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So You Want to Be a Nun

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Maybe you were lucky enough to have that shelf of picture books in the primary school library that were of the 'So You Want to Be a...' series. Among them were So You Want to Be a Police Officer, So You Want to Be a Nurse, So You Want to Be a Farmer, though of course these days the books are more likely to be So You Want to Be a Pop Star. Nowhere in the series, though, was there ever a So You Want to Be a Nun, not even in the libraries at the Catholic schools.

Now, this certainly hasn't stopped legions of little girls from thinking at some point or another that they'd like to be a nun. After all, to many people nuns seem almost as mysterious and powerful as pop stars. The problem has been, however, that the majority of these little girls - and the women they've become - haven't been entirely sure just what a nun is, or what nuns do. This of course has meant that most eventually turned their aims to something a little more tangibly present in real life, like becoming a teacher or a rubbish collector. Other young women plunged headfirst into becoming a nun without having much of a clue as to what they were jumping into, which (not surprisingly) has led to a number of very disenchanted ex-nuns.

So this Entry, then, shall aim to cover all of that info that should have been in a So You Want to Be a Nun picture book, if only there was one. And maybe then a bit more, as after all this isn't actually a picture book.

What is a Nun, Anyway?

Often people are a bit confused when they think about nuns - they have this picture in their minds of what a nun is, often involving something along the lines of an older woman in a shapeless black robe with a white veil, an utter absence of humour, and perhaps something to do with rulers. The reality is, of course, much more complex than that. Many of the concepts and characteristics that people have mentally labelled as 'nun' in their minds aren't actually nuns at all, but are something different. And many of the women of the world who are indeed nuns would never be recognised as such by a casual observer.

For most people, the vast majority of 'nuns' they've ever seen - whether in real life, or on TV - were actually not nuns at all. They were instead what we call religious sisters. Three related groups of religious women are nuns, sisters, and consecrated virgins. All three groups dedicate their lives to God and service, and follow rules of chastity, poverty, and obedience. While this Entry focuses largely on these groups as they exist within the Roman Catholic Church, it is also possible to find nuns, religious sisters, and consecrated virgins across a number of religions, from Anglican to Buddhist.


Nuns are by definition what we call cloistered, habited, and contemplative.

  • Being cloistered means that they have virtually no contact with the outside world. They live in what is called the cloister - the 'nuns only' section of the convent - and leave only for reasons of grave necessity, such as a doctor's appointment. Cloistered nuns will often only be able to see family members once or twice a year, and then only there at the convent. An order of nuns will sometimes have what are called 'extern sisters' - a member or two who is not cloistered, and who serves the order by interacting with the public for them, doing the shopping and such.

  • Nuns will wear a habit, which is essentially a nun-ly uniform.

  • They are also contemplative, meaning that the focus of their service is through prayer rather than action. Nuns of a contemplative order will often pray the full Divine Office and attend Mass, as well as spend considerable time in individual prayer, such as the rosary. The physical activities nuns engage in throughout the day are usually some combination of housework, farming, and handcrafts; the latter two are often the ways by which the convent supports itself.

The style of both the habit and the prayer will depend on the order. While there are common features across all orders, each does have its own history and rules. Within a given order, there may be a number of different communities, each in a different area and with its own convent.

Religious Sisters

Religious sisters, on the other hand, are not cloistered; depending on the order, they may be active or a mix between active and contemplative, and they might or might not be habited. Most of the 'famous nuns' the average person might think of are, in fact, religious sisters - Mother Teresa, for example, was the founder of an active order of religious sisters named the Missionaries of Charity, and the order continues to attract women from across the globe.

  • Religious sisters are usually involved in their local area in some way. Some religious sisters live in what might be considered a convent (although it might instead be termed a community house), but others live together in what will look just like any other home in the neighbourhood. Religious sisters who are serving in an area without anyone else from their order might live in an apartment alone, or might room with another order. Perhaps to make things confusing, though, the convents of religious sisters may still have an area designated as 'the cloister'. Sometimes this will be an area that was at least initially restricted to only the sisters, such as the living quarters; the term can also refer to a covered outdoor passage in the convent. Regardless of what area the term refers to, however, the religious sisters are not confined to this cloister.

  • Some orders of religious sisters wear a habit, and some do not. In general, orders that are more contemplative are more likely to wear a habit than orders that are more active. In some parts of the world, all religious sisters wear a habit, as doing so makes them recognisable to their community, which can make it easier to provide services. In many Western countries, however, active orders of religious sisters have been encouraged since the 1960s to either wear a simplified habit or to wear normal clothes, so that they may appear more accessible to the people around them. A simplified habit will often include a skirt with either a jacket or vest, and may or may not include a veil. In orders where the sisters wear normal clothes, they usually have a brooch, badge or other marking identifying them as being a sister of their order. It is also possible for a given community to have a mixture of habited and non-habited women, as some orders make it a matter of personal choice.

