By Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans
GLENMOORE, Pa. (CNS) — When independent filmmaker and artist Abbie Reese inaugurated her collaboration with the Poor Clare Colettine nuns at the Corpus Christi Monastery in Rockford, Illinois, she had a professional goal: nurturing a collaborative relationship that would serve as a backdrop to a young woman’s transition from secular life into an alternative community.
Ten years down the road, Reese admits that the time she has spent with the nuns, who practice a form of strict enclosure relatively rare in contemporary culture, has had an effect on her that goes well beyond scholarly objectivity and curiosity.
A relationship that began a decade ago as a long-term project has, over time, evolved into a project she described as both broader and more profound.
Reese was fresh off a yearlong volunteer stint as a media liaison in the communications department for a huge hospital ship, another form of enclosed community, when she began her oral history collaboration with the nuns, whom she first approached in 2005.
In the introduction to her 2014 book, “Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns,” Reese writes that the call to leave the secular world and embrace a cloistered existence — these nuns rarely leave the monastery — was, for many, quite unexpected: “It defied their God-given temperaments. It violated dreams. It dashed plans for marriage and children. It meant their world would shrink, temporally, to a fourteen-acre campus, so that their minds could dwell on God.”
As her relationships with the nuns deepened, they began to open up, not only the physical space they inhabited, but their own vocational stories. “Looking back, I think they wanted to see if I could respect their faith and honor their tradition while within their space,” she said.
While at first she would dress in the street clothes she normally wore, eventually she found herself dressing with deliberate modesty. “They only see the hands and faces of other (women), so to see more skin on somebody else is quite distracting. … I would not wear makeup, and would take off my dangly earrings before going in.”
She makes it clear that the nuns didn’t impose their expectations on her. Nor did her growing knowledge of monastery life impel her to discover a hitherto unknown call, she added.
“It’s clear your calling is to tell stories,” one of the nuns told her.
Given that the nuns only speak to each other when strictly necessary, even the act of interviewing one of them was eye-opening, said Reese. “Sister Nicolette (a pseudonym), who was really worldly before she entered, fluent in four languages and grew up in Europe, would get hoarse in half an hour. It takes an emotional toll to communicate like that. She was so deliberate in the words she chose, so thoughtful and contemplative.”
“I experienced the monastic pace through them. It is incredibly compelling,” Reese said in a telephone interview with the National Catholic Reporter’s Global Sisters Report. She added that while she spent nights in the guest quarters and visited the enclosure on occasion as the project evolved, she never spent a night inside the nuns’ residence.
In her book, Reese describes the way nuns order their days, a rhythm that moves between manual labor and prayer with a particular and sustained focus on veneration of the sacrament. A few are deputized to answer the phone, a link to the personal and global sorrows and crises outside their walls.
When they aren’t gathered for the Divine Office seven times a day — including at midnight — or engaged in private prayer, the nuns can be found working in the garden, baking altar breads to be packaged and mailed off to different congregations, or fixing furniture in their workshop. Though they depend chiefly on donations to run their household, they also have a gift shop in which they sell hand-sewn Communion veils as well as cards and rosaries.
As do other cloistered communities, the nuns at Corpus Christi seem to have great confidence in the efficacy of their calling: healing the world through the power of intercessory prayer.
“They intervene in the course of history, believing that their prayers and penances for strangers and family can alter outcomes,” writes Reese. “At the ceremony when a nun makes final, permanent vows, she hugs her family for one final time. This sacrifice serves a purpose: The material world is not the end, and their sufferings and martyrdoms allow God’s will to become manifest in the world.”
These final hugs happen six years after a sister enters as a postulant. “It’s a really emotional ceremony,” said Reese. “Their mothers don’t want to let go.”
Thereafter, nuns will only see their families seated behind a grille, and they are only allowed four visits per year. Some of the older nuns told her, Reese said, that after they departed for the monastery, their mothers would continue to set a place at the dinner table for them: “The separation was so extreme that it was like a death.”