A Nun is a woman who has taken special vows committing her to a religious life. She may be an ascetic who voluntarily chooses to leave mainstream society and live her life in prayer and contemplation in a monastery or convent. The term "nun" is applicable to Roman Catholics, Eastern Christians, Anglicans, Lutherans, Jains, Buddhists, and Taoists, for example. While in common usage the terms nun and sister are often used interchangeably, properly speaking a nun is a female religious who lives a contemplative life of prayer and meditation within a monastery while a sister (in the Christian religions) lives an active vocation of service to the needy, sick, poor, and uneducated.
In Roman Catholicism, a nun is a female monastic who has taken solemn vows (the male equivalent is a "monk"). Nuns are cloistered to the degree established by the rule of the religious institution they enter.
In general, when a woman enters a convent she first undergoes an initial period of testing the life, known as postulancy, for a period of six months to a year. If she, and the order, determine that she may have a vocation to the life, she receives the habit of the order (usually with some modification to distinguish her from professed nuns) and undertakes the novitiate, a period of living the life of a nun without yet taking vows that lasts one to two years.. Upon completion of this period she may take her initial, temporary vows. Temporary vows last one to three years, typically, and will be professed for not less than three years and not more than six. Finally, she will petition to make her "perpetual profession", taking permanent, solemn vows.
In the various branches of the Benedictine tradition (Benedictines, Cistercians, Camaldolese, and Trappists among others) nuns take vows of stability (that is, to remain a member of a single monastic community), obedience (to an abbess or prioress), and "conversion of life" (which includes the ideas of poverty and chastity). The "Poor Clares" (a Franciscan order) and those Dominican nuns who lived a cloistered life take the three-fold vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Most orders of nuns not listed here follow one of these two patterns, with some orders taking an additional vow related to the specific work or character of their order (e.g., to undertake a certain style of devotion, praying for a specific intention or purpose).
Cloistered nuns (e.g carmelites) observe "papal enclosure" rules and their monasteries typically have walls and grilles separating the nuns from the outside world. The nuns rarely leave (except for medical necessity, or occasionally for purposes related to their contemplative life) though they may have visitors in specially built parlors that allow them to meet with outsiders. They are usually self-sufficient, earning money by selling jams or candies or baked goods by mail order, or by making liturgical items (vestments, candles, bread for Holy Communion). They sometimes undertake contemplative ministries—that is a monastery of nuns is often associated with prayer for some particular good or supporting the missions of another order by prayer (for instance, the Maryknoll order includes a monastery of cloistered nuns who pray for the work of the missionary priests, brothers and religious sisters; the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master are cloistered nuns who pray in support of the religious sisters of the Daughters of Saint Paul in their media ministry; the Dominican nuns of Corpus Christi Monastery in the Bronx, N.Y., pray in support of the priests of the Archdiocese of New York).
A nun who is elected to head her monastery is termed an abbess if the monastery is an abbey, a prioress if it is a priory, or more generically may be referred to as the Mother Superior and styled "Reverend Mother". The distinction between abbey and priory has to do with the terms used by a particular order or by the level of independence of the monastery. Technically, a convent is any home of a community of sisters—or, indeed, of priests and brothers, though this term is rarely used in the U.S. The term "monastery" is often used by communities within the Benedictine family, and "convent" (when referring to a cloister) is often used of the monasteries of certain other orders.
In modern English, the word "nun" is commonly used for all women religious and this term is acceptable in most informal situations, however, to be technically correct, in the Roman Catholic Church, the terms "nun" and "religious sister" have distinct meanings. Women belonging to communities like the Sisters of Charity, or Third Order Franciscans or Dominicans are religious sisters, not nuns. Nuns and sisters are distinguished by the type of vows they take (solemn vows vs. simple vows) and the focus of their good works. The type of vows that are taken are dependent on the Constitutions and/or rule of each community, which are submitted for approval to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, a body of the Roman Curia. The religious community of a nun is referred to as a "religious order" while the religious community of a sister is referred to as an "institute" or "congregation". Hence, all nuns are religious sisters, but not all religious sisters are, properly speaking, nuns.
To be a Roman Catholic nun, one must
Nuns are restricted from leaving the cloister, though some may engage in teaching or other vocational work depending on the strictness of enforcement, which is up to the monastery itself. Visitors are not allowed into the monastery to freely associate with nuns. In essence, the work of a nun is within the confines of her monastery, while the work of a sister is in the greater world. Both sisters and nuns are addressed as "Sister".
