A very nice story about them from The New Yorker.
One of the paradoxes of monastic life is that those who try to leave the world are often pursued by it. Take Thomas Merton, who struggled for years to make a career as a writer in New York, only to become a best-selling author after he joined a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. It’s been almost seventy years since Merton detailed his journey to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in “The Seven Storey Mountain”; like Simeon Stylites atop his fifth-century pillar, he sought solitude but attracted followers.
That paradox animates Abbie Reese’s new book “Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns.” For six years, Reese, an independent scholar and artist, visited the twenty women of Corpus Christi Monastery of the Poor Clare Colettine in Rockford, Illinois, recording their oral histories and documenting their routines of labor and prayer, worship and meditation, bell ringing and meal taking. “Dedicated to God” is the fruit of her labor. In the book, thematic chapters and individual oral histories are punctuated by her simple, striking photographs of the nuns in their cloistered community.
The Order of St. Clare was founded in 1212. Inspired by the preaching of St. Francis, Clare of Assisi, an aristocratic young woman, refused the marriage planned by her parents and embraced a life of poverty. St. Francis gave her a church to make into a convent. Though she was not the first woman to found an order, St. Clare became the first to write her own rule for monastic life. (For instance, a nun “should go and sell all that she has and take care to distribute the proceeds to the poor” and “once her hair has been cut off round her head and her secular dress set aside, she is to be allowed three tunics and a mantle … she may not go outside the monastery except for some useful, reasonable, evident, and approved purpose.”)
The order spread quickly throughout Italy and around Europe, reaching North America by the late nineteenth century. The community at Rockford, one of around fifty or so in the United States, was organized in 1916. It was first housed in a Victorian home, then in a former sanitarium. In 1962, it moved onto its current fourteen-acre campus. The Poor Clares at Rockford observe extreme poverty, by fasting and going barefoot. Theirs is a contemplative order, meaning that, unlike active orders, they separate themselves from the world, embracing solitude and silence, devoting themselves to prayer and worship. Reese writes in the book’s preface that her project began with this question: “What compels a woman in this era of overexposure—at a time with the technological means to reach a global audience—to make a drastic, lifelong, countercultural decision for her life, in favor of obscurity?”
That curiosity, of course, is why so many artists are interested in religious orders, which have been depicted in everything from Kathryn Hulme’s examination of what brings women to their vows and what can take them away in “The Nun’s Story,” made famous by the film adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn, to Ron Hansen’s searching interrogation of religious experience in “Mariette in Ecstasy”; from John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” to Christopher Durang’s “Sister Mary Ignatius”; from the Poor Clares in the popular film franchise “Sister Act” to the Franciscan nuns in Danielle Trussoni’s novel “Angelology.”
Retrieved March 6, 2014 from http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/03/inside-the-cloister.html