St. Teresa of Ávila had for Jesus, I would consider my life's work worthwhile."

Those were the words of Colleen Carroll Campbell, the accomplished print and EWTN journalist who authored the award-winning book, My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir. The book chronicles how connecting with Thérèse of Lisieux, Faustina of Poland, Edith Stein of Germany, Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, Mary of Nazareth and Teresa of Ávila through the written word changed her life as a modern woman.

In January, the mother of four and parishioner of St. Louis Church in Alexandria was asked to deliver the keynote at the Aug. 1-3 congress commemorating St. Teresa of Ávila's 500th birthday. The international conference for the 16th-century mystic took place in her hometown of Ávila, Spain.

"I wanted to say 'yes,' but I figured I wouldn't be able to, since I was pregnant at the time with my fourth child," she said. "I told the conference organizers that unless I could take my whole family with me, I would have to decline."

Campbell said that she and her husband had been praying for St. Teresa's intercession when the conference organizers found a sponsor to cover the cost of her husband and children's travel. The family would spend a week in Ávila after all.

On the second day of the congress, Campbell delivered a keynote entitled, "Teresa of Ávila as a Model for the Modern Woman." She cited the three lessons she believes St. Teresa can teach the modern woman: "the primacy of prayer, right relationship to our bodies and the freedom that comes with obedience to the demands of our vocation and the teachings of our church."

"That's Teresa's way," she said. "After 500 years, she's still teaching and guiding souls, still surprising in the clarity and relevance of her wisdom."

Speaking from the heart

"Teresa has had a tremendous impact on evangelization through the centuries, and I think she's a great model for the new evangelization today," said Campbell after the conference. "Her accomplishments naturally attract attention: She's the first woman Doctor of the Church, a leader in the Catholic Counter-Reformation, reformer of the Carmelite Order, founder of 17 new convents, mystic, author and spiritual beacon to millions."

But in her talks and writings, Campbell does not focus only on St. Teresa's academic and leadership achievements. What largely attracts her to the saint is her faith, and her honesty and humor in telling her faith journey in her books.

"Teresa's true genius as an evangelist lies beyond her resume. It's found in her ability to bring us into her most intimate moments of union with Christ," she said. "Her writings allow us to experience, if only vicariously, what riches await us when we embark on the interior journey."

She added, "She lures us with her self-deprecating humor. She invites us to identify with her frailties and moments of conversion. Then she turns the focus back to us and challenges us to rethink our most cherished self-deceptions about God and ourselves. We wind up looking at the same old problems in a new light, shocked by the power and relevance of her wisdom."

Campbell said she was pleased with the audience's reaction to her keynote and that several members came to speak to her after the talk.
"They appreciated hearing how St. Teresa had impacted me personally, as a woman living in today's world," she said. "Many of the younger women at the conference were especially interested in that aspect of my remarks."

By tying St. Teresa's struggles to modern women's struggles, Campbell helped bring the mystic to life for the audience, "making her seem closer and more approachable."

"That was my goal, both with this speech and with (my book)," Campbell said. "So I felt very grateful to God - and to Teresa, for her intercession - that my words had their intended effect. When that happens, it's always the world of the Holy Spirit."

The origins of her devotion

Campbell said her devotion to St. Teresa began during her days as a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee. She described her younger self as "a casual and distracted Catholic living the work-hard, play-hard campus lifestyle."

"I was feeling an inner emptiness that I couldn't fill with parties or honors," she said.

During Christmas break her senior year, Campbell received a copy of Marcelle Auclair's biography, Saint Teresa of Ávila, from her father.

"I only read it out of boredom," she said. "My parents recently moved to St. Louis, Mo., a city where I knew no one. But as soon as I started reading, I was hooked.

She said St. Teresa's "earthy, honest and often comic descriptions of her winding road to conversion" appealed to her.

"I identified with her decades-long tug-of-war between her longing for worldly status and her longing to draw closer to Jesus," she said, adding that the saint's transformation following her surrender to God was an inspiration.

"In Teresa, I saw for the first time how the quest for intimacy with God could be a rollicking, rewarding adventure," she said, "one that could lead to genuine, and indeed eternal, liberation."

From there, Campbell said she began reading voraciously about St. Teresa and seeing her as a friend.

"Her friendship inspired me to begin reconsidering my relationships, reordering my priorities and rediscovering the riches of the Catholic faith I had put on the backburner for the better part of four years," she said.
She admitted that while her life did not change right away, Teresa prompted her to seek "an adult relationship with Christ."

"That relationship would eventually lead me out of emptiness," she said. "It led me through trials I never expected to face when I was a college student, including my journey with infertility and my father's 12-year battle with Alzheimer's disease, all of which I chronicled in My Sisters the Saints. Through it all, Teresa was a beacon and a friend to me. And she remains so to this day."

Working mother in the flesh

Campbell said that some audience members thanked her for bringing her family to the congress, saying it was important to see a real-life example of a Catholic woman juggling work and family.

But the choice was not without its challenges.

"With four children ages 5 and under, you have to take your time," she said. "Doing that allowed us to really soak in the atmosphere of small-town Spanish life and to get to know the soul of this city that so profoundly shaped one of the greatest saints in history."

When not participating in the conference, Campbell and her family spent much of their time touring sites associated with St. Teresa. They saw St. Teresa's rosary, sandals, wool habit, cape and ring finger. They also saw the room where St. Teresa was born, the font where she was baptized, the altar rail where she received Communion, the confessional she used to tell her sins to St. John of the Cross, the staircase upon which she experienced her vision of the Christ Child and many of her letters.

"Everything is an adventure for children, and they soak up the faith like sponges," she said. "They ask great questions and often express truths of the faith with such striking simplicity that you find yourself marveling at how God is working in their souls."

While visiting the Monastery of the Incarnation where St. Teresa had her mystical experience of feeling pierced with God's flaming sword of love, Campbell and her family joined a group of Spanish Neocatechumenate young adults celebrating Mass. They ended the Mass with singing and dancing in a big circle along the Chapel of the Transverberation's perimeter. Campbell said her children were touched by this action and asked why they did not dance in church. So they joined the group.
Campbell called it a "reminder of the universality, vitality and beauty of our worldwide Catholic faith."

"Dancing in church isn't generally our liturgical style, but we were all there, as my 5-year-old Maryrose told me, 'dancing for Jesus,'" she said.

Campbell said that one of the most inspiring aspects of the trip was seeing statues and paintings celebrating St. Teresa as a writer.
"It was a good reminder to me, along with the happy surprise of finding the Spanish edition of my book in several storefront windows, of what an impact you can have with the written word," she said. "You can participate in some small way in God's work of saving souls."

Yet Campbell said the trip had more general Catholic appeal and encourages anyone who can visit Ávila to do just that.

"This trip was a terrific reminder to me - and to my husband and children as well - that the church is alive, the church is young and the future for the church is bright," she said. "Challenging, yes, but full of hope."

Find out more
To learn more about Campbell's book, My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir, go to colleen-campbell.com/books/my-sisters-the-saints.

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015