As a theologian, I always seek to explore the structure and workings of different denominations worldwide. I recently attended a three-week seminar led by nuns and decided to take advantage of that rare opportunity to learn about their history, vows, and practices. I met and interacted with different types of nuns and even read some of the texts that govern their day-to-day practices. While teaching a theology class the following week, my students asked me what I had learned about nuns. Having interacted with them and participated in some of their prayers and practices, I was able to comprehensively answer all the questions they had about nuns. But first, who are nuns?
Nuns are women who have professed the solemn vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience and who have devoted their lives to the service of God and others.
In this article, I’ll explore the history and origin of nuns, their different orders, the vows they take, and their leadership roles. I’ll also look at how they differ from sisters and their existence in different churches and religions. Keep reading to learn more!
Nuns are women who have taken solemn vows to commit their lives to the service of God, religious contemplation, and prayer. They are commonly associated with the Roman Catholic Church, but they are also found in other religions like Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Women who choose to become nuns do so for a variety of reasons. Some may have received a divine calling to join a religious order, others may wish to demonstrate their religious devotion, and women from certain cultures may choose to lead a cloistered, religious life after being widowed.
For example, the Carmelite Sisters of Baltimore have committed to leading a life of prayer and contemplation at the Carmelite Monastery of Baltimore, where they seek a deep communion with God to receive a new, transformed consciousness.
Aside from prayer and contemplation, some nuns play the following roles in the Church:
Nuns, mostly the Ursulines, provide education and training to young girls and women aspiring to pursue the same vocation. Some nuns also teach theology, liturgy, or secular courses in Catholic schools or universities.
They carry out charitable missions by helping the poor and caring for the sick. And preaching the word of God. They also offer counseling services and back the construction of community centers, schools, and hospitals. Most nuns that take on these roles belong to the Missionaries of Charity, a religious order founded by Mother Teresa.
Nuns can also be sent on special apostolic missions by their superiors to spread the word of God and advocate for more women to join in their calling.
The concept of nuns can be traced back to the early Church. In 1 Timothy 5:9–10, the Apostle Paul speaks of widows who devote their lives to practicing good deeds in service of the Lord. In 1 Corinthians 7: 34, Paul described unmarried women and virgins as being devoted to the work of the Lord in body and spirit. These sentiments ring true for today’s nuns, who take solemn vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity.
The persecutions of the third century drove many believers into the desert, but the solitary life inspired most of them to continue living their lives in service of God. As monks began living in monasteries, so did religious women. Founders of monastic life like St. Pachomius and St. Jerome championed the building of monasteries and convents for nuns and virgins in Rome, Spain, Italy, Gaul, and the West. These monasteries were usually located a few distance from those for men.
In the eighth and ninth centuries, more women joined the canonical way of life by retiring from the world, dressing modestly in black, and taking vows of chastity. They, however, were not obligated to denounce ownership of their earthly properties. During this period, being a nun was a religious profession, and they provided Christian education to young girls aspiring to become nuns and orphans. While some nuns pursued their religious journeys on their own free will, some were offered up by their parents when they were still young as a show of devotion.
In the thirteenth century, the different orders of nuns began arising. For example, the Mendicant Order was characterized by a more rigorous element of poverty, as it restricted members from owning most possessions. Nuns belonging to this order were dedicated to preaching and missionary work. In 1212, St. Francis of Assisi guided St. Clare into founding the Second Order of Franciscans, who are today called the Poor Clares. Other orders like the Dominican, Augustinian, Benedictine, and Carmelite Nuns were also founded.
The formation of orders of nuns led to all professed nuns being subjected to stricter enclosure. They were only allowed to educate young girls, and even that was done under inconvenient conditions. St. Pius V dictated that in addition to living within enclosed monasteries or convents, nuns were required to accept solemn vows. For almost three centuries, the Holy See, which is the government of the Catholic Church, refused to sanction nuns who had only accepted simple vows.
Consequently, religious associations consisting of women who had not taken perpetual solemn vows were formed. For example, St. Vincent de Paul founded the Daughters of Charity. They provided services to the sick and poor and carried out religious missions, and they were soon tolerated by the Holy See and sanctified by diocesan authorities. At the beginning of the twentieth century, after much political difficulties, Pope Leo XIII laid down the laws that clearly differentiated between sisters who had taken simple vows and worked under diocesan authorities and nuns who had taken solemn vows and worked under the pontifical law.
