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A nun, also known as a sister in some cases, is a woman who has taken special vows committing her to a religious life.[1] 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 the Catholics (both eastern and western traditions), Eastern Orthodox, 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.[2]



In the Catholic Church, a nun is a female who has taken solemn vows (the male equivalent is often called a "monk", although the positions actually entail very different religious origins and constitute very different duties within the church). Nuns are cloistered to the degree established by the rule of the religious institution they enter.[3]

In the Roman Catholic tradition, there are a number of different orders of nuns each with its own charism or special character.

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 (that lasts one to two years) of living the life of a nun without yet taking vows.[4] Upon completion of this period she may take her initial, temporary vows.[5] Temporary vows last one to three years, typically, and will be professed for not less than three years and not more than six.[6] Finally, she will petition to make her "perpetual profession", taking permanent, solemn vows.[7]

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 (for example, to undertake a certain style of devotion, praying for a specific intention or purpose).

Cloistered nuns (Carmelites, for example) observe "papal enclosure" [8] 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 canoness is a nun who corresponds to the male equivalent, a canon. The origin and rules of monastic life are common to both. As with the canons, differences in the observance of rule gave rise to two types: canons regular and secular canons.

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.

Distinction between nun and religious sister

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 Catholic Church, the terms "nun" and "religious sister" have distinct meanings. Women belonging to communities like the Sisters of Charity or Third Order Franciscans 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 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 movement. For instance, the Poor Clares (called "Second Order Franciscans") are cloistered nuns following the Franciscan tradition, while the Sisters of St. Francis are among the many groups of "Third Order Regular Franciscans", who exist to teach, work in hospitals or with the poor or perform other ministries. This also applies to the difference between cloistered Dominican nuns and groups of Dominican Sisters who are dedicated to teaching or working with the sick.

Eastern Orthodox

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.[9] 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 (Galatians 3:28). 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:

Novice—When one enters a monastery the first three to five years are spent as a novice. Novices may or may not (depending on the abbess's wishes) dress in the black inner robe (Isorassa); those who do will also usually wear the apostolnik or a black scarf tied over the head (see photo, above). The isorassa is the first part of the monastic "habit" of which there is only one style for Orthodox monastics (this is true in general, there have been a few slight regional variations over the centuries, but the style always seems to precipitate back to a style common in the 3rd or 4th century). If a novice chooses to leave during the novitiate period no penalty is incurred.
Rassaphore—When the abbess deems the novice ready, the novice is asked to join the monastery. If she accepts, she is tonsured in a formal service during which she is given the outer robe (Exorassa) and veil (Epanokamelavkion) to wear, and (because she is now dead to the world) receives a new name. Nuns consider themselves part of a sisterhood; however, tonsured nuns are usually addressed as "Mother" (in some convents, the title of "Mother" is reserved to those who enter into the next level of Stavrophore).
Stavrophore—The next level for monastics takes place some years after the first tonsure when the abbess feels the nun has reached a level of discipline, dedication, and humility. Once again, in a formal service the nun is elevated to the "Little Schema" which is signified by additions to her habit of certain symbolic articles of clothing. In addition, the abbess increases the nun’s prayer rule, she is allowed a stricter personal ascetic practice.
Great Schema—The final stage, called "Megaloschemos" or "Great Schema" is reached by nuns whose Abbess feels they have reached a high level of excellence. In some monastic traditions the Great Schema is only given to monks and nuns on their death bed, while in others they may be elevated after as little as 25 years of service.

Anglican Communion

Anglican religious orders are organizations of laity and/or clergy in the Anglican Communion who live under a common rule. The term "religious orders" must be distinguished from Holy Orders (the sacrament of ordination which bishops, priests, and deacons receive), though many communities do have ordained members.

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.[10]

Other Christian

Some churches that are directly descended from the Reformation, such as Lutherans, and some Calvinists continue to have small monastic communities, though these generally play a much smaller role in religious practice than in Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches. Most Protestant monastic communities are not organized into formal orders.


People of the Pali Canon

Pali English

Community of Buddhist Disciples

Monastic Sangha


Nun trainee
Novice (m., f.)


Upāsaka, Upāsikā
Gahattha, Gahapati
Agārika, Agāriya

Lay devotee (m., f.)

Related Religions


Jain ascetic

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 (this prophecy occurs only once in the Canon and is the only prophecy involving time in the Canon, leading some to suspect that it is a late addition[11]). 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.


In Thailand, a country which never had a tradition of fully-ordained nuns (bhikkhuni), there developed a separate order of non-ordained female renunciates called Mae Ji. At the beginning of the 21st century some Buddhist women in Thailand have started to introduce the bhikkhuni sangha in their country as well, even if public acceptance is still lacking [2]. Venerable Dhammananda (Thai: ธัมมนันทา),[3], the former successful academic scholar Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, established a controversial monastery for the training of Buddhist nuns in Thailand.[4]


Chinese Buddhism possesses the full bhikkuni tradition. Thanks largely to the efforts of Master Cheng Yen of the Buddhist charity Tzu Chi (which organization utterly dominates philanthropic giving in Taiwan), Taiwan's nuns nowadays probably receive more public respect and support than monks.

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:

"All my informants in the areas of Taipei and Sanhsia considered nuns at least as respectable as monks, or even more so. [...] In contrast, however, Shiu-kuen Tsung found in Taipei county that female clergy were viewed with some suspicion by society. She reports that while outsiders did not necessarily regard their vocation as unworthy of respect, they still tended to view the nuns as social misfits." [12]


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 exactly the 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.

See also


  • Simpson J. A. & Weiner, E. S. C. (1989) The Oxford English Dictionary, Clarendon Press, Oxford


  1. The Oxford English Dictionary, vol X, page 599.
  2. Ebaugh, Helen Rose (1998), "Orders", in Swatos, William H., Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Rowman Altamira, pp. 341 
  3. " Monasteries of nuns which are ordered entirely to contemplative life must observe papal cloister, that is, cloister according to the norms given by the Apostolic See. Other monasteries of nuns are to observe a cloister adapted to their proper character and defined in the constitutions." Canon 667 §3, CIC 1983
  4. Canon 648, CIC 1983
  5. Canon 656, CIC 1983
  6. Canon 655, CIC 1983
  7. Canon 657, CIC 1983
  8. Canon 667 §3, CIC 1983, SCRIS instruction, "Venite seorsum" August 15, 1969, in AAS 61 (1969) 674–690
  9. Archpriest Seraphim Slobodskoy, The Law of God (Printshop of St. Job of Pochaev, Jordanville, NY, ISBN 0-88465-004-8), p. 618.
  10. What We Do Sisters of St. Margaret, (Episcopal religious community of women)
  11. Hellmuth Hecker, [1].
  12. Charles Brewer Jones, Buddhism in Taiwan: Religion and the State, 1660-1990; University of Hawaii Press, 1999; pp. 154-155

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Nun. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.