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  • Erased from the Landscape: The Hidden Lives of Cloistered Nuns by Abbie Reese
  • Teresa Bergen
Erased from the Landscape: The Hidden Lives of Cloistered Nuns, online multimedia exhibition by Abbie Reese, companion to Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

The Poor Clare Colettines have lived basically the same way since 1212, and their style of monastic culture dates back to the 100s. But they seem especially timely right now. In the look-at-me modern world of social media and an expectation of 24/7 availability, their choice to stay cloistered behind gates provides an important counterpoint. Also, Pope Francis is taking small steps to turn the Catholic Church back to the simple ways of the Poor Clares. This order was started by Saint Clare, the spiritual soul mate and contemporary of Saint Francis of Assisi, the pope’s namesake.

But how do you do an oral history of a group of people who have chosen to absent themselves from the world? These women reject individuation to the point that when callers ask who’s on the phone, the nuns only answer “I’m a cloistered sister.” If you’re Abbie Reese, you spend eight years patiently earning their trust as you document their story. Reese, an independent scholar and interdisciplinary artist, gained unprecedented access to a community of Poor Clare Colettine nuns at the Corpus Christi Monastery in Rockford, Illinois. She wrote Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns. Reese continues to expand her work with multimedia projects. She’s shown her exhibit Erased from the Landscape: The Hidden Lives of Cloistered Nuns in museums and galleries, and presented it at academic conferences internationally. But even on your home computer, you can gain a good understanding of these nuns through Reese’s website and iTunes. Forty photos of the Colettines and forty audio clips, each about four minutes long, provide intimate glimpses into monastic life.

The Second Vatican Council, commonly known as Vatican II, loosened things up for Catholics in the early 1960s. Most orders of nuns stopped wearing the habit. Many individual nuns gained more choice over their housing and work lives. But not the Poor Clares. They remained in their habits, living largely silent lives behind metal grilles. Their schedule includes prayer seven times a day, manual labor, meals, and sleep. Their mission is to pray for humanity. In one audio clip, “When You First Come,” a sister describes the strange experience of re-learning to do the Poor Clare way. Standardizing methods of doing dishes, [End Page 351] laundering clothes, and making beds frees them, “so our hearts and minds can be on God,” she says.

The audio clips address common conceptions of sisters. In “Prune Faced Nuns,” a sister explains the concept of Franciscan simplicity. “Be like a little child,” she says. “We take pleasures in simple, little joys that people think nothing of.” Great saints are full of love and laughter, she says. “The saints attracted people. They drew people. And you wouldn’t start a religious community by being unattractive.” She points to Mother Teresa as an example of somebody genuinely loving. “If she’d been prune-faced, would the sick be very comforted by her presence?”

While most of the audio is the nuns talking, an occasional question from Reese is included. The rapport and familiarity between sisters and interviewer is obvious. They laugh together and some repeatedly call Reese by name, as though talking to a good friend. One of the things they laugh about are the interviews themselves. In “You Forget How to Make Small Talk” they discuss the improbability of the mostly silent nuns participating in two-hour interviews.

In another part humorous, part serious clip, “Didn’t Get Along with Nuns,” a sister describes how surprised she was to join the order. She’d expected to marry and have kids, not be called by God to live with twenty-one other women behind a wall. Plus, she would have expected women who chose that life to be odd. Instead, she found the sisters psychologically healthy. “You have to be real normal,” she...