Q&A with the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois

The Community Foundation of Northern Illinois has awarded two Community Arts and Humanities Grants to this work — one grant toward post-production of Chosen (Custody of the Eyes) and a second grant toward post-production of The Jesus Cage. I answered CFNIL Director of Community Investment Dan Dineen's questions ahead of the second Rockford screening of Chosen, which will take place this Sunday, April 22. (The screening is sold out, as of April 16. The Rockford premiere, on March 18, was also sold out.)

1.    What initially drew you to studying and documenting monastic orders?

Just after I graduated from college in 1999, I read an article about young women going “back to the habit.” A question gripped me: What compels women today to this life and how do they contend with the obstacles or other enticements in the world? I’m sure I was primed to this interest in contemplative life — and mindfulness and meditation — by reading, as a teenager, Brother Lawrence’s book, The Practice of the Presence of God. In 2005, when I first connected with the Poor Clares, it was a pivotal moment to undertake this research-based art project because I saw the monastic life on the decline. (As an interesting side note, I remembered a few years ago that when I was in junior high, my mom returned to schooling to finish her college degree and instead of commuting to campus she sometimes stayed with nuns at their convent. Surely this was some subconscious impetus drawing me to this subject matter!)

2.    How did you connect with Heather, the young woman who is the focus of Chosen?

I reached out first to the Mother Abbess at the Corpus Christi Monastery in Rockford. I let her know my interest in undertaking a long-term photo and oral history project focused on the lives of cloistered nuns. I also let her know that I wanted to follow the journey of someone considering this path. I suspected, before I ever talked to an aspirant or a nun, that not everyone who is contemplating religious life follows a straight path to a monastery, and I wanted to follow that journey: What pressures does she face internally and externally? What are the contours of the interior journey? I suspected it took some fortitude before even arriving at the doorstep of the monastery to enter. The Mother Abbess connected me with “Heather,” who was discerning her religious vocation specifically to the Poor Clare Colettine community in Rockford.

3.    How did you convince the Poor Clares, who live a life of silence and simplicity, to allow cameras inside of the monastery?

Well, convince probably isn’t the best description. My access was increased incrementally, and looking back I could see it increased when I passed some sort of test. For example, I let the Mother Abbess know in 2005 I’d like to make photographs inside the enclosure. I left it at that. In 2008, I was invited into the enclosure to make photographs. By that point, I knew their values and how to conduct myself in their space. I was asked this question so many times — why was I given access — that I finally asked Mother Dominica. She wrote me a card that outlined how they perceived me interacting with them. It was surprising to read all that they were watching and what they discerned in me. This was one of the most lovely things to hear: “You have a beautiful way of making people feel ‘at home’ with you. … You have genuine sensitivity to handle precious things shared with you in a respectful and reverent way.” About the camera, she wrote: “We were so impressed with you when you came into the enclosure — our sacred space — in keeping the atmosphere of silence. In choir and in the refectory, you took the pictures in such a wonderful way, wishing not to disturb what was going on in there. In all the places you had a way of going about it that did not draw attention to yourself.”

4.    What surprised you the most with the footage that Heather and the other sisters captured?

I was astounded by the quality of the footage. The video footage is remarkable. It’s visually stunning. I was also surprised by the degree to which Sister Amata, her Novice Mistress, and the other nuns took to this project — in the first week, I think they filmed close to 30 hours of footage! It was an undertaking just logging the footage — but an undertaking that was an absolute privilege.

It’s worth mentioning that this film could not have happened without the trust that had built with the nuns, in allowing me to lend a new entrant a camera. The project could not have happened without Sister Amata’s talent as a visual artist (although she had been primarily a painter and never a video artist before this). And the project could not have happened later in Sister Amata’s journey into the cloister. Sister Amata grew up watching MTV’s The Real World, and her video diaries reflect that. We had discussed me sharing the edited film with the nuns and video recording their responses, in the manner of Chronique d’un été, but by 2015 she was already so deeply immersed in cloistered life that she didn’t want to appear on screen again. (Her Novice Mistress, in the film, can be seen recording video diaries with her face blurred.)

5.    Are there any common themes behind why women choose to join the order?

I think that you could loosely say that there is a difference between the 1950s, when some of the members joined the community, and those who have joined in the last 15-20 years. The older nuns typically joined either straight out of high school or they transferred to the cloister from an active religious order (teaching or nursing). One of the younger members had a college scholarship for softball before discerning a call to religious life. She joined an active order first, then transferred to the cloister, and she and some of the younger nuns joke that they form a Dropouts for Jesus club at the monastery.

6.    The Corpus Christi Monastery of the Poor Clares is located just south of downtown Rockford on a busy road. Do the neighborhood residents have any engagement with the cloistered nuns who live there?

I’m actually collecting stories of this engagement — people who grew up in the neighborhood and whose families delivered fresh produce or groceries. These days the engagement is more city-wide or even beyond Rockford, with parishes collecting cleaning supplies, for example, and one man buying fish in Chicago and delivering it fresh most Fridays. (Do you have a way of collecting those stories? Here might be a good place to plug ways in which folks can participate.)

7.    The film casts its gaze on a few of the animals that visit the monastery. Saint Clare of Assisi, after whom the order is named, was one of the first followers of Saint Francis of Assisi, who is the patron saint of animals and the environment. Do the nuns of the Poor Clare Order have a special mission to tend to animals?

First of all, I love that you use the word gaze, as I tried in this film to subtly focus the viewer’s attention on various ways of seeing (and the subtitle, Custody of the Eyes, draws attention to the unique approach and challenges of curbing one’s gaze in the monastery).

It was significant for me to have the first gaze of Sister Amata be from that of an animal — Corbie, the dog, looking into the basement wood shop from outside. The nuns definitely have an affinity for their animals. They’ve been gifted dogs by benefactors and I remember one time the Mother Abbess told me that God sent the cat that they found near the dumpster. Their animals are considered less pets than helpers (keeping watch, catching mice, etc.).

8.    The movie has been screened at film festivals throughout the world and has won significant acclaim, including receiving the Best Documentary Feature Film award from the Sydney World Film Festival. What does it mean to you to show the film in Rockford, especially at a venue that is so close to the monastery?

I received a tremendous amount of support from individuals, the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois, and parishes in Rockford as I made this film, and I wanted the first public screening to be in Rockford. (The film will screen next in Chicago. Do you have a date for this screening?) When my book was published and I spoke locally, I was struck by the stories I heard — of ice being delivered by horse-drawn carriage to the monastery, of kids sneaking over the brick wall to get a glimpse of the monastery — and I heard over and over that people wondered at the mystery of the place and the women who live there. There’s obviously an incredible interest in the Poor Clares; the premiere was sold out five days before the screening. The Mother Abbess tells me that even benefactors, those who drive the nuns places, aren’t familiar with the nuns’ lives and so it is a privilege to be able to share this world.

9.    What advice would you offer to someone who will be watching Chosen for the first time?

I would suggest that viewers expect a slower pace — the monastic pace — and prepare to witness the world from Sister Amata’s vantage point, from confusion, to attempts at assimilation, and know that some things will remain a mystery.

10. Were there any films that were references when you began editing?

I think this film could be described as The Real World meets Into Great Silence. I’ve always been amazed at the really disparate audience for Into Great Silence; I hear the film referenced by priests and visual artists. In addition to Into Great Silence, a few of the touchpoints as I worked on this project were Ida (with Sister Amata basically filming the same timeframe of joining a religious community) and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, which does a beautiful job of structuring the film seasonally.

Abbie Reese