  • Just as a contemplative order focuses on service through prayer, an active order focuses on service through action. An active order might have religious sisters who teach, or care for the ill, aged, or dying, or work in prisons, or provide social services to the poor. The focus of an order is considered their ministry or apostolate. While some orders will have all of their religious sisters serving in a similar field, others encourage their members to serve the community in the way to which they are best suited. As a result, a single order might have religious sisters who are doctors, professors, scientists, writers, lawyers, musicians, political lobbyists, and nursing home administrators. Even in an active order, however, a certain amount of time is set aside each day for prayer, both as a community and individually. As part of this, religious sisters pray at least part of the Divine Office each day.

Other Consecrated Women

To perhaps confuse matters some more, there is another set altogether of women who aren't nuns, aren't religious sisters, but are nevertheless consecrated virgins.

Sometimes these women are members of different lay movements or secular institutes, such as Regnum Christi. In this case, they aren't technically considered 'consecrated virgins' by the Canon Law of the Catholic Church, but rather are considered consecrated women who are members of the secular institute in question. Consecrated women usually make up a relatively small proportion of any lay movement, and the ways in which they differ from religious sisters can often be difficult to see from the outside. In some ways, the difference has more to do with the structure of governance and finance than with the actual way of life. Consecrated women in secular institutes will sometimes live in housing of their own, and sometimes in convent or dormitory-style housing provided by the institute.

It is also possible for women to become consecrated virgins through their local bishop, without being involved in a lay movement. This is what the term 'consecrated virgins' technically refers to, although it is relatively uncommon in much of the world. Once they are consecrated, they are said to belong to the Order of Virgins. Unlike nuns and religious sisters, consecrated virgins do need to actually be virgins. Or, to be more precise, they need to 'have never been married or lived in public or open violation of chastity' (Canon 604). A woman also needs to be able to prove that she can financially support herself before being consecrated. It is up to the bishop to ascertain whether a woman is qualified and ready to become a consecrated virgin.

Like nuns and sisters, though, consecrated virgins forego married life to more completely dedicate themselves to the service of God and the people around them. Consecrated virgins are like nuns and sisters in other ways as well - they pledge to attend Mass and pray at least part of the Divine Office daily, and spend a considerable amount of time in private prayer. However, they are not bound to all of the same vows as nuns and religious sisters, and so are not considered 'vowed religious'. Likewise, they are more independent than nuns and sisters both financially and in terms of making choices. They generally work normal jobs and live in normal housing. In fact, it's entirely possible that you know a consecrated virgin without realising it!

Some of the following will only apply to orders of nuns or religious sisters, as it is much more difficult to generalise about the other different types of consecrated women.

Getting in

Just as with the military, university and regular work, there are several steps involved before 'getting in'. After all, not everyone who thinks of becoming a nun will be right for it, and a woman who is a perfect fit for one order might not work out at all in another.


The qualifications required can vary considerably by the order and the community. Some orders won't take any woman younger than 25, and some won't take anyone older. Many orders require young women to have a university degree or several years of work experience. Some orders will accept widows or divorced women without children, others will not. Women who have physical disabilities, chronic health problems, or a history of mental illness will be allowed by some orders and not others. But despite some misperceptions, women don't necessarily have to be virgins, or to have led a super-holy life.

There are some prerequisites, however, that are almost universally common across orders. Women need to be unmarried and without dependant children, to be emotionally and intellectually mature enough to understand what they are getting into, have the ability to live in a community of women without anyone getting killed, and generally need to be free (or mostly free) of financial debt. It's also not uncommon for orders to require women to undergo medical and psychological evaluation before acceptance.

Naturally, women who are seeking to enter a Roman Catholic order need to be Roman Catholic themselves. The meaning of this, though, can actually differ quite a bit. Some orders - especially contemplative orders - are specifically looking for women who have long had a deep and intense prayer life and who have a strong faith in God. Others are instead more focused on a woman's potential and desire to spend a lifetime growing in those areas than they are in the level of her prayer life and faith right at the moment of discernment. In fact, you don't even need to have been raised Catholic, although most orders will ask a woman to wait a few years after converting before diving into the religious life.

Oh, and it might be too obvious to state, but nuns, religious sisters, and consecrated women all need to be, well, women. Men who find themselves drawn to the same path as nuns can become monks, and there are also any number of different orders of religious brothers. There are not, however, any openings for male consecrated virgins - on the other hand, they have the option of being ordained a diocesan priest, a religious priest, or a permanent deacon, three paths which are blocked to women.

