In 2008, photographer Toni Greaves was asked to accompany a writer doing a piece on modern-day monasteries. The two traveled to the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary, a cloistered order of Dominican nuns in Summit, NJ. The writer finished the story and left, but Greaves found herself lingering, fascinated by the place and its inhabitants.
Greaves’ mother had recently died, and the experience, she says, had sparked a deeper interest in spirituality and spiritual communities. “I became very curious about who and what we are as human beings and how we exist beyond this physical realm,” she told us. “Spiritual communities are places where people may find greater connection with whatever is beyond themselves.”
Soon after that day at the monastery, Greaves wrote to the monastery's prioress and asked if she could spend more time with the nuns. That began a seven-year photographic project that soon found its focus in Sister Lauren, a 21-year-old woman who’d left her outside life to join the order just a few weeks previously.
“It’s a massive change,” Greaves says of the decision to join. “They’re leaving their entire life, moving out of their homes or selling their apartments.” And the lives the nuns lead in the monastery are markedly different than the rest of the modern world. Unlike other nuns that are active in their communities, the sisters of Our Lady of the Rosary are almost entirely secluded. The women rise every day before dawn, gather to pray seven times a day, and almost never leave the grounds.
Greaves returned to the monastery repeatedly from 2008 to 2014, spending time with the women there and photographing them. She watched as Sister Lauren embarked on the multi-year journey to taking her final vows, fully entering the order as Sister Maria Teresa of the Sacred Heart.
Despite all the solitude and ritual of the women’s lives, when Greaves reminisces, she doesn’t remember the monastery as a somber place.
“One of the things that was surprising on that first day — part of what was such a draw to the place — is the energy of all the nuns, and the young women in particular. It was like when you have a friend that is newly in love, and there is a joy and an effervescence and a happiness to them,” she says.
“And that is what it is. It is love. For them, it’s just with God.”
Greaves' book, Radical Love, will be published by Chronicle Books later this month. Buy it at your favorite bookstore or here.