She was the twin sister of Saint Benedict of Nursia, and following in his footsteps, she founded the monastery of Piumarola. She and her fellow sisters followed the Rule of St. Benedict, leading to the formation of the female branch of the Benedictine Order. Saint Scholastica also observed the rule of silence, which required nuns to avoid having conversations with anyone outside the monastery.
She was among the first followers of St. Francis of Assisi, and inspired by his teachings, she founded the Order of Poor Ladies, which is referred to as the Poor Clares today. During her service, she courageously championed the Franciscan rule of absolute poverty, which forbade the Poor Ladies from possessing any earthly goods.
She played a major role in reforming the Carmelite Orders for men and women during the Counter-Reformation period. Although her reforms were met with opposition and scrutiny from the Spanish Inquisition, she trusted in God’s purpose for her life and soldiered on. Her books The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle are still considered to be valuable references on Christian mysticism and meditation.
She founded the Order of the Ursulines in 1535, which consisted of twelve virgins who devoted their lives to providing religious education and training to young girls. This paved the way for a new way of life among nuns, where they pledged their vows to Christ but lived in the world pursuing the mission of education rather than secluded in monasteries.
The Roman Catholic Church recognizes two main types of nuns based on their juridical condition:
- Nuns, properly so-called, who have taken solemn vows and live strictly within monasteries.
- Nuns who belong to old orders that observe solemn vows, but they have only taken simple vows by special permission from the Holy See.
Theologians also propose four types of nuns based on the rule they follow:
- Augustinian Nuns follow the Rule of St. Augustine
- Dominican Nuns follow the Rule of St. Dominic
- Benedictine Sisters follow the Rule of St. Benedict
- Ursulines follow the Rule of Saint Angela Merici
The Annuario Pontificio, which is the annual directory of the Holy See, recognizes three major religious orders of nuns. They include:
Monastic Orders constitute orders of nuns whose members live secluded in monasteries or convents and commit their lives to prayer and contemplation. Such orders include the Augustinians, Benedictines, Carthusians, and Poor Clares.
They are orders of nuns whose members combine monastic life and active religious missions. They travel from place to place, preaching the word of God and relying on the goodwill of Christians. These orders include the Dominicans, Augustinians, and Carmelites.
These are orders of nuns who work within diocesan churches to help bishops and priests fulfill their ministry.
Orders of nuns in the Catholic Church are communities of nuns who have professed solemn vows and live by a set of authorized rules of life. They can live by the Rules of St. Benedict, St. Francis, or St. Augustin.
Some of the popular orders of nuns in the Catholic Church include:
- The Order of the Virgin Mary
- Bethlehem Nuns
- Carthusian Nuns
- Dominican Nuns
- Poor Clares
- Passionist Nuns
- Religious Women of Jesus Hearth
- Redemptoristine Nuns
Cloistered nuns are nuns who observe the rules of enclosure as stipulated in Canons 665 and 667 by leading secluded lives from the external world. Cloistered nuns rarely leave the enclosure of monasteries unless they are permitted by their superior due to special reasons like seeking medical care, carrying out a special apostolic mission, or pursuing studies. They devote their lives to contemplative ministries, whereby a community of cloistered nuns commit to praying for a particular cause or supporting another order’s mission through prayer.
Cloistered nuns can be categorized into three types:
- Papal cloisters – they are the strictest form of cloistered nuns, as they do not leave the monastery except under very few circumstances.
- Constitutional cloisters – they lead a contemplative life, but they are also involved in other apostolic or charitable work that gives them the freedom to leave the monasteries.
- Monastic cloister – they are similar to constitutional cloisters, but they are more free and interactive. Sometimes guests are invited to stay at the monastery.
Examples of cloistered nuns are the Carmelite Nuns, Poor Clares, and Dominican Nuns.
Black veil, loose fitting garment made of gray frieze, linen rope cord with four knots to represent their four vows, sandals made of cloth
White scapular and tunic; black cappa, veil, and belt on which a rosary is attached.
Black tunic, scapular, veil, and belt; white headdress. Fully professed nuns wear a white veil beneath the black.
