Is there a difference between the terms ‘nun’ and ‘sister’? After all, they are used interchangeably, as in the paragraph above. Strictly speaking, there is. A nun is a person who lives a life of meditation and prayer in a religious house while a sister has an active vocation in the wider community, working among the sick, uneducated and poor. In other words, the needy.
Ice Cream Nuns
Where do nuns live? The English term is ‘convent’. Shakespeare’s Hamlet told Ophelia to ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ but this term is used less and less. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, however, religious houses for both men and women are referred to as monasteries and those domiciled within called monastics. This is particularly true in the US, where monastery is the term most often used for a religious order’s ‘hood’.
Kerala, India and three nuns take time out from the school trip they have organized to go for a paddle, albeit a tentative one. They look a little unsure about it, but if, as the Joan Osborne song goes “God was one of us” there is surely little doubt he would give them encouragement!
Roman Catholicism has the widest form of ‘nun diaspora’ with a number of different orders. Each order has its own ‘charism’, a word for the unique characteristics the order has. It is closely related to the word charisma.
Double Ducth Nuns
When a woman chooses to go in to a convent, the initial period is known as her postulancy. This is a period of usually between six months and a year. She and the order must determine at the end of this period whether she has a true vocation. Many people believe that the convent door locks firmly behind a woman as she enters and this is a complete fallacy.
When the postulancy period is over a nun will receive her habit, though it will be a variation on a theme because the period of her testing is not fully over. The next period is one that is known as the novitiate. This is where the nun still has not taken vows and it is a time that lasts between twelve and twenty four months.
Gun Totin' Sisters
After the novitiate period, it is still not time for the full uniform, to be put it in civilian terms! The next and (almost the last!) period is where she takes her initial vows, also known as temporary vows. These vows will last between three and six years. So, don’t apply to be a nun unless you are willing to undergo a thorough period of testing!
Roller Blading Nuns
The three sisters above are among those who have gone through the long hard slog to become a nun. After they had taken their temporary vows each one would have petitioned her order. Then, she will have made her permanent and solemn vows, which made being a nun her ‘perpetual profession’. Yet you still have to keep up with the times. Even nuns get bored and then there is nothing like a game of solitaire on the laptop.
Hula Hoop Nun
There are various branches of orders within each Catholic tradition (such as Benedictine, Cistercian, Camaldolese, Franciscan and Dominican). Likewise their vows are a variation on a theme to reflect the order they have chosen.
Ice Cream Nuns
In the branches that make up the Benedictine tradition, nuns must vow to remain within a single monastic community. This is known as the vow of stability. They also take a vow of obedience and that is to a prioress or an abbess who leads the community. Their third and final vow is one of “conversion for life” which does what it says on the cover. It also included the ideas of chastity and poverty. Incidentally, poverty does not mean starving yourself! Chastity means exactly what it means!
More Beach Nuns
The Poor Clares live a cloistered vow and likewise take a three fold vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. Most orders of nuns will follow the two patterns of vows now mentioned. Some orders will take additional vows which are order specific and reflect that the work does in the community. Other vows may concern their ‘devotion’, which is prayer for a specific purpose.
Cloistered nuns live in convents which have walls and grilles separating the nuns from the world outside. They will rarely leave, unless it is for medical reasons or for purposes which relate to their life of contemplation. They may, however, have visitors and there is a space within the convent known as the parlor in which they meet outsiders.
Convents are usually self-sufficient. Money is earned by selling whatever the nuns chose to make or grow. There are some convents that make vestments for their own and other orders, Holy Communion bread and candles.
Beach Bum Nuns
There is, of course, a power structure within a convent (or monastery as they are sometimes called). A nun who heads up a convent is known as an Abbess. More specifically, they are almost universally known, thanks to Hollywood, as the Mother Superior. The other nuns will call her ‘Reverend Mother’.
Non Catholic churches, those that can claim direct descent from the resulting schism of the Reformation do have small monastic communities. These tend to play a much smaller part in the practice of religion that in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. In addition, although there are protestant monastic communes, they tend not be organized in to orders.
Surf’s Up Nuns
Nuns have a peculiar history of portrayal within the media and Hollywood is no exception with many people taking their cue from the film world in terms of their attitude and knowledge of the nun. Films have come and gone over the decades, with possibly the best known being “The Sound of Music” and the more recent “Sister Act”. Although both portray nuns in a generally sympathetic manner, those within the ‘profession’ often find them risibly inaccurate.
Other nun films include ‘Black Narcissus’ about a small group of nuns sent to open a convent in the Himalayas. Beautifully and colorfully shot the film’s portrayal of nuns on the edge of reason gained it rave reviews on its release but the response from the church was muted. Another is Nuns on the Run, which has Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid from the Harry Potter films) as a pair of small time crooks who disguise themselves as nuns to escape the mafia. Some film types even call the whole genre of films concerning religious women ‘nunsploitation’.
A walk in to the sunset