MOUNT CARROLL – Describing cloistered nuns as choosing a “countercultural” way of life might seem surprising at first, until one looks at the statistics.
The number of religious sisters in the U.S. has dropped 74 percent, from almost 180,000 in 1965 to 47,160 today, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
The decrease, and one young woman’s decision to join the Poor Clare Colletine nuns at Corpus Christi Monastery in Rockford, were driving factors behind Lanark native Abbie Reese’s decision to share their stories with the wider world.
Reese’s documentary about Heather, a former blogger and painter who decided at 19 to join the Poor Clares, is titled “Chosen (Custody of the Eyes).”
The film, selected to show at film festivals in North and South America, Europe, and Australia, will screen in Rockford next month. Reese, who has a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Chicago, is the director, editor, and producer.
“Documenting was definitely part of it,” said Reese, 40. “The driving force at this moment in time is the desire to understand what’s going on in a woman’s mind as she contemplates entering a radically countercultural way of life. I wanted to trace that interior journey,”
She began working with Heather, who took the name Sister Amata, in 2005.
(Neither Heather nor Sister Amata are her real names; Reese changed her names to preserve the Poor Clare Colletine value of anonymity.)
Reese, the daughter of Dr. David and Lee Reese of Lanark, bought a home in Mount Carroll in 2008 after she started work on the documentary.
“I started filming in 2009. Most of the footage was done in 2012, and it carried on until 2015. Heather entered the monastery in 2011, and took temporary vows in 2014,” she said.
Reese did not want to reveal whether Sister Amata has taken her final vows – which should take place 6 years after a young woman enters the monastery – but the answer is in “Chosen,” Reese said. “She still is in the monastery.”
As Reese worked with the nuns on the project, she earned more of their trust. For example, the nuns see only the skin of each other’s faces and hands, making typical clothing out of place, so Reese started wearing clothing up to her neck and down to her wrists and ankles.
“As I made those changes, I realized in retrospect that I had passed some sort of tests. I was invited into the monastery to make photographs and record video footage after I changed my garb (including taking off and leaving my dangly earrings in my car),” Reese wrote in promotional materials for the film.
Poor Clares take vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty, and they observe monastic silence, speaking only what is necessary. Part of the monastery is enclosed, to meet their vow of enclosure.
Reese, who interviewed Heather from 2005 to 2011, was allowed to stay in the monastery’s guest area, but not in the enclosure.
She admires the nuns for living a life with very strict parameters.
“What surprised me from the beginning is that they also embrace a huge amount of uncertainty in their life. Their lives are dedicated to prayer and penance, but they don’t know what the fruit of their life will be until the day they die.”
“Chosen” is a slower film than some people may be used to.
“There’s one scene that’s a few minutes long of nuns working in the yard. I’ve heard some people found that challenging, because it requires sustained attention in real time that we’re not used to,” Reese said.
Reese also wrote a book related to her research: “Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns,” was published in 2014.
She remains in contact with the nuns, helping them record chants and original music for documentary’s soundtrack, “A Voice to Sing Your Praise.”
“I equipped the nuns with InDesign and Premiere Adobe software. They designed a 16-page booklet that comes with the CD,” Reese said.
A DVD of the film also is available, all at chosenthefilm.com.
Reese also has plans for a second film, “The Jesus Cage,” a title that comes from the name a great-niece of one of the nuns gave the metal grill of the monastery’s enclosure.