Brown tunic, full-length scapular, black or white veil, crucifix worn under the scapular, belt, and rosary on the waist, hemp sandals and socks, white mantle (worn in choir).
White cowl, black veil
Black dress, black sleeveless cloak, white veil for novices, black veil for professed nuns, close-fitting headdress, black leather cincture,
Simple, long black tunic, rosary of the Blessed Mother, which hangs from leather belt, simple coif, and black veil. Novices only wear a black tunic and a white veil.
If you have a feeling that God is calling you to become a nun, it is prudent that you first pray about this feeling to better discern what God is trying to communicate to you. Becoming a nun can be a lifetime commitment to a different lifestyle than what you had imagined for yourself, and you should open your heart and mind to God in prayer so that you can fully embrace whatever plans He has for you.
Secondly, consider speaking to a spiritual director to get a general idea of what becoming a nun entails, including potential religious orders or monasteries you can apply to. You can also interact with nuns by attending Mass or a nun-led retreat or by reading their vocation stories or websites. This will give you a peek into what life as a nun is like and further help you decide if it’s the life you want for yourself.
When you’ve ascertained that you’re ready to formally pursue this journey, contact the vocation director of a religious order of your choice. Note, however, that reaching out to a specific religious order doesn’t mean you’ve committed to becoming a nun. These communities understand that it will take you time to learn all about their religious practices and commit to the same life, so they’ll welcome you and help you discern whether their order is the right fit for you.
The vocation director, who is a member of the order you’re considering joining, will help you gain a deeper knowledge of the community. She’ll also help the community members get to know you. During this time, you can explore other orders or even date someone. This will help you better discern whether religious life with a certain order is for you. If it’s right for you, you’ll gradually develop a sense of wanting to belong to a particular order.
At this point, the vocation director will help you complete the formal steps required to join the order. They include ensuring that you meet the necessary requirements and that you successfully go through the five stages of becoming a nun. They include aspirancy, postulancy, novitiate, first vows, and final vows.
To become a nun in the Catholic Church, you must meet the following requirements:
- You must be a Catholic woman.
- You must not be currently married.
- You must be physically and emotionally ready to undertake the order’s religious mission.
- You must not have any children who still depend on you.
- You must be between 18–40 years old, although some orders accept women who are over 40.
- You must not have any outstanding debts when you begin the novitiate.
Absolutely. Most religious orders treat each individual separately when admitting nuns to their communities, so they don’t adhere to upper age limits. However, orders that accept nuns aged over 50 still have to ensure that the nuns have good health and genuine desire to commit their lives to God’s service.
Nuns are usually trained in convents or monasteries. They undergo the postulancy and novitiate stages while living with other nuns in a convent or monastery so they can gain firsthand experience of a religious life. During this time, they learn more about their religious order and vows and engage in prayer and contemplation as they discern whether being a nun is the right calling for them.
It takes between nine and twelve years before one can fully commit to become a nun and take the perpetual solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. To become a nun, you must first complete the requisite five stages:
- Aspirancy – it lasts for one to two years, during which the vocation director will guide you through prayer and help you further explore the order. This can be done through correspondence as you continue to live in the secular world before moving into the monastery.
- Postulancy – it lasts for one to two years, during which you gradually progress from a secular life to a contemplative monastic life.
- Novitiate – it lasts for two years, during which you continue to discern your calling to become a nun while strengthening your relationship with God.
- First Vows – it lasts for at least five years, during which you temporarily profess the vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty, and you learn to live by them every day as you gain greater spiritual maturity.
- Final Vows – after successfully completing the first four stages, you now take lifelong solemn vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty, and you begin a lifelong service of God.
The vows that nuns take vary depending on their religion or orders, but the three main ones are the vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity. They are also called the evangelical counsels or counsels of perfection.
- Vow of Poverty
Nuns take a solemn vow of poverty, whereby they relinquish the ownership of their earthly possessions and commit to living interdependently with each other. They do so to imitate the simple, humble life that Jesus Christ chose to live on earth even though he was rich.
