Authors: Abbie Reese
Tags: #Religion, #Christian Rituals & Practice, #General, #History, #Social History
Dedicated to God
Dedicated to God
An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns
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© Abbie Reese 2014
All photographs copyright Abbie Reese 2008–2013
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For Evan, Gabriel, and Eve
I really think the presence of God would be the sense that you have. I think that’s the sense that the people have when they come here; they can tell this is a place of God. And that’s a special and wonderful thing, to have a place that’s dedicated to God. If I’m meant to be dedicated to God as His spouse, I need to be in a place like this. This is the certain monastery that He decided, in His wisdom, that I belong here, and that this is the place that is the best for me.
Sister Mary Monica of the Holy Eucharist
A South African friend once described the documentation of others’ stories by way of biblical tradition; he referred to God’s instructions to the Israelites, to set up memorial stones as visual memories that would call to mind oral histories of the hardships, triumphs, and God’s miraculous interventions.
Oral history still yields these markers. The stories can serve as pillars and reminders for present and future generations. As I worked on this book about the Poor Clare Colettine Order in Rockford, Illinois, the community’s newest and youngest member, Sister Maria Benedicta, said to me, “I’m sure anyone who falls in love, they look back and say, ‘Oh, remember how we met? Or how he showed his love?’ It’s the same, how God has shown His personal love. I think it’s a joy to look back.”
I was drawn to the cloistered monastery, something of a cultural time capsule, in part because the nuns do not “need” to be seen. At the outset, I probably had the incomplete sense that cloistered monastic nuns are not keen on public performance because they are hidden from public view. I assumed that the nuns perform their idealized selves, that they marry their ideal spouse, that they inhabit a societal role that represents an ideal. I expected more uniformity of belief than I encountered: It takes
years for members to be socialized into a cloistered subculture, where communication is abbreviated and silence is observed. One nun’s great-niece, when she was four years old, described her visits to the monastery as trips to “the Jesus cage.” The nuns, who find the description amusing, make this distinction: The enclosure, rather than restricting them, offers freedom; the grille keeps the world out. The nuns revealed themselves, in one-on-one interviews, as self-deprecating and humorous, with a diversity of beliefs—opinions they did not know they did not share with one another because they observed monastic silence and did not have occasion to discuss matters they shared with me. Removing themselves from a visible, wider audience still impacts the congruity of their performances; there are high stakes in becoming absent from the world in order to enact one’s beliefs for God. The rest of the community bears witness within the highly ritualized space that oscillates between the concrete and physical (demanding manual labor), and the intangible and virtual (prayers).
When I have talked about this oral history and photography project (and more recently, my filmmaking work with the community of cloistered monastic nuns), the most consistent, often pressing question is as predictable as the Liturgy of the Hours: How did I gain access? The short answer might seem evasive. Like any practice built on social contracts and long-term relationships, access is a matter of trust and negotiation. The fuller answer to this question of access begins with the recognition that any form of ethnographic work is a complicated endeavor; representing others and representing otherness are problematic territories, following an imperialistic tradition of exploiting native resources. The truth is, too, that it is difficult to dissect the evolution of a relationship or to unravel a process that unfolds fluidly. This work has probably sustained my intense focus because I find it challenging and nuanced.
My engagement with this community was predicated by variables that I could not have fully understood at the outset: the peculiar insider-outsider dynamic; a subculture facing an uncertain future (their possible extinction due to dwindling numbers); questions of power relations within the monastic hierarchy; and the contradictory nature inherent in a project that asks members of an insulated community (who seek anonymity, have limited contact with their closest loved ones, and observe monastic silence) to talk about themselves.
I began this project with a question: What compels a woman in this era of overexposure—at a time with the technological means to reach a global audience—to make a drastic, lifelong, countercultural decision for her life, in favor of obscurity? My assumption was that it would be of value to learn about the motivations and the lives of women who make vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and enclosure. Cloistered monastic nuns mediate on behalf of humanity, believing that their prayers and penances can change the course of history.
I am not Catholic. During my first visit to the Corpus Christi Monastery, I explained that to the Mother Abbess. I said that I wanted to undertake a project about the lives of cloistered monastic nuns ever since I read an article about a trend, in Italy, of young women joining religious orders and wanting, in my recollection, a return to the habit. The way I remember the article, some of the women were the daughters of fashion designers. I told Mother Miryam that I did not know yet what form the project would take but that I wanted to work long-term with the community.
I acknowledged in our first meeting my awareness that monasteries were closing and that the number of women seeking religious life in the States was dwindling. She agreed; with changes following Vatican II, she said that nuns wearing habits are not as prevalent in mainstream culture’s visual vocabulary. She said that nuns had been “erased from the landscape.” Mother Miryam told me she would take my request under advisement and consult with the Vicaress, the other members of the elected council, and the rest of the community. A few weeks later, the answer was “yes”; I know now that the answer was “yes,” by increments.
I was new, then, to the practice of oral history. As a teenager studying toward an undergraduate degree in history, I was prejudiced to be wary of traditional historical accounts, which have often privileged stories told from the perspective of the powerful, the victors in war, rather than the individuals and subcultures living on the fringe of the mainstream—those who are not compelled to add to the historical record with their own narratives. Having worked as a journalist and questioned some of that field’s premises and practices, particularly interrogating distinctions between private performances and public lives, I took to the discipline of oral history when I first encountered it; I appreciated the pioneering figure of Alessandro Portelli, who called attention to the fact that memory, including collective memory, is faulty. When I first heard an elder in the field of oral history, perhaps
when I was a fellow at Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office Summer Institute in 2008, summarize a philosophy of oral history as advocating coauthorship and shared authority, this resonated with me.
A few years later, when I presented this work-in-progress at the Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region’s annual conference, I was struck by another speaker’s comments; Patrick Hurley, a political ecologist, said that whereas history can collapse identity, oral history features a multiplicity of identities.
I believe that we create stories to lend meaning, to call attention to themes, to explain our experiences. These stories reveal emotional and transcendent truths. As the South African journalist and poet Antjie Krog wrote of her homeland’s struggle to reconcile after the horrors of apartheid: “We tell stories not to die of life.”
In working with the nuns, I demonstrated my rigor, my sincerity, my earnestness. I demonstrated, too, that I did not know enough of the culture. I think now that it took too long to realize that the nuns stand up as a sign of respect when the Mother Abbess walks into the room. (The first half-dozen times I visited with the Mother Abbess, though, I had a private audience; it was only when another nun was sitting and talking to me and the Mother Abbess walked into the room that I saw the nun stand. I then learned of the practice.) Only after I had extended my hand through holes in the metal grille in greeting the nuns did I realize that they do not, as a rule, touch even their loved ones; however, they will not refuse a hand that is extended to them. I course-corrected. The interviews continued. I was invited into the enclosure to make photographs. I respected their values and I picked up, probably intuitively and subconsciously at first, and then echoed their indirect style of communication. In retrospect, I understand that patience underscored this process. I made various requests; I waited. The nuns were gracious as I learned their culture. At times, I inadvertently tested the limits and was met with none-too-subtle jesting. During one of my first visits, in 2005, I asked the Mother Abbess if I could be “a fly on the wall” during one young woman’s upcoming visit, when the two would discuss her interest in becoming a Poor Clare nun. My request was granted. Maybe thirty minutes into their conversation, I asked a question. The Mother Abbess glanced at me. “A fly, eh?” she said. “I wish I had a swatter!” I laughed nervously. She looked at me sternly, then smiled.