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Film explores cloistered lives of Rockford-based nuns

By Chase Cavanaugh 

Rockford is home to a community of nuns known as the Corpus Christi Monastery of the Poor Clares. The occupants lead a secluded life of prayer, but a new film explores what goes on behind the monastery walls.

Abbie Reese, a northwest Illinois filmmaker and author, was interested in the lives of religious cloisters. She found a monastery in Rockford and met with the nuns to discuss a project.

“I approached them in 2005 and said I was interested in making photos and left them with that. Three years later, they came back and invited me into the enclosure,” she said.

Reese was allowed to take photographs and interview the nuns. She compiled the material into an oral history entitled, “Dedicated to God.” But Reese wasn’t only interested in how the nuns live.

“The cloistered nuns here in Rockford are contemplative, so they withdraw from the world in order to pray for the rest of us, and I was really interested in who does this today,” she said. “Who my age is interested in doing this? And what are the challenges? What are the draws? What is that process?” she asked.

While conducting the interviews, Reese met Heather, a woman who was considering a religious vocation and joined the monastery in 2011. Heather previously had been a painter and blogger, so Reese saw an opportunity.

“She grew up with the tools in a way to be able to tell her story in a way that’s relatable to other people,” Reese said. “So I lent her the video camera and made it a short stint initially.”

This would take place over several time periods from 2012 to 2015, when Heather — now known as Sister Amata — was undergoing a transitionary period into the life of a Poor Clare Nun.

“She would take the video camera into the basement, for example, where the nuns have a workshop, and she would record these incredibly personal, eloquent video letters to me talking about her journey and what she was struggling with, what she was thinking, and her motivations. It was really remarkable,” Reese said.

Reese says this was especially surprising because Sister Amata had been very reticent to speak before entering the monastery. But she opened up greatly in these video diaries. The film mirrors this emergence by starting in the darkest corners of the monastery and moving outward. Reese says it mirrors Sister Amata confronting the regimented life of the community, such as the seclusion and behavioral standards of a nun. One example is the “custody of the eyes,” which became the film’s subtitle.

“They’re supposed to be standing in a certain way, but not looking around, really, at others, so that poses pretty distinct challenges for somebody who’s just trying to adapt and trying to figure out what she’s supposed to be doing,” Reese said.

Reese assembled these segments into the film and showed a rough cut to the nuns. They had a few requests, such as adding more footage of a prayer, but they approved of the footage — although Reese recounts a case when several people complained to the Mother Abbess that a scene of a nun raking leaves ran too long.

“It’s putting people in that monastic pace — doing manual labor in real time — and we’re not necessarily used to that in the movie theater,” she said. “We’re used to quick cuts. So she told me the other day, she said, ‘I watched it again, and, you know, that raking scene didn’t seem as long.’”

Reese believes the film has a lot to offer. She thinks contemplation and mindfulness of the nuns is something universal that can draw people in. But Reese also says the movie provides several ways for viewers to interact with this cloistered community.

“I do think that people are interested, because they do want to get a glimpse of what goes on behind those brick walls,” she said. “But I also think it also is an opportunity to engage in a very small way with the way of life that the nuns hold dear.”

“Chosen: Custody of The Eyes” has already been shown at several film festivals, while a Sunday screening at the Rockford Public Library Nordlof Center already is sold out.

Reese remains in close contact with Sister Amata, who is close to taking final vows, as well as the Mother Abbess and other nuns who made the film possible. She hopes additional screenings and a DVD release can further shine a light on the lives of the Poor Clares of Rockford.

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