Frequently Asked Questions
What is the religious order of the community in the film?
The nuns are Poor Clare Colettines, a Franciscan order founded by Saint Clare (a contemporary of Saint Francis). This religious order, founded in 1212, was reformed by Saint Colette in 1410.
Do the nuns make a vow of silence?
Poor Clare Colettine nuns make four vows, of poverty, chastity, obedience, and enclosure. They observe monastic silence and seek anonymity. Although the nuns do not make a vow of silence, observing monastic silence means that they speak only what is necessary, in a low tone, in order to complete a task. They share one hour of “recreation” each evening, and can talk freely then.
What makes the Poor Clare Colettines different?
Poor Clare Colettine nuns withdraw from the world in order to pray for the rest of humanity. A cardinal initially said the religious Rule should not be approved because the strict life outlined by Saint Clare could not be attained. They say that the strict life is demanding, and that someone could not live the life if not for a calling and God’s grace.
Why are the nuns barefoot in the film?
Poor Clare Colettine nuns go barefoot as a way of identifying with the poor. (Exceptions are made for those nuns who need to wear shoes, particularly as they age.) One chronically ill nun cannot go barefoot and says it is her way of suffering, to not be able to live the strict Poor Clare Colettine life.
What does enclosure mean?
A metal grille separates the cloistered monastery from the area of the monastery where the public can go. Practically speaking, the vow of enclosure means the nuns only leave the monastery in case of emergency. Doctors pay house calls and the nuns vote by absentee ballot. Family members are allowed up to four collective visits in person each year, always separated by the metal grille. The nuns are allowed one final hug with their family members during the ceremony to make final vows, typically six years after a nun first enters the monastery. A great-niece of one of the nuns once described the enclosure as “the Jesus cage,” a description the nuns find amusing and apt (although they are quick to say that the bars — a literal and symbolic separation — keeps the world out, it doesn’t keep them in.
Can a nun leave the community after entering?
The first six years are “formation”. The first year, a young woman is a postulant. The second and third years she is a novice. After three years in the monastery, she makes temporary vows (which last three years). At each of these stages, the woman decides and each community member votes (with a yes or no ballot) whether or not she should stay in the community. There have been exceptions, however, and young women have left the monastery before the one-year mark and outside of the rites of passage. After six years in formation, a nun makes final, solemn vows. This being a papal enclosure, a nun would need to appeal to Rome if she wanted to leave the community after making solemn vows.
What does the daily life of a Poor Clare Colettine nuns entail?
The nuns’ day is structured by the Liturgy of the Hours (the Divine Office) which consists of seven prayers: Matins (12:45 a.m.), Lauds (5:30 a.m.), Terce (9:30 a.m.), Sext (11:45 a.m.), None (2 p.m.), Vespers (4:30 p.m.), and Compline (7:30 p.m.). The nuns retire at 9 p.m., rise at 12:30 a.m., go back to sleep at 1:45 a.m. after Matins, and rise for the day at 5 a.m. The rest of the day consists primarily of manual labor and meals.
If you aren’t Catholic, why did you want to undertake a project with cloistered nuns?
In 2000, I learned of a trend: Young women were going “back to the habit.” I wanted to understand what compels a young woman today to embrace this countercultural existence. What obstacles does she face along the way? What is the terrain of that interior journey, which must require some degree of tenacity to other options and enticements.
Fundamentally, I believed that cloistered nuns — and women embarking on that path today — could share a perspective different than what I typically encounter, in real life and in literature. I truly believed that there would be value in hearing their motivations, obstacles, and perspectives.
Why did you stay with this project as long as you have?
The nuns are more interesting than I could have imagined. They are funnier and have been incredibly sincere and vulnerable. They have become friends. The Novice Mistress became like my own “novice mistress,” teaching me about monastic life. As an expatriate of this world, she helped me navigate monastic culture and values, and helped me to undertake this project in a way that respected the nuns.
What do you mean? How did you change your approach?
In one tangible way, I learned that because the nuns only ever see the skin of one another on their faces and hands, that even typically conservative garb would be distracting and out of place in the monastery. I wore clothing that went higher, to my neck, and lower, to my 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).
Why — if the nuns seek hiddenness — did they grant you access and allow the book and film?
Since 1965, the number of religious sisters in the United States has dropped 74 percent (from 179,954 to 47,170 in 2016), according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. When I first visited the Mother Abbess, I said that I understood the numbers of religious sisters was declining in the States. I said I thought it was important to document the women’s experiences, in their own words. As I interviewed the nuns and made photographs, I shared the work, giving the nuns transcripts and digital photographs. They came to trust me more and gave me more (and continued) access.
Although the nuns seek anonymity and hiddenness, it is interesting to note that Saint Clare is the patron saint of television.
How did you edit the structure of this film, which focuses on a liminal phase?
This film exists within Sister Amata’s liminal phase, having left the Midwest of 2011 and in the process of assimilating into a secluded, self-built culture. The film follows, in some ways, the structure of the Female Hero’s Journey — a call to adventure, refusal of the call and supernatural aid, crossing the threshold (in this case, into the enclosure), a road of trials, relationships forged with a mentor and companions (often animals), and so forth.