The Call You Can't Get on a Cell Phone

Besides the habit, perhaps the most mysterious bit about nuns (and religious sisters) is this concept of The Call - the idea that certain women are personally called by God to enter into this way of life. The idea is that some women are called to life as a vowed religious (the collective phrase for nuns and religious sisters), while others are called to life as a married woman or as a single woman, possibly as a consecrated virgin. The way of life that a person is called to is considered their vocation, and the Catholic Church teaches that everyone has one. But the Church also teaches that everyone has free will - which means that simply being called to live as a nun isn't going to be enough to make it happen.

Discernment is a Two-way Street

On the other hand, figuring out your vocation can be a tricky business, as there's no magic postcard on your 18th birthday letting you know which path you're meant to take. The process of figuring out where your vocation is meant to be is called discernment - sometimes it is a relatively quick process, but for other people it can take several years. Part of the discernment process involves looking at the reasons a woman has for wanting to enter religious life - just as is the case with getting married, going to university or taking any other path in life, there are healthy reasons and not-so-healthy ones.

Even once a woman has discerned that she wants to become, say, a religious sister, she still needs to discern which of the many orders and communities will be right for her. After all, different communities can be very, very different. There is an order of active religious sisters who run a publishing company, and there is a contemplative order of nuns who live on a mostly abandoned island raising goats. There are orders of religious sisters who travel from place to place doing emergency refugee work, there are communities that provide AIDS treatment in the inner cities, and there are religious sisters who chain themselves to nuclear warfare facilities in protest. There are orders where the lifestyle is very regimented, and there are orders where convent life is almost a grown-up version of a university dormitory.

In a way, this process is a little like a mix between dating and applying to university. Most women will check out a number of different orders - talking to people, reading brochures or checking them out online, going for a visit - but some women will fall in love with the first order they encounter and will have no interest in looking further. At the same time as the woman is looking over all these orders, they in turn will be learning more about her, trying to determine whether she would be a good fit in their community, and also whether she truly is called to that way of life.

Just as is the case with dating, this phase starts out with some casual curiosity, and can build in intensity. A woman might read about an order online and email for more information, thereby starting a conversation with the order's vocations director. That communication might go back and forth for a while, each asking questions and learning about the other. If it potentially seems like a good match, the woman might be invited to visit the community. Some orders organise 'Come and See' weekend retreats on a regular basis, where a number of women can go and learn about the order together. Other orders have a more casual approach, and might simply invite interested women to a pizza party, or to spend the weekend there.

As with dating, at any time one or the other might realise that this isn't a good match after all. On the other hand, if things continue to look good, the relationship intensifies and the vocations director starts talking to the woman in earnest about what would be involved in joining the community. At this point, some orders will ask for an official application, or letters of reference, or even for the woman to write a brief autobiography of her life.

No Money, No Sex, No Freedom?

One of the things a vocations director always has to make sure that interested women understand is the lifestyle they're getting themselves into. Especially for the vowed religious, a key issue is the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience1. These are pretty big commitments to be making, so the community spends some time making sure that the woman understands what this will mean for her life.

  • The vow of poverty can actually mean something a bit different depending on the order. But generally, it means giving up striving for money and material goods as a way of life, and living a simpler life that is seen as aligned with the poor of the local area. It means giving up attachment to these things, and becoming willing to freely share with the community, and working for a world in which all people have the basic necessities of life and freedom from oppression.

  • The vow of chastity means more than just abstaining from sex - it involves not giving into sexual desires and impulses in general, and instead to direct that love, energy, and power towards both God and towards all people as a whole. Many nuns, religious sisters, and consecrated virgins see themselves as having an all-consuming and intimate relationship with God - this is why they are often referred to as the 'Brides of Christ'. In order to live a healthy and happy life in chastity, most communities seem to believe that women first need to have a positive view of sexuality, a peaceful ownership of their sexual orientation, and the ability to be comfortable with friends of both genders. In other words, turning to chastity because of a belief that sex is evil, or a fear of men, or a discomfort with sexual orientation generally doesn't work out well.

  • The vow of obedience is different in many ways from the strict obedience expected of a dog or soldier. Instead, the women are vowing to always listen for the voice of God, and to be always willing to respond to that voice as well as to the needs of the order and the apostolate. So, for example, this doesn't mean that a religious sister could never question an assignment or request from her superior - but it does mean that she is expected to spend some time thinking and praying and talking with others in her community about why, exactly, she is questioning. Is it because she feels like another direction would be better for the community and more in line with the voice of God? Or is it because she's being asked to step outside her comfort zone? So especially in many active communities, obedience often translates more into a willingness to discuss something with an open mind and heart than it does jumping to attention.

