Reese, Abbie. Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns – Review

Reese, Abbie. Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 272 pages. $38.50 CND (Hardcover.)

Dedicated to God is a monograph which seeks to give voice to the normally cloistered women of the Poor Clare Colettine Order at the Corpus Christi Monastery in Rockford, Illinois. Weaved together from interviews conducted over nearly a decade of field-work, Reese constructs a detailed oral history of the lives these women lived before entering the order, the nuns they became once they took their vows, and the 14-acre world away from the world in which they collectively inhabit. Reese divides her monograph into three main parts, with each part containing two or more chapters which she labels with intriguing titles such as “The Claustrophobic Nun”, “Monastic Living in a Throwaway Culture” and “The Suffering Servants”. While her titles suggest that she may be linking individual stories to larger themes she uncovered during her investigation, they unfortunately often refer to small – and sometimes inconsequential – details, rather than larger themes in the collective or individual lives of these nuns. For example, “The Claustrophobic Nun” is not a chapter elaborating on the cramped, constricted microcosmic view of the convent, nor how it translates into a wider theme of transcending these boundaries through their devotion to God; rather, it simply refers to the fact that Sister Mary Nicolette is claustrophobic.

Separating her chapters are sections Reese labels “Called”. In each of these sections, she includes first-person narratives from the nuns, recounting the callings they received that caused them to join the order. Curiously, the majority of her primary chapters already contain similar stories about these nuns and how they came to enter into the order. The one apparent difference between the chapters and these sections is that instead of recounting their stories in the third person from her (the author’s) perspective, the flow switches into the first person and is told in the words of the nuns themselves. Rather than break up the flow of her larger narrative and the collective oral history of this order to give the reader a moment to reflect, these sub-chapters comes across as addendums. As such, it is truly commendable that she was able to build such a rapport with these nuns and maintain it for such a lengthy period of time. The mere accumulation of so much primary ethnographic material, this work is staggering.

By the end of the monograph, instead of leaving room for the reader to marvel at the ability of these women to live cloistered, silent lives, these women come across as fairly social, and normal, humans. Perhaps that is part of Reese’s mission, to smash whatever stereotypes one may have had walking in, to break the silence and prove to the world that these women are human with their own sets of desires, fears and quirks. Nevertheless, her conclusions cause this reviewer to wonder who exactly her intended audience was when she began composing this monograph. Is she directing this piece towards casual audiences or scholars? The casual reader will likely find a stirring read in these pages, but if scholars, not all fields will find the same cause for excitement in these pages. For the oral historian, this monograph adds a volume primary ethnographic material to the record. For scholars of religion, however, Dedicated to God offers very little theory or analysis for the academic reader to engage with, and Reese includes very little discussion of her method and means to which she was able to enter into this exclusive circle. As well, there is a conspicuous lack of footnotes and references to other scholarly works and her remark that she was able to gain the trust of these women by “demonstration [her] rigor” is cryptic at best. Perhaps a more in-depth examination of material culture, performances, collective story-telling and authorship without words would have been a welcome inclusion, but this monograph comes across as more of a recounting, a retelling or unveiling, than a formal academic investigation. Regardless, the first person interviews from her “Called” segments offer intriguing and insightful glances into the lives of these women who chose to become cloistered nuns and, even though at times they may not be the most talented storytellers, their words could surely be of some use to other scholars pursuing case studies or ethnographic work of their own. As such, one can’t help but feel that there is still quite a bit of unearthing to be done inside this “cultural time capsule”.


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