Toni Greaves’ Radical Love: A look at a young woman’s life in a cloistered monastery (PHOTOS).

What Life Is Like as a Twentysomething Nun

What Life Is Like as a Twentysomething Nun

Behold
The Photo Blog
Sept. 27 2015 9:56 AM

What Life Is Like as a Twentysomething Nun

Radical Love
March 4, 2008. Sister Lauren, age 22, praying. The nuns observe perpetual rosary, with someone praying in the choir room 24 hours a day.

Toni Greaves

In 2008, Toni Greaves went to the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, New Jersey, to document what life was like there. But she quickly discovered something much more unique than her assignment. Roughly three weeks earlier, Sister Lauren, then 21, had entered the monastery after hearing God propose to her via a song on YouTube, leaving behind a boyfriend whom she’d planned on marrying.

“It became clear she was the arc of the story,” Greaves said. “It helps to be able to weave something around one person, and the fact that she has an amazing wonderful energy and she had only been there for a few weeks; from the beginning the story was clearly about her.”

Greaves would return many times over the next seven years, focusing on Sister Lauren’s path from layperson to nun, from her initial commitment to God in a Clothing Ceremony through her Solemn Profession. The photos appear in Greaves’ new book, Radical Love, which was published this week by Chronicle Books. When Pope Francis arrived in New York City on Thursday, it was one of the books waiting for him in his room.

Radical Love
March 15, 2008. Community is an important part of monastic life. Sister Maria of the Cross (back, center), age 71, laughs during a celebratory community dinner.

Toni Greaves

Radical Love
April 6, 2008. The young nuns chat with 84-year-old Sister Mary Ellen Timothy (top left).

Toni Greaves

Radical Love
Nov. 1, 2008. Sister Lauren, 22, receives her white veil (fitted by Sister Mary Martin, Prioress) in her Clothing Ceremony, which is similar to an engagement to God. Within this ceremony she receives the Dominican habit, and takes a new holy name of her choosing: Sister Maria Teresa of the Sacred Heart.

Toni Greaves

Radical Love
Oct. 22, 2010. Sister Maria Teresa rehearses prostrating in preparation for her First Profession ceremony the next morning. First Profession is part one of two ritual ceremonies that will seal her commitment to God. Her Final Profession will happen roughly three years later.

Toni Greaves

Radical Love
November 9, 2013. 27-year-old Sister Maria Teresa tends to her cleaning chores. Silent prayer is incorporated into every part of daily life, including chores.

Toni Greaves

Radical Love
July 4, 2014. Sister Mary Magdalene (left) and Sister Maria Teresa (right) sing “The Eagle Song” as Sabina the monastery dog watches on.

Toni Greaves

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Although Greaves’ family wasn’t very religious, growing up, she attended Sunday school at an Anglican Church until she was 14. When her mother passed away in 2004, it brought a revived connection to questions about spirituality. “After you go through something like that in life, you question a lot of things and think about things in a different way,” she said. “I became interested in who and what we are beyond our physical bodies and in the way people connect with whatever is beyond their physical form. And so I also became interested in dedicated spiritual communities since they are the most concentrated way where people try to nurture this connection.”

When photographing the monastery, she was careful not to take for granted the access she was given. “I put them first and they know that I would never betray them for the images,” she said. “I don’t think you can be allowed to be in someone’s home and then have the good intentions you convey to get access be merely a ruse. To me, that's awful."

Although the work is centered around Sister Lauren and highlights a radically different life many readers might not understand, the universality of the human experience is something Greaves hopes the images convey.

“I feel like we as human beings, we put up way too many barriers between each other for stupid reasons that make absolutely no sense, when fundamentally we are all the same deep down. One of the things I want in my photography is for people to see and understand something that is different from themselves and to be able to appreciate it in its own way; I want my photography to be a bridge to understanding.”

Radical Love
Sept. 5, 2014. Sister Maria Teresa, 28, talks with Sister Mary Martin, Prioress, during preparations for Solemn Profession the next morning.

Toni Greaves

Radical Love
Sept. 6, 2014. As part of Sister Maria Teresa’s Solemn Profession ceremony, Sister Mary Martin and Sister Mary Catharine replace the 28-year-old’s black veil—a symbol that she is a “house of prayer.”

Toni Greaves

David Rosenberg is the editor of Slate’s Behold blog. He has worked as a photo editor for 15 years and is a tennis junkie. Follow him on Twitter.