I first saw and read of today's interviewee's work in the University of Chicago alumni magazine, which featured her reflections upon what she learned taking oral histories of cloistered nuns in Rockford, IL. I had a lot of follow up questions for her after reading the piece, which is why you see this interview. Abbie Reese is an independent scholar and interdisciplinary artist, about to enter post-production on a collaborative documentary film, Chosen (Custody of the Eyes), made with and about a young woman transitioning into the cloister. Abbie is author of Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns (Oxford University Press, 2014). In her relationship- and research-based practice, she utilizes oral history and ethnographic methodologies to explore individual and cultural identity, public and private performances within heterotopias, and the liminal phase as one transitions social roles. She received a Master of Fine Arts in visual arts from the University of Chicago. She was a Fellow at the Columbia University Oral History Research Office Summer Institute.
What was your exposure to and relationship with Catholicism prior to taking on your oral history project?
It was limited. When I was a kid we didn't watch much television and there are just a few scenes from TV imprinted in my memory; one was of a flying nun. Both my parents converted and raised us Protestant. My dad was born and raised Jewish and he carried the observances he was taught in Hebrew school into my upbringing. I grew up appreciating those rituals and traditions - the recurrent anticipation to pause and note the sacred, the striving towards an ideal. I started this project because I wanted to understand the motivations and experiences of those who make such an extreme commitment. I was drawn, in part, because I didn't understand it. I stayed interested and engaged because cloistered contemplative life is complicated and paradoxical. And I formed bonds and friendships with the nuns.
What was an average day for you like at the Cloister?
When I went inside the enclosure to make photographs, the days really varied. Here's an example: Sister Ann Frances served in the Women's Army Corps during WWII before she became a teacher in an active order and then transferred to the Corpus Christi Monastery. When she died, Mother Miryam asked if I wanted to photograph the ceremony, with military honors, from the roof of the monastery. The day of the funeral I went into the parlor and photographed the Mother Abbess on the other side of the metal grille adjusting a crown in the casket. Then I went to the public chapel for the service, then outside the chapel to photograph the casket being carried out. I went back into the monastery and was led through the enclosure to the roof, where I perched during the ceremony and then while just the nuns remained in silence. Another time I spent twenty-four hours at the monastery and was led from place to place as the nuns worked and prayed. Typically, when I conducted interviews, my routine was to take off my dangly earring and any rings, and leave the jewelry in my car. I didn't wear much, if any, makeup. I usually wore black, especially on those days when I went inside the enclosure to make photographs. (I always hoped the dogs would ignore me, but my presence always stirred them up.) During an interview near the start of this project, one of the nuns told me that I should be mindful of what I wore when I entered the enclosure. I was a bit taken aback; that may have been the most direct instruction from any nun to behave a certain way. The Novice Mistress, who helps young women acclimate to the monastery, explained this: Since the Poor Clare Colettine nuns wear a traditional full habit, they aren't used to seeing anything more than wrists and fingers and the face. Sister Mary Nicolette helped educate me; I dressed more modestly. I had told the Mother Abbess from the start that I wanted to go inside the enclosure to make photographs. I made the changes and I was invited inside the enclosure. I'm sure it was a sign to the Mother Abbess and the community that I respected their values while in their space.
What was your method for collecting the oral histories?
I prepared for the interviews by making lists of questions that focused on their biographical sketches, how they perceive their experiences, the story of their calling, the struggles and rewards of monastic life, and so forth. Oral history advocates co-authorship, so rather than sticking to a set of questions, I wanted the conversation to evolve in directions I wouldn't have predicted.
The interviews took place in the parlor, where the nuns visit with their family. (They're allowed up to four visits a year.) A metal grille separates the enclosure from the outside world, so I would pass a microphone (a Shure SM58) on a 10-foot cable through a slat in the grille for the nun to hold. I used a Marantz PMD660 to record the interviews. The nuns' voices would often begin to go hoarse soon into the interview and I quickly realized that they wouldn't ask to stop or bring water; I needed to suggest breaks and ask if they wanted to get a glass of water.
