January 2014

Nic Grosso

nonfiction

Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns by Abbie Reese

Within me there seem to be two prevailing forces, drives that shape my perspectives and guide my actions. One wants to consume, swallow, devour the world whole. A lo-fi electric buzz that pulses through me ravenous, craving the world infinite inside me. At its call I'm eating everything, music, books, movies, fashion, ideas, thoughts, feelings, food, food, food. I don't stop. And it doesn't stop. I am movement and a digestive tract from mouth to anus. Filling myself with things, experiences, worlds but when the feeling is especially strong, where it vibrates through to my skin, hair, and teeth, I move on to people. "I just have this thing inside me that wants to eat and conquer. Maybe it's egotistical, but I have it in me. I don't want to be a tycoon. I just want to conquer people and their souls." Because what else is there, what else is there beside people and the connections we create? The drive isn't destruction. It isn't to the detriment of others, not parasitic but a form of mutualism. I have set up suitable quarters, comfortable, homey, intimate even within the confines of my body, my mind, under my watchful eyes; within, where I can hold them close, care for them, have them at my beck and call. It is acceptance, affirmations of our shared world, their being. I love everything, the walk up my block, the train ride to work with the faces of so many, the sky moving amidst the buildings, the chatter, lunch-time, then the mail and tea before the daily recap, and the way home between tourists and commuters and languages, graffiti-covered walls, the day in recline, the sun shifting into night and electric lights. I love it and I want it, more, more of it, more of everything. "Because love is so enormous, the only thing you can think of doing is swallowing the person that you love entirely." Let it fill me, absorb my mind, my being. Solitude be damned.

And then there is the other driving force, one that folds inwards. In the face of the infinite, it, I do not try to fill the hole, myself, but rather turn the hole in on itself, into a tunnel, a passageway to be explored inside out. In this way I do not condemn or reject the world, no. I contemplate it from afar and only edge closer slowly, acknowledging the infinite expanse between us, within you. "You will never be able to experience everything. So, please, do poetical justice to your soul and simply experience yourself." Introspection, reflection, meditation, rinse and repeat, and I see the world anew, I see you not fenced in and bound but as before an endless sky. It is hope and a leap of faith. And it, too, is love.

This is the force that Abbie Reese discovers amongst the members of the Poor Clare Colettine Order of Rockford, Illinois (a religious order that dates back 800 years and was started alongside Saint Francis of Assisi), and it is the force that fills the pages of Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns. Composed as a collection of memories taken from a series of interviews, Reese interweaves these personal histories with brief introductory chapters that set the stage, offering some history and context for the role each nun plays in the monastery and her path there. The tales often take the shape of little love stories, though instead of frozen endings with Prince Charmings sweeping the women off their feet toward a happily-ever-after separated from their personal struggles, the recollections end with each nun ceding to her distinct call to the religious life, to God and then striving for a more perfect existence, each day confronting their flaws in the attempt to transform themselves, trying to attain the best version of themselves. One nun recalls, "I just remember the overwhelming feeling was the condescension of God -- the condescension of God, that He would take a broken and fallen human creature to be His spouse..." The religious life is not for the weak-willed either, with days split between manual labor and prayers. The Poor Clare Colettine sisters follow a strict code of poverty, chastity, enclosure, and silence while carrying out the tradition that centers around and is focused on God. Their lives are dedicated to God but also, inextricably linked, to serving mankind. Contemplative, they pray for humanity, hoping the rest of the population will experience the love they've found and will dedicate their lives towards individual and collective betterment, following their own divine callings.

While I had hoped to find greater insight into this order of cloistered nuns' monastic practices, ceremonies, and sources of personal inspiration as they have so much to overcome (the stories of Saint Francis of Assisi and the writings of Saint Therese of Lisieux are constant refrains throughout individual nun's memories but Reese does not offer any excerpts and only passing historical information), Reese does do an excellent job of presenting the nuns as individuals. They are not fetishized or turned into fringe caricatures with clichéd beliefs. Even when she has a chance to poke a hole in their convictions with contradicting opinions held by fellow nuns, she does not dispel their faith. Instead she withholds judgment, allowing room for the flexibility of their personal beliefs. Each nun gets the chance to express herself as she continues to explore and understand herself in her journey inwards and towards God. "Several nuns volunteered, in the course of the oral history interviews, that outsiders label their life as a form of escapism. They took pains to point out that religious life is not a rejection of the world or its inhabitants; the enclosure is, in a sense, a form of embracing humanity, a calling to, not a running from." The nuns, like me, turn inward. They have been called to this life, to serve God, themselves, and humanity in this way, through contemplation and prayer. We both embrace life as we understand its calling. They in pursuit of God and heaven on Earth, love manifest, and I... I, I seek our interconnectedness (because that is a thing, right, I can tell when our eyes meet) or rather, I don't know, something just as simple and noble, pots and pans... Anyway, it's like what Kafka said, follow your most intense passions mercilessly.

Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns by Abbie Reese
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0199947935
272 pages