- Vow of Chastity
In the spirit of wholly serving God in spirit and body, nuns take a solemn vow of chastity to not engage in any romantic or sexual relationship. As the apostle Paul preaches in 1 Corinthians 7:32–35, chastity enables nuns to devote their lives to the service of God, as they don’t have to worry about meeting the needs of spouses. While observing the vow of chastity, nuns live according to the words of Matthew 16:24, where Jesus declares that anyone who wants to be his disciple must be willing to deny herself, take up her cross, and follow him.
- Vow of Obedience
Nuns also take a solemn vow of obedience to obey God’s commands and their religious superiors in their given orders. They observe this vow in accordance with the teachings in John 14:23, whereby Jesus urges those who love him to obey him.
Some orders of nuns take a fourth vow, which usually reflects a character of their order. For example, Benedictine nuns take a solemn vow of stability to remain faithful members of a particular monastic community.
The punishments for breaking a nun’s vows depends on the extent of the violation and the rules of her religious order. Some orders may request the nun to leave the community, while others may suspend her from her duties if she’s in a leadership position. If the nun’s violation is extremely severe, she may be excommunicated from the Church.
Yes, Canon 90 of the Vatican law dictates that a nun can request and receive dispensation from her religious vows for a just or reasonable cause. For example, a nun who is still in the aspirancy, postulancy, novitiate, and first vow stages is still at the discernment stage, and she can pursue a different journey if she finds that being a nun is not the life for her. Nuns who have solemnly professed the final vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty are considered to have made lifelong and perpetual commitment to the service of God, but they can also request to be dispensed from their solemn vows if they find they are unable to fulfill the requirements of a religious life.
They observe the set schedule at their respective monasteries. This usually involves engaging in a series of services and prayers, including Matins Laud, Prime, Tierce, Sext None, Vespers, and Compline. They also engage in other activities like bookkeeping, arts and crafts, and sewing.
They abstain from any sexual or romantic relationships, choosing instead to express love through community service and ministry.
They relinquish personal ownership of possessions and embrace community ownership. This is in keeping with their solemn vow of poverty, which compels them to share everything as a religious community and live simply.
They observe their vow of obedience by obeying the laws and regulations set by their superiors.
Aside from the basic vows that every nun is expected to live by, the rules that nuns are required to follow can vary depending on a religious order. For example, some orders require nuns to live within a monastery or convent, always wear their habit, or take a vow of silence.
Since Catholic nuns are not accepted into the clergy, they are usually delegated to minor roles in the Church. They can be elected as an abbess, a prioress, or a “Mother Superior” to head a particular religious house or monastery.
Thankfully, recent appointments of women in the Vatican hierarchy show that the opportunities for nuns to occupy higher-ranking positions in the Catholic Church are underway. For example, Sister Nathalie Becquart was the first woman to be appointed as the undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops in 2021, a post previously held by bishops only. During the same year, Pope Francis also appointed Sister Nuria Calduch as the secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
Catholic nuns play prominent roles in championing social justice activism and carrying out apostolic missions despite being in the background.
Today, nuns occupy leadership roles in monasteries, hospitals, schools, and even universities. A nun who wishes to ascend to the role of leadership can pursue education and training in a particular field, say medicine or education. She can also attend seminars and workshops that offer talks and courses on leadership skills and development.
A nun can also become a leader by practicing good leadership skills and intuition. She can portray good judgment, care, and patience when interacting with her fellow nuns so they can consider electing her to be an abbess.
They came about as a result of the Protestant Reformation, that led to reformed deaconesses forming religious communities of nuns who followed Protestant traditions. They dedicate their lives to the service of God, but they do not take the three vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. They engage in community service through teaching, counseling, preaching, and nursing. They wear simple, modest clothes that feature a veil or habit, and they live in convents or within a particular religious community.
They are restricted to monasteries, and they do not pursue active ministry in the Church. They spend their lives in prayer and contemplation, and they pray under the guidance of an abbess. The abbess can hear confessions, bless her charges, and perform other priestly duties. Eastern Orthodox nuns do not belong to specific religious orders like their sisters in Western Christianity.
They consist of women in the Anglican Communion who abide by a common rule of life. They take vows to devote their lives to the service of God, including the three monastic vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. They can be categorized into four religious communities:
- Recognized Celibate Communities: they take a vow of celibacy and abide by a common rule of life. They can live within monasteries or pursue apostolic missions.