To sidetrack for a moment on this topic, and the notion of sacrifice: Sister Mary Clara shared that the nuns are allowed to drink water anytime and so she can give up a sip of water when she's thirsty, and God can "take that sacrifice" and comfort somebody who needs it. Sister Mary Nicolette takes solace in never hugging her family again (they are allowed one final hug when they make final vows, six years after entering) because "a sacrifice that costs," she says, can help carry another's burdens and alleviate the heart of that other person, for example a mother who can't see or hug her child serving overseas in the military. "We get many phone calls a day with special intentions and you know for all of those things we offer our little sacrifices," she says. "That makes it all worthwhile and bearable, really."
After the interviews, I would make transcriptions and return after a stretch for additional interviews. I printed all of the transcripts and gave them to the nuns - for their own use and to clarify or correct anything. (I had learned early on from the Mother Abbess that when a nun dies and they want to write her biography in the monastic records, that they often don't know her life story because they observe monastic silence. I told the Mother Abbess I would give copies of the transcripts, which is standard oral history protocol, as well as a way I could contribute something of value.)
Did you find a commonality between many of the women you spoke with? Did you see themes in family backgrounds, or education, for instance?
The upbringings and the stories of their callings varied. Some were raised by fervent Catholics and prayed the rosary before bed each night; others came from families that didn't go to church every week; one was a convert. Some came from well-to-do families, others were working class, one lived with her grandparents at times and other times in a campground. Some of the older nuns went to the monastery straight out of high school. Quite a few were members of multiple religious communities before joining the Corpus Christi Monastery. Some of the younger members felt called during college and they joke they're starting a Dropouts for Jesus Club. It was very common that the nuns' families had a strong negative reaction against them joining a cloister.
Did you get the sense that many of the nuns were "escaping" from the world as we know it?
I wondered about this when I first started interviewing the nuns. I talked with a mentor (Steve Rowland) who said he thought the impulse to leave society is universal, although most don't follow through to this extent. Seems that decades ago, women had fewer options; entering a monastery was a known quantity - something that society understood. Monastic life is rigorous and demanding. As I followed new members (twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings) through formation and their transition from our world to the monastery, I did not get the sense they are escaping; they believe they're called. One - Sister Mary Monica - said she really struggled in the years when she was discerning her calling, to find her true home; it was exhausting trying to figure out where she belonged. She wanted to be part of a community that observes the Divine Office (praying seven times a day, including waking at midnight to pray while the world sleeps) and it was a relief when she found it.
Sister Maria Benedicta pondered her calling in college and her thoughts are emblematic: "We live this one life and we either go to heaven, or we go to hell. We have one life, and I remember thinking if I'm laying on my deathbed, if I'm 80 or 90 what will I wish I had done in life? Will I wish I had that car? Probably not. Will I wish I had a better house? Probably not. You know, when you're dying you want to know you're going to heaven. That's the purpose of your life. And also I realized, and this is part of that charity we were talking about before, that I wanted everybody else to get there, too. ... So there is an urgency, because people are dying every day. It's not just that I want to get to heaven. I want everyone else to get there, too. And it is very urgent. It's life or death for eternity."
Once fully accepted and committed to the Cloister, what percentage of the nuns are in for the rest of their natural lives?
It is very, very rare for a nun to go through the six years of formation, make final vows, and then leave the Corpus Christi Monastery. This being a papal enclosure, the nun would "petition Rome" if she wanted to leave. This is a small community, about twenty women. One young woman I first met in 2005 (who is the focus of my film in-progress, Chosen: Custody of the Eyes) finally entered the monastery in 2011, following six years of contemplation, repeated visits to the monastery, and contending with such obstacles as family resistance and college debt. The Mother Abbess would say that if a woman still had doubt after six years of discernment, the formation period could be extended so that she could either be sure or decide it was not the place for her.
Not all the nuns are accepted into the Cloister, even after spending several years in the process of "applying" (for lack of a better word.) What are some reasons why they would not be accepted, aside from a sense that they would not be cut out for the cloistered life?
