When did nuns start? (origin and history of nuns)

Although I’m a Christian, I find it difficult to focus on spiritual matters for too long. This is why I am captivated by women who willingly choose to become nuns. My fascination with the lifestyles of nuns inspired me to visit nine convents, where the mother’s superiors were kind enough to answer my questions. I also spoke to nuns from different age groups to hear what they knew about their history. This was an insightful experience, to say the least. The following week, the history of nuns came up during our cross-denominational bible study session. Armed with my research notes, I was ready to shed some light on this topic. I started by answering their main question which was; when did nuns start?

The idea of nuns and the order of religious women dates back to the 3rd century. Christian women during the early church joined the men who went to the desert to become monks. Women who were not interested in marriage or raising kids joined religious convents. In the Catholic church, the order of nuns began in the 6th century. These communities have grown immensely to become the countless order of nuns recognized today.

In this article, we will explore the idea behind the nun lifestyle. We will also learn about some of the historical figures who contributed to the growth of the monastic way of life. Keep reading to know the etymology of the word “nun”.

Where did the concept of nuns come from?

In the third century, Christianity was new and undergoing lots of challenges. Many founders of early churches were persecuted for their faith. Large numbers of Christians opted to escape into the deserts of Egypt and Syria to start monasteries away from the persecution. The majority of these people were men known as monks. Christian women saw this and followed suit. They joined their male counterparts in the desert. The women built their convents in the Syrian and Egyptian deserts.

These women dedicated their lives to following Jesus’ teachings. To show their commitment, these women wore veils and referred to themselves as the “brides of Christ”. Some of the women took vows of chastity to pursue their dreams in areas like leadership. During this time, married women with children were excluded from many social and political activities. In cultures where women pay dowry, parents of young nuns would send a portion of the dowry to the convents. This was one of the ways the brides of Christ funded these institutions.

The founding members of convents decided to take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. The brides of Christ partnered with monks so they could have they could position their convents next to monasteries for protection. Many women joined these convents to escape the restrictions and duties of marriage. However, not all of them practised chastity. Some conceived thanks to the proximity of monasteries. That said, many of the nuns remained virgins and those who were widowed refused to remarry.

Who founded the first order of Catholic nuns?

When did nuns start? 
Who founded the First Order of Catholic nuns? Image source: Freepik

According to historical records, St. Scholastica formed the first order of Catholic nuns in the 6th century. St. Scholastica was the twin sister of a Christian monk named St. Benedict of Nursia. St Benedict of Nursia set the tone for his sister by establishing the Benedictine order of monks. St. Scholastica visited her brother’s monastery many times to pray with him and talk about spiritual mysteries. It was during these moments that she saw the need to create such an environment for women. St. Scholastica initiated the construction of the first nunnery near St. Benedict’s Monastery.

What is the history of nuns according to the Catholic Church?

When did nuns start?
History of nuns. Image source: Pinterest

During the 4th and 5th centuries, the concept of monasticism took root. This gave rise to the idea of religious groups of women such as nuns. Many women who felt a calling to live religious lives were welcome in monastic communities. The women learnt to live communal lives centred on prayer and service to others. These monastic communities became the cornerstones of the nun movement over the centuries.

As mentioned earlier, the Benedict twins kickstarted a worldwide movement of religious orders. The monastic houses established by St. Benedicta and St. Scholastica played a key role in conserving religious knowledge. St. Benedicta was credited for writing the first set of rules for monastic living. In his manuscripts, the Italian Monk stipulated lifestyle guidelines founded on prayer and work within these secluded communities.

Owing to the popularity of the Benedictine tradition, many orders of nuns started coming up. Although most of them used the Benedictine manuscripts as a guiding tool, each had a unique charism and purpose in their religious duties. For example, the Carmelites order began in the 12th century. This order was focused on a life of total solitude, meditation, and prayer. In the 13th century, St. Francis founded the Franciscans. This religious order was motivated to lead a life of simplicity, free of material possessions. By this time, nuns had started living in sealed-off communities known as cloisters. These pious women dedicated their time and energy to service, contemplation and prayer.

Things became hard for nuns in 1298. During this year, the pope issued a decree demanding that all cloisters be closed off from the rest of society. Pope Boniface VIII stated that nuns should avoid the secular world and remain within the confines of the convents. The pope suggested that the nuns would have a hard time not tempting men. This rule affected the convents that had active charity and outreach ministries. Fortunately, the Vatican II reforms brought an air of change for orders of nuns worldwide. In the 1960s, the Vatican finally encouraged nuns to participate in ministry beyond their cloisters.

Who was the first nun in history?

origin and history of nuns
Who was the first nun in history? Image source: Pixabay

St. Scholastica was the first recognized nun to openly choose the lifestyle and endorse it. This lady was fully committed to a secluded life of servitude and prayer. Being the kind of St. Benedict meant that St. Scholastica’s life was documented and used as an example of exemplary nun life. It is worth noting that though many think of her as the first nun, monasticism started way before St. Scholastica’s time. Scholars suggest that there could have been other women in history who adopted the monastic lifestyle before St. Scholastica. However, her role is to achieve gender equality by making it possible or women dedicate their lives to God. St. Scholastica understood that not all women are enthusiastic about marriage or having kids.

Where did the name “nun” come from?

The word “nun” was inspired by the Latin word “nonna”. Nonna translates to aunt or sister in English. The first orders adopted the name nun because it speaks to the sisterhood and bond among the women in monastic communities. Nuns are women who are united in their quest to be fully committed to seeking God without distractions.

What were they before being called nuns?

When Christianity was young, women religious were referred to as consecrated virgins. Long before that nuns were known as the brides of Christ as stated before. In recent years, Christians adopted the word sister. Many people use the words sister and nun interchangeably. Today, the word “sister” indicates a spiritual sisterhood among the women living in monastic communities.

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