[Workshop Reflection] Embracing Divine Purpose

By Janée A. Moses 

My curriculum vitae has become as significant to my success as the actual 
professional and academic experiences that fill the two page long document. Many 
of these experiences I cherished; however, there were quite a few that I simply 
endured. Right after college I agreed to be a researcher for a start-up company that 
never quite started and never actually paid me for the days I spent in the office 
alone while my boss made up and broke up with her boyfriend. So, in preparation 
for OHMA workshop with Abbie Reese, author of Dedicated to God: An Oral History of 
Cloistered Nuns, I read her curriculum vitae first. Reese’s accomplishments include 
oral historian, writer, lecturer, and photographer. Her curriculum vitae certainly 
reveals the extent of her dedication to her work; in addition, the document explains 
that Reese employs a hybrid of oral history in her relationship- and research-
based artistic practice.1 

Reese acknowledges that the intersections between history, journalism, and 
oral history have allowed her to create a hybrid model of oral history that does not 
depend upon a removal of any of the three disciplines listed above. Instead, through 
a deliberate utilization of the most relevant aspects of each field Reese is able to 
craft a model that allows her to benefit from the best characteristics of each. 

 Our conversation focused primarily on the way in which Reese was able to 
form an intimate and longstanding relationship with the Poor Clare Colletine 
cloistered nuns who have very little contact each year with individuals outside of 
the monastery. It became clear early on that Reese was invested in meeting the 
cloistered nuns where they were comfortable and adapted to the unhurried and 
unstrained livelihood to which the nuns committed. As an oral historian in 
Columbia’s Oral History Master’s Program I have spent too many hours trying to 
create a model for how to engage with narrators before even meeting them. Reese, 
on the other hand, reveals the importance of allowing breathing room in the 
process. After all, oral history relies on interactions with human beings who are fully 
capable of pushing back against an imposed method. Reese notes that she was 
initially met with hesitation and gentle resistance from the nuns. In order to 
complete her interviews Reese recognized that this was a process. 

One of the reasons many of us have become dissatisfied with history is 
because it denies the flexibility that oral historians are allowed to embrace. Patrick 
Hurley stated, “Whereas history can collapse identity, oral history features a 
multiplicity of identities.”2 Not only does Reese’s work highlight the multiplicity of 
identities amongst the cloistered nuns, it also acknowledges her own plurality as a 
researcher. While working on this project, Reese was in an unfortunate car accident 
that left her in the hospital for months. 

 The impassioned tone evoked by Reese when discussing the nuns and the 
closeness she feels with them is just one of the many unique possibilities of oral 
history. Not only did Reese embrace a fluid methodology that relied heavily on the 
comfort of the cloistered nuns and an attempt to carry out their wishes to create a 
record of their existence, she also embraced a divine process. Her ability to gain the 
trust of the nuns and to successfully complete this project after a car accident that 
could have left her paralyzed forces one to acknowledge the possibility of a greater 
purpose in the relationship between Reese and the nuns that were willing to share 
themselves and their God. 

1 Reese, Abbie. Curriculum Vitae. 
2 Reese, Abbie. Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns. pp. xiv.