There may be both nuns and sisters within a religious order. For instance, the Poor Clares (sometimes known as "Second Order Franciscans") are cloistered nuns following the Franciscan tradition, while the Sisters of St. Francis are among the many groups of "Third Order Franciscan Regulars" who exist to teach, work in hospitals or with the poor or perform other ministries; there are also groups of cloistered Dominican nuns, and groups of Dominican sisters who are dedicated to teaching or working with the sick.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church there is no distinction between a monastery for women and a monastery for men. In Greek, Russian, and other Eastern European languages, both domiciles are called "monasteries" and the ascetics who live therein are "Monastics". In English, however, it is acceptable to use the terms "nun" and "convent" for clarity and convenience. The term for an abbess is the feminine form of abbot (hegumen)—Greek: hegumeni; Serbian: Игуманија (Igumanija); Russian: игумения, (igumenia). Orthodox monastics do not have distinct "orders" as in Western Christianity. Orthodox monks and nuns lead identical spiritual lives. There may be slight differences in the way a monastery functions internally but these are simply differences in style (Gr. typica) dependent on the Abbess or Abbot. The Abbess is the spiritual leader of the convent and her authority is absolute (no priest, bishop, or even patriarch can override an abbess within the walls of her monastery.) There has always been spiritual equality between men and women in the Orthodox Church (). Abbots and Abbesses rank in authority equal to bishops in many ways and were included in ecumenical councils. Orthodox monasteries are usually associated with a local synod of bishops by jurisdiction, but are otherwise self governing. Abbesses hear confessions (but do not absolve) and dispense blessings on their charges, though they still require the services of a presbyter (i.e., a priest) to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and perform other priestly functions, such as the absolution of a penitent.
Orthodox monastics, in general have little or no contact with the outside world, especially family. The pious family whose child decides to enter the monastic profession understands that their child will become "dead to the world" and therefore be unavailable for social visits.
There are a number of different levels that the nun passes through in her profession:
The structure and function of religious orders in Anglicanism roughly parallels that which exists in Roman Catholicism. Religious communities are divided into orders proper, in which members take solemn vows and congregations, whose members take simple vows.
Religious communities throughout England were destroyed by King Henry VIII when he separated the Church of England from the papacy during the English Reformation (see Dissolution of the Monasteries). Monasteries were deprived of their lands and possessions, and monastics were forced to either live a secular life or flee the country.
With the rise of the Catholic Revival and the Oxford Movement in Anglicanism in the early 1800s came interest in the revival of "religious life" in England. Between 1841 and 1855, several religious orders for nuns were founded, among them the Community of St. Mary at Wantage and the Community of St. Margaret at East Grinstead.
In the United States and Canada, the founding of Anglican religious orders of nuns began in 1845 with the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion (now defunct) in New York.
In the Episcopal Church in the United States, there are two recognized types of religious communities, called Religious Orders and Christian Communities. The differences are as follows:
A Religious Order of this Church is a society of Christians (in communion with the See of Canterbury) who voluntarily commit themselves for life, or a term of years, to holding their possessions in common or in trust; to a celibate life in community; and obedience to their Rule and Constitution. (Title III, Canon 24, section 1)
A Christian Community of this Church is a society of Christians (in communion with the See of Canterbury) who voluntarily commit themselves for life, or a term of years, in obedience to their Rule and Constitution. (Title III, Canon 24, section 2)
In some Anglican orders, there are Sisters who have been ordained and can celebrate the Eucharist.
All Buddhist traditions have nuns, although their status is different among the various Buddhist countries. The Buddha is reported to have allowed women into the sangha only with great reluctance, predicting that the move would lead to Buddhism's collapse after 500 years (rather than the 1000 years it would have enjoyed otherwise). Fully ordained Buddhist nuns (bhikkhunis) have more Patimokkha-rules than the monks (bhikkhus). The important vows are the same, however.
As with monks, there are quite a lot of variation in nuns' dress and social conventions between different Buddhist cultures in Asia. Chinese nuns possess the full bhikkuni ordination; Tibetan nuns do not; and in Theravada countries women renunciates are discouraged from even wearing saffron robes. Disparities may often be observed in the amount of respect and financial resources given to monks viz. nuns, with nuns receiving less of both in all countries with the possible exception of Taiwan. Despite barriers, some nuns succeed in becoming religious teachers and authorities.
Researcher Charles Brewer Jones estimates that since 1952, when the Buddhist Association of the ROC organized public ordination, female applicants have outnumbered males by about three to one. He adds:
The August 2007 International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha, with the support of H. H. XIVth Dalai Lama, is expected to reinstate the Gelongma (skt. Bikshuni, tib. Gelongma) lineage, having been lost, in India and Tibet, for centuries. It is currently only possible for women to take Rabjungma ('entering') and Getshülma ('novice') ordinations in Tibetan tradition. Gelongma ordination requires the presence of ten fully ordained people keeping the exact same vows (men's and women's vows differ slightly). Because 10 Gelongmas are required in order to ordain a new Gelongma, the effort to reinstate the Gelongma tradition has taken a long time.
It is permissible for a Tibetan nun to receive Bikshuni ordination from another living tradition, e.g. in Vietnam. Based on this, Western nuns ordained in Tibetan tradition, like Venerable Thubten Chodron, took full ordination in another tradition, in order to revive 'Gelongma' ordination. The same socio-cultural reasons that make it difficult for women to be nuns will still present challenges to the first Tibetan Gelongmas.
The ordination of monks and nuns in Tibetan Buddhism distinguishes three stages (rabjung(ma), getshül(ma), and gelong(ma)). The clothes of the nuns in Tibet are basically the same with those of monks, but there are differences between novice and gelong robes.