U of C Grad Creates Documentary Film That Gives a Unique View of the Life of Cloistered Monastic Nuns

Asceticism—its otherworldliness, its detachment, its stark and beautiful simplicity—has captured the imagination of many sensitive, artistic temperaments. From the 19th-century novelist Gustave Flaubert who attempted to write about the life of the hermit Anthony of the Desert (he failed badly) to the contemporary film director Philip Gröning whose Into Great Silence gave its viewers an intimate portrayal of the spiritual life of Carthusian monks, artists have used their abilities to open a window to a life otherwise hidden from view, lived only for God.

Cloistered monastic nuns have, until now, remained hidden. For their choice of vocation precludes them from (unlike active orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits) bearing witness in the world.

It took Abbie Reese—a recent University of Chicago MFA graduate—entering into the stillness so that those in the world could have a unique view of life within a cloister. In fact, prior to Reese’s work, there had never before been an oral history project and documentary film that deals with the lives of cloistered monastic nuns that observe monastic silence and take vows of enclosure.

For Reese, the cloister was a stark contrast to values in popular culture. Having worked as a journalist, she was used to people who wanted the spotlight, who couldn’t wait to have their fifteen minutes of fame.

She was further struck by women of her own generation who chose to live such counter-cultural lives: “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?” Reese asked in the introduction to her book, Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns.

Reese was drawn to the nuns’ desire for obscurity, and has been changed in the process of working with them.

Cloistered monastic nuns have, until now, remained hidden.

Throughout her brief career, she has also taken seriously the need for an artist to be invisible so that the other can come more clearly into focus. Whether she is working on photography projects, conducting oral history interviews, or creating documentary films, she has contended with the question of mediation—most recently handing over the video cameras to the nuns so that they can document their world from their perspective. Even though Reese was not present, the relationships she developed over the past nine years are embedded in the video footage.

Prior to her project on cloistered life, Reese traveled all over the globe (she has been to approximately forty countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa). She sought to bring to the surface stories that were neglected but needed attention. She devoted her time to journalistic projects that dealt with women’s issues, artistic work like Faces of West Africa (a traveling photographic exhibition), and the oral history and photographic exhibitionUntold Stories: Freeport’s African-American History, installed across from where Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas famously debated.

While at the University of Chicago, she was the Artist’s Salon Assistant at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. Her work contends with those who have been marginalized, whose voices would not otherwise be heard.

Her background as a journalist, oral historian, and advocate of women’s rights would lead her—surprisingly—to a cloister of Poor Clare nuns right in her home state of Illinois.

Reese isn’t Catholic. Raised Evangelical by converts (her mother had been a-religious and her father was raised Jewish), it was the contemporary culture, ironically, that first introduced her to the image of a Catholic nun. She remembers seeing nuns in I Love Lucy and The Flying Nun, as well as borrowing the film A Nun’s Story from her older sister who is a film buff.

Much later, in her college years now, she came across an article about young women in Italy who were becoming nuns. They wanted to wear traditional habits and some of them were the daughters of fashion designers. This juxtaposition of belonging to a cultural tradition and choosing something so counter-cultural made a significant impression on her.

In 2005, upon returning from a year living and volunteering on a hospital ship in West Africa, Abbie discovered a counter-cultural community of nuns less than an hour from where she grew up (the 800-year-old rule of the Poor Clares Colettine nuns in Rockford, Illinois, who abide by the strict monastic discipline of silence and anonymity and rarely set food outside the 25,000-square foot monastery and the 14-acres of their gated property).

She was intrigued that these women had chosen to be veiled, hidden from society—following a vocation for which there has been a steady erosion of interest (between 1970 to 2010, the number of religious sisters worldwide fell almost 30 percent). With her experience in oral history, she could document their lives, prevent them from being erased, not only from the landscape, but from memory. To the surprise of her colleagues and professors, she chose these cloistered nuns as the subject of her research at the University of Chicago.

The result was the book, Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns, in 2014—which attracted the attention of Casey N. Cep at The New Yorker.  The review was glowing: “That is…one of monasticism’s surprises: where the world expects sorrow, the cloistered feel joy. Reese’s attentiveness and patience allows that joy to reveal itself. She also shows clearly that these women are not disingenuous: they know all they have left outside the cloister walls, and they acknowledge how hard it is to live together, not only in quotidian ways by sharing space and limited resources but in spiritual ways, praying for a peace that none of them may live to see.”

