It has been roughly a year since The Legionnaire has reviewed a documentary, that one being Cameron’s take on Becoming (2020). Typically, I try to steer clear of documentaries, at least for this blog. I like them, but they are a different animal than your typical film. There is rarely a plot to them, and they are trying to inform rather than entertain, though some do attempt both at the same time. Believe it or not, you are using a different part of your brain when you consume products designed for different purposes. While the material in some documentaries might not be agreeable, they are designed to be thought-provoking. Movies are geared more towards simple entertainment, and as such I believe they can be more insidious. You are somewhat passive when you watch a movie like, say, Mute (2018), even though it tosses in a number of images that can be damaging to your soul if you are not careful. The same night I watched that particular film, I knew I needed something cleansing. Hence, I turned to Chosen: Custody of the Eyes (2017).
Chosen: Custody of the Eyes offers a rare window into the process of becoming a cloistered nun, in this case a member of the Poor Clare Colettines. They are Franciscans, and for those of you who that fact does not signify much, that means that they are one of the religious orders that takes a vow of poverty. I will not enumerate what forms that takes all at once, but will instead indicate them as we go along in this different than usual review. We follow “Heather,” a young girl who is a novitiate. Yes, the Catholic Church has fancy names for everything. In this case, “novitiate” refers to a phase in her journey to becoming a fully professed nun. When she first enters, she is a postulant, and her blue jumper, and white blouse and veil makes her stand out from the standard gray habit and black veil of the others. When she enters the novitiate, or novice period, she basically has a wedding symbolizing her marriage to the Church. At that time, she abandons her given name in favor of one pertaining to her vocation, and she receives the gray habit. The only noticeable differences are the white veil and the fewer knots on the rope belt. The end of the film shows her completing her novitiate, receiving the same clothing as the others, and having the four knots added to her belt. They symbolize poverty, chastity, obedience, and enclosure.
This last part of their vows is a crucial aspect of Chosen: Custody of the Eyes. To be cloistered means that they keep themselves behind closed doors, away from the world. In Heather’s narration, and in some of the words from a few of the other sisters, much is made of the reasons why anyone would essentially lock themselves up in one place for the rest of their lives by their own choosing. At one point, one of them (and outside of Heather, the Novice Mistress, Sister Mary Emmanuel, and the Abbess, none of the others are identified, purposely) talks about how their vocation is countercultural. How true, sadly. Another puts it more pointedly. She talks about how some people ask how hiddenness (their way of saying “cloistered) can be seen as a virtue. She counters rhetorically with simply asking what makes exposure a virtue? It does seem like a virtue, does it not, to the point where if somebody who has developed a reputation for narrating their lives on social media were to stop, people would be wondering what is wrong with said person. Instead, the nuns live out their lives sort of doing what any of us would be doing anyway: eating, sleeping, working, praying, etc.
So, what makes their lives different? In one of her sort of self-interviews in Chosen: Custody of the Eyes, Heather contemplates her own calling to be a nun. She comes to one key conclusion: none of this would make sense without Jesus Christ. This is a concept I have come across in my own prayer life, and in discussion with my Spiritual Director. If God were not real, and/or He did not send His only begotten Son to redeem the world, then that the heck are we doing? God is everything our hearts hope for, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. I like to think that the vocation we are called to depends in part in how we do acknowledge that unspoken longing. Though I am not a priest or a member of a religious order, I like to think that their choosing those lifestyles are part of their journey in trying to go deeper in that acknowledgement that we collectively call Faith.
Though I was speculating a moment ago, there are some concrete clues in Chosen: Custody of the Eyes that I am on the right track. As Heather and a few of the others say in their own ways, one of the more difficult parts of the process and life of a nun is being alone with God. He knows us better than we can ever in our lifetimes know ourselves, no matter what our modern culture will tell you. Therefore, when you are living in a cloister, though there is a community around you, and they are there to support you and pray for and with you, you are under God’s microscope. This is what ultimately defeats so many in the discernment process. They get down to the nitty gritty of their own characters with the x-ray mirror that is God and we find ourselves lacking. It is a shame, too, because that is not how God sees us, another message in the film. Instead, they thank God for their faults as few do outside of the walls of a monastery because we can never seem to find the time to truly uncover them. In this way, being a nun becomes a blessing because it gives you a clearer pathway to becoming closer to God by first identifying the impediments along your pathway, and then working to overcome them. Ask yourself the next time you are struggling with what shoes to wear in the morning whether or not it will matter in becoming a saint.
Another aspect of that intense self-examination discussed in Chosen: Custody of the Eyes is interior stillness. Here we are getting into more esoteric territory. A nun’s life is not about exterior stillness. They wake up at a time that I have always had trouble with doing, pray together, eat together, perform other daily tasks, etc. One of the things that the Novice Mistress indicated that she struggled with as a young nun was not being able to complete a task when the bell rang for them to move to another part of their day. She wanted the peace of mind of being able to go from one thing to the next, as the majority have in whatever form of employment we pursue. While watching the documentary recently, I thought about this in regards to this very blog. As I sit here on a late Friday afternoon, a small portion of my mind is dedicated to worrying about whether I will be able to get this review written and dinner made in time to make it to chess club. But what is truly important? What lesson does God have in store for me if I were not to finish this post? And that is ultimately the point. God wants to see us at least trying to perfect ourselves, and the convent is the laboratory for doing so. It is the fruit of interior stillness.
My favorite line in Chosen: Custody of the Eyes, for lack of a better word, comes when Heather is relating what another nun said about her vocation. She said that she can do anything because she is a cloistered nun and she is not limited. Amen. When thinking about being a nun, people get too caught up in living in one place and not leaving, of going barefooted and wearing the same set of clothes day in and day out, and following a routine that many find difficult. Instead, nuns take the whole world into them in prayer, and it is beautiful. Thus, if you get a chance, I recommend checking this documentary out.