Joy in the midst of silence

Three days behind cloistered walls leaves photographer touched by a rare privilege


by Jill Ragar Esfeld
jill.esfeld@theleaven.org

She’d built her career on black and-white. Last spring,she just took it to another level.

It was in late April that Leaven freelancer Elaina Generally accepted an assignment to spend several days and nights documenting the life and work of the Sisters, Servants of Mary.

A better combination was hard to imagine: a photographer who specialized in black-and-white,recording images of women who wear nothing but.

Elaina had no doubt she’d bring back from the assignment some fabulous images. She just didn’t realize she’d leave a little bit of herself behind.

Life behind convent walls, Elaina quickly discovered, played to her strengths. There was dramatic lighting in some areas and high contrast in others. Add to that the stark simplicity of the Sisters’ lifestyle and their limited wardrobe — Sisters can choose to wear either black or white unless they’re nursing, when they always wear white — and it makes for a whole host of images that seem to belong to another place, another time.

Before she entered their monastery, Elaina knew only the history and philosophy of the order and that the Sisters were semi-cloistered and silent.

While she didn’t expect convent life to be dreary or drab,she did expect the silence to be oppressive.

Instead, she found it was suffused with a level of energy that surprised her.

“Joyous is the word I would use to describe it,” she said. “The Sisters were just full of joy — and it was lovely.”

In the midst of that joy, said Elaina, she discovered a simple serenity that removed her for a time from the distractions of the outside world.

“In the quiet times, when I wasn’t shooting, I felt the spiritual effect of everyone’s intentions there,” she said.

“One afternoon I just got to sit for an hour and a half,” she added. “I was so content. It was very meditative, peaceful and calming.”

When she left each evening,she said, it felt as though she were taking a piece of serenity with her.

Photographing the Sisters in their chapel, at prayer, was a special challenge. The Sisters pray several times a day, and each time Elaina was reluctant to intrude on a moment that seemed so reverent, so special.

“When I first got there, I was trying to be quiet. But they had these squeaky wooden floors and I could hear the click of my camera in their quiet little chapel,” she said.

“I was worried they were going to get annoyed with me because it’s so reverent,” she said, “but then I’d see one of them pat the side of her pew, silently inviting me, ‘Come sit here and get a better shot.’”

Those Sisters not engaged in the ministry of nursing, recalled Elaina, spent the daylight hours together. Despite their silence, it was clear that the bond between them was strong, with the many young nuns caring for their elders, and being mentored in return.

She felt privileged, Elaina said, to be allowed to photograph one Sister receiving the sacrament of the sick, and was moved by both the quiet dignity of the scene and the tender care proffered by the other Sisters.

Elaina was given free range of the convent and chose to chronicle even the most mundane things — from the young novices at their nursing class lessons, to others at their embroidery work, to every facet of the housekeeping and cooking.

And, like every visitor that has ever darkened the Sisters’ door, Elaina came away from the experience very, very full.

“They like to feed you,” she exclaimed. “Every meal is like, ‘Have more of this! Do you want more dessert?’”

Even the Sisters who spend every waking hour together, however, maintain their individuality, said the photographer.

“I think some people expect a nun to fit certain parameters of a personality type, but they were like any group of people,” she explained. “When I took pictures,some of them were shy, some outgoing, and some would giggle and duck away.”

Elaina’s favorite experience with the Sisters was observing their free time, when they are allowed to socialize.

“I didn’t get there when it started,” she said with a laugh, “but I could hear it down the hallway. They were laughing and telling stories.

“Watching them at game time was hilarious. They played Rummikub.”

On two separate evenings, Elaina was permitted by both the Sisters and their patients to accompany different Sisters on their home visits. She was amazed at how effortlessly they were able to bring the joy and serenity of the convent into the patients’ homes.

“People were so happy to see the nuns,” she said. “There was no oppressive sadness in any of the homesI went to. The nuns aren’t coming in and doing enjoyable things, but it was a positive experience to witness.”

The photographer was particularly moved when the Sisters brought Communion to their patients.

“That was lovely to see,” she said. “It didn’t matter where it was. It could be in the middle of a kitchen — and it was a lovely, reverent, shared experience.”

By the conclusion of the shoot, Elaina found herself profoundly impressed with the fortitude and strength of the Sisters she photographed and treasuring the short time she’d spent in their cloistered world.

Not once, however, did she consider dispensing with her own wedding plans to follow in their footsteps.

“I think to be able to subjugate yourself to the level of commitment they have and take care of the people the way they do takes a really strong person,” she said.

“I think these women truly feel called. “I would speak to them and they would say, ‘I knew when I was 18. I just knew.’”

It was not that their way of life seemed dreary or lonely, the photographer added quickly.

“They are very much each other’s family,” she said, “and that was really beautiful to witness.

“But I need a different scenario of family.”

When the Sisters discovered that Elaina was getting married, many of them asked for the date so they could send extra prayers her way.

“That was just really sweet,” she said. “It felt good to know that these women — who are filled with so much love — were going to be sending me good thoughts on that special day.”

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