Reese is now engaged in a different artistic dimension of exploring cloistered life. As director/producer of the collaborative documentary film in-progress, Chosen (Custody of the Eyes), she is probing the mysteries of a religious vocation, returning to the original question How does it happen that a young woman chooses (or chooses not) to join an order? What are the ups and downs in the day-to-day life as a young woman transitions into cloistered contemplative life and assimilates into the religious community? Fascinatingly, in exploring such questions, Reese has found her own project imitating popular culture. By making a documentary film that echoes aspects of reality television, she is able to navigate the complexities of artistic involvement (how much does her own hand steer the direction of the film?) and abide by the rules of the order (only a community member can enter the cloister).

The concept for the film is deceptively simple. Reese met “Heather” in 2005. She interviewed her for six years as she deliberated whether she was called to enter a cloistered order. Since Heather grew up watching reality television—when Reese gave her a camera—the style of a self-revealing video diary came naturally to her. She took the camera into the cloister to document the simple joys, little trials, and great sacrifices that make up her experience there. The film, in a nutshell, follows “Heather”— the newest member of the community—as she evolves into her new identity as “Sister Amata” (both names are pseudonyms so as to reflect the Poor Clare pursuit of anonymity).

“I found her idea of passing the camera to one of the nuns (from a point of view of Visual Anthropology) especially intriguing,” remarks Dr. Luc Schaedler, a documentary filmmaker who resides in Switzerland, of Reese’s film. “There seems to be a dialogue, which not only works on the level of speech (conversations), but also on the visual level (camera). The potential for the field of Visual Anthropology that I find in this film project lies exactly in this double dialogue, which makes the film an ongoing experiment of collaboration and not just an insightful film about the nuns.”

As an artistic photographer and filmmaker, entering into the cloistered environment (as both an outsider to the faith and an outsider to the order) has been an incredibly profound experience.

Initially for Reese, approaching cloistered life was an intellectual pursuit. In time, the relationships she developed with the cloistered nuns kept her engaged.

With her desire to bring people’s stories to the surface, she wanted to truly understand why a modern young woman would leave everything she has—sometimes at the great cost of going against the wishes of her family—to live an austere life closed-off from the world.

Furthermore, to capture their experience, she was bringing modern devices (the camera, for still photography and the moving image, and microphone) into a space that throughout the history of the Church had been practically impenetrable. Humbled, she reflected upon her ability to mediate their experience. She found mediation to be all around her. “A nun is a mediator between heaven and earth,” she explains. “So I was looking into how the camera, film, and the form of my project mirrored the concept of a nun’s life.”

As she learned more about them, she became more and more intrigued by women who called this their vocation, their calling. What was that mysterious inner prompting that would inspire one to forge a path that is at odds with everything that is deemed important?

From the perspective of a non-Catholic who was earnest to learn the symbolism of religious life (the habit, the metal grille) and the paradoxes of sacrifice that bring about freedom and inner peace, she has been mesmerized by the quiet witness of young women of the twenty-first century who have given everything they have in the world because they believe with all their heart in what they cannot see and cannot touch.

Over the time she has known them, she has been impressed by their strength, by their discipline, by their self-sufficiency and independence. Her heart has been touched by their warmth and openness to her; by their following the treatise of their order that urges them to yearn for “fulfillment in God, in an uninterrupted nostalgia of the heart;” by their giving her special access to a hidden world where they live as “intermediaries between humanity and the invisible realm”—daring to become “saints on earth” and “mothers of souls.”

Reese’s project has utterly transformed her. Walking the streets of Chicago after immersing herself in a cloistered monastery for eight years has been jarring, occasionally uncomfortable. It has caused her to question the pace of the world beyond the enclosure. “I don’t want to feel the urgency of living in this world.” For a certain period of time, she deactivated her Facebook account and changed to a basic flip phone to “pare things down a bit.” She is looking to take meditation classes.

Additionally, shortly after she first started working with the nuns, she purchased a house built in 1888 in Northwest, Illinois, that she has turned into a place of retreat. “The nuns described the monastery as a sacred space,” she says—acknowledging she wants to imitate that sensorial environment, that sense of stillness that opens one to the spiritual realm.

She has tried to assimilate their practices into her own vocation, while recognizing the unavoidable tension that exists when one is surrounded by distractions. “I have struggled to define what place I can keep in this world,” she admits.

Whatever one’s vocation, she has learned that there are trials, struggles when you give your life to something (Reese, for example, is trying to overcome the financial strain of her project). She gathers strength from the quiet simple women who work and pray seven times a day for the souls of those they will never meet. The nuns—who have so cheerfully abandoned the world—have taught her to live more deeply, more gratefully in it.