What Are Cloistered Nuns? (What Is The Relevance Of Cloistered Life?)

During my theology studies, I was drawn to the many Catholic Doctrines, the hierarchy of the church, and their different ecclesiastical titles. I was particularly intrigued by the group of nuns called the Cloistered Nuns and the idea of being cloistered. As I endeavored to learn more about them, I interviewed several nuns and interacted with many nuns from different communities in and out of the city. Recently, my theology students asked me to give my view of the cloistered nuns and what makes them different from other nuns. Based on my findings, I was able to answer the questions about cloistered nuns comprehensively and clear some imperfections. So, what are cloistered nuns? 

Cloistered nuns refer to Catholic nuns who have chosen solitude and silence as a way of life, either for prayers or working. Often, the sacrifices made are for the good of the world and the church. Cloistered nuns in the papal cloister represent the strictest category of cloisters, and except in some unique cases, these nuns never leave the nunnery. These cloistered nuns also choose to remain within the religious community for their lifetime. There also are constitutional and monastic cloisters that are less strict and more open, respectively. 

In this article, I’ll share more about cloistered nuns, the relevance of their cloistered life, and whether they talk or not. To learn all about these nuns, keep reading. 

What does it mean to be cloistered?

To be cloistered means being separated or choosing to be separated, protected, or secluded from the rest of the world and the concerns or problems of daily life. For religious sisters or nuns, cloistered means living in a covenant and following a prayerful and contemplative life. 

Nuns who choose to become cloistered nuns take the solemn vow to remain cloistered within the nunnery’s walls, where they lead a peaceful and contemplative life free from all the concerns or worries of this world. 

While cloistered, the nuns’ lives are divided between chores/ work at the convent and constant prayer. The other condition of this life is that the nuns aren’t allowed to watch movies, read novels, or even play sports, meaning that their lives are split between prayers and chores. The other condition of being a cloistered nun is that regardless of their numbers, these cloistered nuns are required to keep their physical contact minimum, meaning they aren’t allowed to hug each other. This separation also applies to their families, where most of them end up never seeing their families ever.

It’s worth noting that the cloistered nuns are different from the apostolic nuns who serve, minister, and teach to the poor.

What are the types of cloisters in the Catholic Church?

What Is The Relevance Of Cloistered Life?
What are the types of cloisters in the Catholic Church? Image source: Pixabay

There are three main types of cloisters for the Catholic Church.

Papal Cloisters 

The papal cloister represents the strictest cloister version, and these cloistered nuns choose to spend all their lives in the convent leading a religious and prayerful life only punctuated with daily chores. The papal cloistered nuns can only leave the confines of the convent or monastery for a serious reason. Otherwise, they never do.

The Catholic Church in Rome hands out the norms and expectations for the papal cloister nuns and enclosures. The 2018 Cor Orans document is the most recent Papal Cloister instruction. The guidelines Pope Francis gave are outlined in it – as per his Apostolic Constitution of 2016 called the Vultum Dei Quaerere. According to these instructions, the papal cloisters aren’t exclusively meant for the nuns, and strangers aren’t permitted unless necessary. It’s further specified that the boundaries within which these nuns live should be spaces of recollection and silence, a space where the nuns can search for the face of God and develop a closer relationship with Him.

The nunnery orders that practice the traditional papal cloisters include the Dominican Nuns, Carmelite Nuns, Visitandines, Poor Clares, Handmaids of the Precious Blood, and the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters. 

Constitutional Cloisters

This is the other popular type of cloister for nuns, and it’s defined by norms specified in the Rules/ Constitutions set by that individual order. The rules applicable aren’t as strict as those applicable to the papal cloisters, and this cloister is only allowed if the chrism of the community joins their contemplative lives along with the convent’s charitable or apostolic works. 

So, while the constitutional nuns are also cloistered, their apostolic attachments with the convents and the work they do make them less strict. It would be impossible for these convents to run like the papal enclosure convents. However, these convents remain spaces of contemplation, silence, recollection, and the search for the face of God.

Notable orders with the constitutional cloisters include the Passionist Nubs, Norbertine Canonesses, and the Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood. 

Monastic Cloister

The last category is the Monastic Cloister, which is defined as a special version of the aforementioned Constitutional Cloister. In the Monastic Cloister, the nuns who sign up for this contemplative life also feature a form of hospitality charism. The cloister and the hospitality therein stem from the Benedictine traditions, which would mean that the nuns don’t just host the nuns; they are also spaces where guests can be invited to visit and maybe even stay in the monastery/ convents. The nuns also interact with the guests and the rest of the nuns more freely.

Overall, the Monastic Cloisters are more open and welcoming, but the nuns are still expected to maintain and stick to the strict rules and rigorous discipline they must follow.

Nun orders in the Monastic Cloisters include the Sisters of Mary Morning Start, Cistercian/ Trappistine Nuns, and the Benedictine Nuns. 

What is the relevance of cloistered life?

A cloistered life is meant to allow the nuns to pray for others and seek and find God’s face. This life allows for reflection and contemplation while also offering an oasis of peace for all in the church community. Note that the word cloister is derived from the Latin word ‘Clausura,’ meaning ‘to shut up,’ and so, a cloistered life is meant to encourage solitude and silence. 

They allow for a life of complete solitude and are regarded as a form of blessing by the Catholic Church. So, while some people are called to a life that involves feeding the hungry and clothing the naked as their works of mercy, others are called to the cloistered life where their service to humanity involves being enclosed in monasteries or nunnery to praying, offering sacrifices, and to work.

