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What is a Nun?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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A nun is a woman who has taken vows to dedicate her life to religious service and contemplation. Although many people associate the idea specifically with the Roman Catholic tradition, nuns can be found in a variety of Christian sects, and in other religions, including Taoism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. Many people have great respect for these women and their religious dedication, as joining a religious order often involves extensive commitment and sacrifice.

There are a variety of different types of nuns, and many religions make a distinction between nuns and sisters. In religions that distinguish between the two, a nun is a woman who lives a cloistered life within the walls of a convent or monastery, dedicating herself to religious contemplation and prayer. A sister, on the other hand, lives an active life of service in the community, and some have become very notable activists, famed for their commitment to social justice.

Sisters typically live within the walls of a convent, but they travel outside to work as doctors, teachers, farmers, or in a variety of other fields. Many are actively encouraged to pursue higher education, using their skills to support the convent, and some convents become self-sustaining, thanks to the skills of their occupants. Others rely on donations from the community.

A nun's vows vary, depending on her religion and the rules of the order she joins. Commonly, the vows include commitments to community, poverty, service, and chastity, and many women also pledge obedience. Typically, they take vows after several years of trial service in a convent or cloister, being accepted first as postulants, and then as novices, before they are finally offered the opportunity to take vows. Once a woman has taken vows, it is very difficult for her to leave the convent, reflecting the fact that her decision is intended to be permanent.

Women have been serving in cloistered religious environments for centuries, and they have chosen to become take their vows for a variety of reasons. In deeply religious cultures, for example, a family may commit to sending one child to the cloister to demonstrate its religious devotion and convictions. Women may also feel the calling to join a religious order after being encouraged by religious officials, other nuns, or their own personal beliefs. In some cultures historically, women took their vows after being widowed, choosing a cloistered life for their final years.

The process involved in becoming a nun varies, depending on the woman's religious beliefs. As a general rule, the first step is for her to talk to a religious officiant about the possibility. The officiant should be able to provide general information, along with a list of convents or cloisters that might be suitable. Most aspiring nuns take the time to research various convents closely, looking for a good fit, and convents often welcome visitors who are considering joining.

Once a potential nun settles upon a convent of choice, she can apply for a position as a postulant or novice. Typically, the application requires a series of interviews, along with a short stay in the convent, and the residents will vote collectively to decide whether she should be welcomed into the community. After acceptance, she may be asked to contribute a dowry to the convent.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon989953 — On Mar 29, 2015

Is being a nun a hard thing to accomplish. If so, why?

By LisaLou — On Nov 13, 2012

Whenever I think of nuns I always think of the movie Sister Act. I really don't know if that was a very accurate picture of what the life of a nun might be like, but it certainly was entertaining!

That is interesting that some women become nuns after they become a widow. Maybe they feel like this is where they can best live the rest of their life in service.

By John57 — On Nov 13, 2012

@julies -- I was recently visiting with a couple at a wedding reception and the man told me his sister had lived her whole adult life as a nun. I found this quite fascinating.

I asked him if as many women were nuns today as there used to be and he told me there weren't. I wasn't raised in a religion where they had practicing nuns and have always been somewhat intrigued by it.

Not that I have any interest in being a nun, but have often wondered what that lifestyle would be like, and what prompts someone to pursue being a nun. Being a sister sounds like it would be much more interesting than being a nun. I don't know what I would do with my time staying in a convent all the time.

By julies — On Nov 12, 2012

When my husband was in elementary school he went to a Catholic school where most of his teachers were nuns. He also remembers having piano lessons from a nun. This was many years ago and I have often wondered if there are as many nuns today as there were in the past?

By anon281824 — On Jul 25, 2012

@anon137016: No. Women can even have children when and/or before they become a nun. However, they are to remain celibate for the remainder of their life after becoming a nun.

By anon219514 — On Oct 03, 2011

i like nuns Jesus

By anon137016 — On Dec 25, 2010

Do a woman has to be a virgin before and after she becomes a nun?

By BoatHugger — On Dec 18, 2010

@CarrotIsland: Taoism is a philosophy of life not an actual religion. In Taoism, a Chinese Nun is a female monk. Taoist has suffered like Christianity and Buddhism in China. Taoism is a way in which a person conducts oneself and life. There has been a small resurgence in China for Taoism.

They dressed in the same way in which the great sages dressed. They have long hair with a wooden fixture in it or wear a certain type of cloth on their heads.

By CarrotIsland — On Dec 17, 2010

What is Taoism and how is a nun involved in this religion?

By StormyKnight — On Dec 15, 2010

@wesley91: A nun wears a religious garment called a habit. This particular attire is common among Roman Catholic Nuns. It consists of the following: a nun hat called a wimple, black veil, Holy habit, woolen belt, rosary, sleeves, cross ring, underskirts, scapular, shoes, card and apron.

The Holy Habit is the main piece of their garment and is often referred to as a tunic. The black fabric is a loose fitting dress that is pleated at the neck and its length is to the feet. This may be worn pinned in front or back allowing the nun room to move. They are allowed at times to dress differently and not always in a habit. They can wear plan modest clothes for vacations or going out.

However, there are different types of dress for nuns of different religions.

By wesley91 — On Dec 14, 2010

How does a nun dress?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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