One of the purposes of the six years of formation is for a woman and the community to learn if this is where she's called. A woman isn't expected to enter knowing, without a doubt, that she is called to become a cloistered contemplative in the Corpus Christi Monastery. Formation consists of one year as a postulant, two years as a novice, and three years of temporary vows. (Formation was extended recently from five years to six because the older nuns saw what a major shift it is for young women from modern American culture, adapting to monastic life.) The nuns would describe formation as a process of mutual discernment.
I wanted to know why women would join and leave during formation, and I interviewed Sister Joan Mueller, who entered the Corpus Christi Monastery from an active religious order; she left, started a Franciscan community in Nebraska, and works now with immigrants. She has a PhD, has written books, and teaches at a university.
I've been really impressed by the nuns' openness; they live a strict and severe life, but they give one another space to live out their faith. As far as reasons why the community would ask a woman to leave, Mother Maria Deo Gratias says cloistered life is by nature a community in very close proximity; while we can remove ourselves from aggravating situations, in the monastery the nuns have to deal with it. They can't leave. A woman might not have the skills to live in a community and to give-and-take (she might need to have things her way or for others to agree with her perspective); mental illness might be an issue; physical health concerns might mean that she can't perform the manual labor (gardening, for example) and live the life (waking at midnight for prayers). The Mother Abbess says, too, that the motivation needs to be "right" - to give herself to God completely, and not a "private agenda," like the expectation that the monastery will provide security so she doesn't have to take care of herself as she ages. The monastery isn't a copout, Mother Maria Deo Gratias says.
You noted in the book that several of the nuns admitted that you weren't what they expected of a journalist; how so?
They were talking about how I engaged with them. A few mentioned the word "agenda" and said, for example, that I wasn't pushy. I tried to be conscious of the silence when I was in the enclosure and I tried to be unobtrusive. I was asked so many times why the nuns "let me in" that I asked the Mother Abbess a few years ago to articulate the reasons; she wrote a lovely letter, which is quoted in part in the epilogue.
Did you get a sense of how the nuns in the Cloister feel about un-cloistered nuns? I wonder if there is any sense of competition (like within the different branches of the military), or wistfulness.
While some of the cloistered nuns felt called to a cloistered order from the get-go and then they joined the cloister directly, others transferred from an active religious order; they had a "call within a call." Some were teachers or nurses. The question about wistfulness reminds me of Sister Mary Clara, who had been a teacher as a Felician sister. She told me about how much she missed the children: "I loved them so much. That was a special gift I had received from God to teach the little ones. I just loved them to bits." She describes soon after joining the Poor Clares, picking green beans in the monastery's garden and hearing school buses beyond the gated backyard dropping off and picking up kids. She cried. She still sometimes asks the Mother Abbess if she can peek into the parlor if a group of students visit. After decades in the monastery, it is still a struggle: "There has to be a break for your own peace of mind and love, too, because you can't have two loves. I can love the children, but I can't have my heart over there, wondering what's going on over there--if the kids are still growing up, still good, or whatever--and then be here in the monastery and praying the Divine Office. That doesn't work well."
The nuns agree that the cloistered life is very hard; the manual labor is demanding physically; their practice of poverty is extreme (they go barefoot in the monastery); they observe monastic silence; the vow of enclosure is materialized in and symbolized by the metal grille, which means a severe separation. As Sister Mary Monica told me: "They say the vows crucify you. Yes, they do. It's a crucifixion. Obedience is. If it doesn't cost anything, you know, it doesn't make a very good story, anyway! You want to watch the stories in the movies where someone had to struggle and work hard."
How much did you speak to the nuns about the way they're viewed within the church? Personally I think it's a bum deal that they do so much yet will always be considered "less than" priests, but this is just one of many, many reasons why I could never be a nun.
Sometimes the nuns would talk about this by way of how their families responded initially to their calling. Loved ones, friends, even priests did not see the value in removing themselves from the world to pray for the rest of humanity. The nuns say it can be like a death for their family when they first enter the monastery. Family tends to come to terms over the years. The nuns sound incredibly sympathetic when they talk about the struggle of their loved ones; God gave them the calling, not their families, so they understand the challenge of coming to terms with it.