Cloistered life has its roots in the 4th century. It is believed to be important historically and spiritually since Christians would go out to the desert, where they sought complete solitude for prayers.

In other words, a cloistered life encourages solitude and makes prayers, sacrifices, and work possible, all in a contemplative stance. 

What is the purpose of cloistered nuns?

What Are Cloistered Nuns?
What is the purpose of cloistered nuns? Image source: Freepik

Cloistered nuns choose this life of silence and prayer within the walls of a convent to pray, work, and become close to God. Despite there being three types of cloistered nuns/ lives, these cloistered nuns all have prayer, work, and contemplation in common. 

Although some people think that the cloistered life represents a form of escape or retreat from the whole world or even some kind of defeat, cloisters are the opposite, and they make individuals free to entirely devote themselves to sacrifices and prayers for both the church and the whole world. 

Nuns and other religious orders in the cloistered life go into seclusion and dedicate themselves to a life of prayer because they believe that in doing this, they’d be following the life of Jesus Christ. There are a number of verses in the bible noting that Jesus Christ sought solitude whenever He wanted to pray – Mark 1:35, Luke 6:12, Luke 9:28, Mark 14:32-41, and Luke 22:39-46

Cloistered nuns believe that this life allows them to remain intimate and enjoy the Eucharist’s intimacy, where they can discover that heaven and earth lie in a very small space.

Can cloistered nuns see their families?

Since the cloistered nuns almost never leave the walls of their convents, except when it’s absolutely necessary for the papal cloisters, there is a possibility that some of the cloistered nuns never see their families. In cases where the nuns cannot see their relatives, say in the papal cloisters; they may only see their families through metal gates and wire mesh screens twice annually.

However, the nuns in the constitutional and the monastic cloisters can see their families more often since they are allowed to visit the convents. 

There is also the exception where much younger nuns are often allowed to see or be visited by their families more frequently. 

Do cloistered nuns talk?

Yes, in most cloistered communities in convents and monasteries, nuns get to speak at specific times of the day, often during meals, when engaging in specific tasks, and during their recreation time.

There also exist monasteries where the cloistered nuns have specific speaking days when the nuns can speak with each other and with guests. Notably, the nuns who engage in pastoral services often must converse with the guests and the rest of the guests. 

It is worth noting that there is a difference between the cloistered and the silent sisters/nuns. The silent nuns are the monastic nuns who take a vow of silence, or others vow to limited speech, in addition to a life of chastity, obedience, and poverty. The nuns that often choose a life of silence are also called the coadjutrix sisters, not cloistered nuns. 

How many cloistered nuns are in the world?

CARA reports that there are at least 42,441 nuns worldwide today. This number is believed to be a 76% drop from the number of nuns in 1965 – there were 179,954 nuns then. 

Notably, the number of cloistered nuns has decreased significantly in recent years, but the nuns are still there. They are often found living like hermits in a life that has them completely removed from the rest of the world. 

Do cloistered convents still exist?

Yes, cloistered convents exist in different parts of the world, with some of the known convents with cloistered convents found in Santorini, Greece, and also in Rome. In one historic monastery in the Greek Islands, there exist 13 cloistered nuns that live in a monastery, praying tirelessly. Other parts of the world with monasteries include Spain and the United Kingdom.

What are the strictest cloistered nuns?

The strictest of the cloistered nuns are called the papal nuns. These nuns include nuns of the orders – Carmelite, Dominican, Poor Clares, Visitandines, Handmaids of the Precious Blood, and Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters.

Once a nun signs up for this life, their lives change entirely because they are confined in the monastery’s walls, where they take time to pray and be in contemplation. The papal cloisters are believed to be in a ceaseless search for the face of God, and they also spend a lot of their time in silence and recollection. Papal cloistered nuns spend time praying and working and hardly have time for relaxation or entertainment. 

What do cloistered nuns do all day?

What Is The Relevance Of Cloistered Life?
What do cloistered nuns do all day? Image source: Freepik

Cloistered nuns spend their days praying and working in silence. They only speak when spoken to or when it’s necessary.

Cloistered nuns pray together with the Divine Office in a choir about five times daily, and they also spend an hour and a half in mental prayer every day. They also spend at least 30 minutes reading spiritual books and will observe silence for the rest of their days except during mealtimes and recreation

For these nuns, recreational activities and work include gardening, maintenance of the monastery, painting artwork, correspondence, needlework, kitchen or sacristy work, and crafts.

In recent years, some nuns have adopted some changes in how they live, and some will even use computers, smartphones, or watch television.

How are cloistered nuns different from other nuns?

Unlike other nuns (apostolic) who often interact with other people and even go to the local churches for ministry, including being part of the Catholic masses, teaching in schools, and working as nurses, most of the cloistered nuns are required to live within the walls of the monasteries or covenants without interacting with the rest of the world. 

Cloistered nuns live an enclosed life that is spent contemplating and praying as they connect with God and pray for the world they have shut out.

Cloistered nuns are often referred to the contemplative nuns because they’ve opted for a contemplative life that’s woven tightly with the Incarnation mystery – hidden in Jesus Christ – Colossians 3:3. The mystery they hide in is a lot like a life where a woman chooses to live their life within the walls of the monastery, hidden from the whole world. The nuns believe that a cloistered life takes them closer to God and one with God (Song of Songs 6:3).

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