[Workshop Reflection] Lessons in Sacrifice from the Poor Clare Colettine Nuns

by Maggie Argiro 

After reading from Abbie Reese’s book Dedicated to God, I was struck with some vague notion that being an oral historian is not all that different from being a nun. It seems absurd. What insights can a life devoted to God shine on the practice of oral history? Well, I noticed some patterns, mainly revolving around this word: sacrifice. I read about the sacrifices the nuns are required to make, including vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure. A nun makes her vows, including removing herself from the world, in order to pray for humankind, or to put it simply, to help people reach heaven. In the introduction, Reese writes:

“…they believe that in removing themselves from the world and embracing a life of anonymity, unseen and unknown to the world at large, by undertaking lives of self-sacrifice and prayer behind the scenes, they have a greater impact on mankind than in they maintained direct contact with strangers and loved ones,” (5).

  Two Sisters working in the wood shop. In addition to carpentry, the Sisters do work like tending the garden and sewing veils. “This frees their minds to contemplate God and pray for others,” writes Reese.

Two Sisters working in the wood shop. In addition to carpentry, the Sisters do work like tending the garden and sewing veils. “This frees their minds to contemplate God and pray for others,” writes Reese.

In this clip provided by Abbie, we hear Sister Mary Nicolette elaborate on the kinds of sacrifices nuns must take.

What I noticed with this word sacrifice, is that an oral historian also must make vows. The oral historian abides by ethics agreed upon by others in the field. For example there is the oral history version of anonymity in which authority is not held exclusively by the oral historian. She or he may opt for the title of editor or collaborator, instead of author, when creating something with other people’s words and memories. Instead of helping humankind reach heaven, the oral historian may be interested in drawing attention to larger issues and overlooked histories, or for new interpretations of history. The oral historian, then, is a mediator. She or he mediates between two worlds: the narrator’s world, and the rest of the world. The nun mediates too, between heaven and Earth.

Abbie began to notice these similarities in her work, and was able to explain them herself. In this clip, she talks about her subsequent film project, where cameras were introduced to the monastery, and further elaborates on her role and eventually the camera’s role as mediators.

 I have more questions, and maybe you readers can help me think about these ideas and come up with new questions. What are other lessons you learned from the Poor Clare Colettines? What other insights to oral history do the nuns reveal? In what ways are the two worlds different? Is it productive to look for the similarities, or does it only draw attention away from the differences? What are some ways that making sacrifices can be unproductive in oral history?