To return to your question, though, the Poor Clare Colettine nuns at the Corpus Christi Monastery in Rockford, Illinois are very self-sufficient. They clean the boiler. (Until they had a smaller heating system installed a few months ago, they crawled inside the boiler in full habits to clean it out.) They work the gardens and the yard. They did not ask permission to let me undertake this project or to allow me repeatedly inside the enclosure.
Did you observe the nuns working the prayer hotline? What did it seem like most callers needed help with?
At the beginning, that was a primary question: What do the nuns say to the callers? What do people ask? I wanted to hear. I got permission from the Mother Abbess to listen in and record the calls - the nuns' side of the conversation. I can't remember exactly what transpired but I decided not to do that; it seemed intrusive. I looked at the daily list of prayer requests that the nuns copied down by hand, which they transcribed by typewriter, and then shared with the community aloud and posted outside the Mother Abbess' office. The callers ask for prayers for physical healing (from tumors, cancers, heart conditions, difficulty getting pregnant), marital troubles, financial difficulties, and on and on. I asked the nuns assigned to answer these calls about their experiences; this shed light on their perspective and struggles. Poor Clare Colettine nuns remove themselves from the world to draw closer to God and essentially to serve as emissaries and to mediate on behalf of humanity. They believe their prayers and penances can change the course of history. Because they observe monastic silence, they don't typically chitchat or make small talk, and because they seek anonymity, the nuns aren't supposed to tell the callers their religious names - they're supposed to say that they're just one of the sisters. (They don't want the callers to get attached and call back asking for one nun.) Sister Mary Clara shares her name, though, and she gets attached to the callers. If she doesn't hear from someone in a while, she asks permission to write a letter to inquire about her health and situation.
In the book many of the nuns refer to God as their "spouse": why this term, and not "husband"?
The Mother Abbess says that the word husband denotes a human; they use the word spouse because it's a divine relationship, not a human relationship, in the spiritual realm.
There is one photo of a nun enjoying swinging on a swing in the book; what else do they do in the Cloister that is for pleasure only?
Their hour of recreation each evening is pleasurable; they can talk freely and do crafty things, like string rosaries (made from Job's Tears they grow in the enclosure), or make notecards (pressing flowers from their gardens). That said, everything has a purpose: the manual labor, prayers, eating and sleeping all serve a purpose so that they can draw near and commune with God.
Early on, one of the nuns lent me a book about several monks in one strict order; one monk is described as having abused his body with self-flagellation. I think the Poor Clares read the book aloud during meals. I talked about these stories with a number of the nuns. While the monastic life is meant to be hard, Sister Maria Benedicta told me: "The whole purpose of sacrifice and penance is to strengthen your body against wanting all these comforts that aren't good for you, strengthening your mind against all these thoughts that aren't godly thoughts. But if you go beyond that and say, 'I'm going to not sleep, not going to give myself that luxury,' well, then you're going to be so down. When you don't sleep, you don't have any defenses against temptations. It's not strengthening you; it's making it worse. There has to be a balance. There's a saying, 'Virtue is in the middle.'"
Which elements (if any) do a cloistered life seem appealing to you?
Entering the monastery is a sensorial experience -- it's quiet so every sound is amplified and the chapel smells of layers of incense infused over the decades. The nuns describe our world as fast, fast, fast! I tend to agree. I appreciate the monastic pace. Talking with the Novice Mistress, Sister Mary Nicolette, it's clear she has an incredibly focused and disciplined mind. (She is fluent in four languages, having grown up in Europe, and she translates Poor Clare texts from Italian to English.) She says that distractions are limited in the monastery, an environment removed from the "fast-paced, go go and stress all the time and noise all the time in the world." "When you're removed from that, there's a certain peace that your soul is steeped in." She says that they don't have the stress that we "live under twenty-four hours a day" - not that they don't have personal stresses, but that they live in a very peaceful and controlled environment. I find that appealing; I like short, temporary retreats from commotion.
How does it feel to be the 391st person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
Prime...? Primal...? (Not proficient at math.) Seriously, though, you asked detailed and probing questions, so thank you for your interest.