Abbie REESE. Dedicated to God: an Oral History of Cloistered Nuns. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. 250. $34.95 hardback. 978-0-19-994793-5. Reviewed by Patricia WITTBERG, Sociology Department, IUPUI 425 University Blvd. Indianapolis, IN 46202.
The most impressive thing about Dedicated to God is how completely Abbie Reese is able to immerse herself in the world and the worldview of a monastery of cloistered nuns, the Poor Clare Colettines in Rockford, Illinois, in spite of the fact that she is not Catholic herself. Outsiders studying an unfamiliar culture such as that of the nuns at Corpus Christi Monastery usually fall prey to the temptation of imposing their own preconceived assumptions on the words and actions they observe, thus inevitably drawing erroneous conclusions or connections that insiders can spot at once. Ms. Reese does not do this. Not once.
The book alternates between chapters that describe the essentials of the nuns lives – their community living, their strict poverty, their prayer ministry – and verbatim interviews with individual sisters on how they came to choose this life and the challenges they face living it. Their backgrounds vary, from those who entered the monastery before even finishing college, to those who transferred from an active sisterhood of teachers or nurses, to those who had careers of twenty years or more in the business world. Most were cradle Catholics; a few were converts. Their ages range from 33 until well into the 90s. An interesting finding of Ms. Reese’s interviews was that the nuns at times displayed differing opinions about cloistered religious life – differences of which they themselves were not aware, since they rarely talk about such things. But their joy and their love for each other is evident.
The chapters are interspersed with photos of the sisters and their work, photos which reminded me of the Carthusians profiled in the film “Into Great Silence.” Ms. Reese’s MFA in visual arts is quite evident.
The strength of the book – its respectful unobtrusiveness in letting the nuns’ story speak for itself – is also its weakness. Social scientists may wish that there had been some more explicit connections drawn to sociological and/or psychological literature. But doing so would have imposed an outsider’s interpretive frame on the nuns’ lives. It was, in their own and in Ms. Reese’s opinion, better to let them speak for themselves.