As women learn about what these vows mean, they gain a better picture of what some of the downsides of entering religious life might be for them. There have been religious sisters who hit the age of 50 and suddenly deeply regretted not ever having married or had children. Others realise that resentment about not having a car, nice clothes, or their own home has continued to build over the years without their conscious notice. And there are women who reach a point where they can be honest with themselves, and subsequently admit that living with a large group of often very opinionated women has been driving them a little crazy, and that having to discuss every major life decision with them has been an even bigger thorn. For some, the rewards of religious life compensated for what they gave up - but others find themselves bitter about lost chances. Some women will decide to switch orders mid-life, and others will leave religious life altogether. One of the goals of the discernment process is to try to prevent situations like this, which usually are hard on both the woman and the rest of her community.

Stages of Nun-ship

Once the woman and community are both confident in their discernment, the woman will be asked to join the community - but it's not an all-or-nothing leap. Rather, what the woman is being asked to do is to take the first step towards becoming a perpetually professed (in other words permanent) member of the community. A number of other steps will follow, although the names and lengths of the steps can vary somewhat depending on the order.

  • This first step is often called postulancy, and women are called postulants during this phase. Postulants haven't yet made vows, but have made a commitment to live with the community and according to those vows and other rules of the order for awhile to see how it goes. Essentially, this is a time period in which the woman and the community test each other out, and when the woman can learn more about and participate in the community, their spirituality, and their apostolate. During postulancy, a woman will spend time learning the routine of the order, going to classes, exploring how she will fit into the apostolate and what her own ministry might be, and discovering how to live in and with this community of women. This phase might last a year or two, and the woman is free to leave at any time.

  • Next comes the novitiate, which is a one- or two-year period in which the women, now called novices, focus on developing their spiritual life and learning more about the vows they are preparing for. The first year of the novitiate is often spent at the order's motherhouse, or headquarters. In a two-year novitiate, the second year is spent living in the community and engaging in the ministry.

  • At the end of the novitiate, the woman makes her first profession of vows - at this point the vows are temporary rather than permanent, and are renewed annually for three to six years. The woman is now considered a temporary professed nun or sister, and if the order wears a habit, she receives it at this point2. At the end of each year, both the woman and the community re-evaluate whether it is working out, and the woman might decide or be asked to leave.

  • After this period, a woman can make her final profession of vows, after which point she is considered a perpetually professed nun or sister. Coming back to the analogy of dating, this step is akin to getting married - while it is still possible to later decide to leave after this point, it's a difficult process with a lot of paperwork. More importantly, however, the vows are made with a lifelong view.

What Now?

So it could be you're reading this, and thinking, 'Hmmmmm.... so maybe I am meant to be a nun!' Or maybe you've read all this, and are thinking, 'Probably not for me, but it would be interesting to learn more?' Or maybe you're not even vaguely interested in being a nun, but you'd just like to find out where those nuns are that raise the goats.

Either way, there are loads of places out there to look for more information. There are websites with vocation information in general, and websites just for British vocations, or American vocations, or Canadian vocations, or Australian vocations. There are even online quizzes. Other places women find information and help through the discernment process include their diocese, their parish priest, local Catholic colleges and universities, and through magazines that are aimed just at women and men who are discerning their vocation. A good book for women considering religious life is Sisters: An Inside Look, by Kathleen Rooney, SSJ. A similar book for men is available entitled Brothers: An Inside Look, by Larry Schatz, FSC.

Taking that next step can be as simple as sending an email or making a phone call. Some areas even have summer or holiday programmes for young adults discerning a vocation. Such programmes don't need to be nearby - while many women join an order that is relatively nearby, it is not uncommon for women to join an order across the country, or even to go abroad.

Other Options

For those who are interested in all of this, but just don't see religious life in their future, there are other options that can be explored as well. Many orders have associate members - these do not make vows, can be married, can often be women or men, and may not even need to be Catholic. Associate members are basically volunteers that help the order in some way - in some cases just through prayer, in others through actively helping with the order's apostolate. Associate members generally receive some training in the order's history and spirituality, and may try to maintain some of the same prayer practices as professed members of the order.

Others don't have any affiliation with a specific order, but still choose to spend time practising the spirituality associated with a certain order - such as Carmelite, Franciscan, or Benedictine spirituality. There are a variety of resources out there for this, including books and prayer retreats.

All in All

Maybe some part of you, deep down, feels called to be a nun. Or maybe you feel a pull towards becoming a religious sister, or even a consecrated virgin. Or, rather more likely, neither of these applies to you at all - it is a unique way of life, and definitely not for everyone - but hopefully now you know a little more about it. After all, some day this could be your daughter, or sister, or friend.

1Consecrated women dedicate themselves to chastity, and often to poverty and/or obedience as well. But it's not entirely the same thing as the vows that nuns and religious sisters make.2Some communities have separate habits that are worn by postulants and/or novices.

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