Oral history examines the austere lives inside the cloister

by Dana Greene


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By Abbie Reese
Published by Oxford University Press, $34.95

Oral historian and photographer Abbie Reese is fascinated by isolated and self-selective subcultures, in this case that of the Poor Clare Colettine nuns of the Corpus Christi Monastery in Rockford, Ill. Over a period of six years, Reese interviewed these 20 women, divining their vocations, intentions, and their individual and corporate lives. Shrouded in anonymity, these women take vows of austere poverty, chastity and strict obedience, as well as enclosure, cutting themselves off from the world by the grille. Reese elicits information on how they came to their vocations and their difficulties of living in community.

The reader is offered insight into the humanity of these women, but is stunned by the deprivation endured and the insistence on conformity. Ancient rules govern all aspects of their lives. Vegetables must be sliced and laundry folded in a prescribed manner. Each nun publicly confesses her sins daily to her sisters. Except in the direst emergencies, one never leaves the enclosure.

All this is done ostensibly to eliminate distraction and self-assertion, to help one be given to God. These women come from a variety of backgrounds -- some were poor, others not; some came young, others older; some were educated, others less so; some came from orders of active nuns, others came directly from high school. But all claim to have been "called" to this vocation, are desirous of giving everything to God, and are certain that as "mothers of souls," their prayer, which is offered seven times a day, is their gift to humanity. These convictions are expressed uniformly and with assurance.

It is remarkable that Reese, a non-Catholic, was allowed such extensive access to this community. Knowing, however, that the future of their order was uncertain and that they had been "erased from the landscape," they permitted Reese's documentation through interviews for which each nun adopted a pseudonym and through 36 black-and-white photographs. Their hope was not merely to include their community in the historical record, but to offer the possibility that young women might learn of the cloistered vocation of the Poor Clares.

Reese calls these nuns' lives "countercultural." They are indeed distant in the extreme from the lives of those who live beyond their walls. Nonetheless, their lives deserve to be preserved as one example of how believers understand what it means to be dedicated to God.

[Dana Greene's latest book is Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life. She serves on the board of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.]

A version of this story appeared in the Oct 10-23, 2014 print issue under the headline: Austere lives behind the grille.

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