- Dispersed Communities: they take the monastic vows and abide by a common rule of life, but they don’t live in communities. Members live on their own and frequently hold assemblies called “chapter meetings.”
- Acknowledged Communities: they constitute both single and married members. Single members are required to remain celibate and married members should remain faithful to their spouses. They also allow personal possessions, but members should offer significant tithes to the Church and community.
- Other Communities: they consist of non-Anglican communities that share deep communion with Anglican churches.
They live by the Rule of St. Benedict, the Holy Bible, the Benedictine Breviary, and Methodist works like The United Methodist Hymnal. They do not necessarily live within a monastery, and some communities have members who live in dispersed locations. Still, they come together for daily prayer through teleconference and hold yearly retreats for in-person meetings. Members are both single and married.
They dedicate their lives to God’s service in the Lutheran Church. They take the vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty, and some of them choose to live secluded in a monastery or convent. Others lead an active life in the secular world, working as teachers, nurses, or ministers. They sometimes wear religious habits, and they perform religious duties like mentoring aspiring young girls, visiting the sick, and engaging in private prayers. They are not allowed to own property, pursue romantic or sexual relationships, or use social media.
Although the terms “nun” and “sister” are mostly used interchangeably, there are significant distinctions between the two:
Live a cloistered life within a convent or monastery
Live an active life within a community as doctors, teachers, or any other profession.
Dedicate themselves to religious contemplation and prayer
Can pursue activism or higher education in service of their communities.
Profess perpetual solemn vows poverty, whereby they renounce ownership of all their earthly possessions.
Profess perpetual simple vows of poverty, whereby they can retain ownership of their patrimony, but they must offer up its use and any revenue generated.
Taiwan is said to have the most number of Buddhist nuns, with the number of nuns preceding that of monks. These women undertake social service work and Dharma teaching in their communities. Fully ordained Buddhist nuns are called bhikkhunis, and there are educational centers in Taiwan, like the Luminary Buddhist Institute, committed to providing education and training to bhikkhunis. Both nuns and monks shave their hair and wear the same kind of robes, sometimes making it difficult to distinguish between the two.
Thai nuns who have taken a vow of celibacy and committed to living an ascetic, religious life are called Maechi or Mae Chee. Thailand does not allow women to be fully ordained as nuns (bhikkhunis) because of a law that was passed by the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand in 1928. As a result, Maechis have always endured marginalization in Thai society.
Japanese Buddhist nuns are ordained to live by the teachings of Buddha. They can apply to any of the three schools of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Mahayana Buddhism allows women to become nuns and receive full ordination, enabling them to perform the same duties as monks. Fully ordained nuns receive a new name and special set of robes. They live in temples or convents, where they practice chanting, meditation, and other spiritual activities.
A nun in Jainism is called a Sadhvi. To become one, an individual has to take the five great vows of non-violence, non-stealing, truthfulness, non-attachment, and chastity. Jain nuns detach themselves from social and worldly pursuits, devoting their lives to attain self-realization and self-purification. They practice friendship, benevolence, and compassion towards all living creatures. They are not allowed to possess money, grow crops, or cook food, and they seek the acceptable vegetarian sustenance from lay supporters.
Nuns in Hinduism commit to a life of celibacy, simplicity, and contemplation. They detach from earthly pursuits, with some of them staying in a monastery and others moving from place to place. They worship Hindu deities and practice yoga to unite their physical bodies with their spiritual minds.
They devote their lives to attaining spiritual enlightenment by practicing Daoism. They live by the five precepts of Daoism, which forbid them from stealing, killing, taking intoxicants, engaging in sexual misconduct, and speaking false speech. Daoist nuns seclude themselves in temples or solitary, remote areas, where they practice meditation and strict spiritual discipline as they seek to harmonize their inner energy with that of the universe. They also undertake charitable activities in a community and provide spiritual guidance to laypeople.
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As a devout Christian, I have always been passionate about the Christian faith. This inspired me to pursue a degree in Religious studies and a Masters in Theology in college. I have also been privileged to teach 4 Christian courses in a college and university. Since I am dedicated to spreading the word of God, I am actively involved in the Church. Additionally, I share his word online and cover diverse topics on the Christian faith through my platform. You can read more about me on the about us page.