In general, a nun is a female ascetic who chooses to voluntarily leave the world and live her life in prayer and contemplation in a monastery or convent. The term "nun" is applicable to Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Buddhists, for example. The male equivalent of a nun is a monk.
In Roman Catholicism a nun is the term for a female monastic regular, equivalent to that of a male monk.
In the Catholic tradition, there are a number of different orders of nuns each with its own charism or special devotion. In general, when a person enters a convent she has a trial period (Noviciate) that lasts a number of years. Upon completion of this period she may take her vows. In the various branches of the Benedictine tradition (Benedictines, Cistercian and Trappists) nuns usually take formal 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) while in other groups like the "Poor Clares" (a Franciscan order) and cloistered Dominicans the three-fold vows of chastity, poverty and obedience are used.
Nuns observe "papal enclosure" rules and their monasteries typically have walls and grilles separating the nuns from the outside world. The nuns rarely leave, 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: supporting the missions of another order by prayer (the Maryknoll order has both missionary sisters and cloistered nuns; and the sisters of Daughters of Saint Paul are supported in their media ministry by the nuns of Daughters of Divine Wisdom), prayer for a diocese, etc.
Technically, a convent is the 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 usually used by communities within the Benedictine family, and convent (when referring to a cloister) of certain other orders.
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. 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.
Roman Catholic Nun or Sister?
"Nun" is not to be confused with "religious sister". Though commonly called nuns in informal conversation, women belonging to orders like the Sisters of Charity, Franciscans or Dominicans are religious sisters, not nuns. Nuns and sisters are distinguished by the type of vows they take (solemn vow vs. simple vow) and the focus of their good works. The type of vow that one must take to become a member of a religious community is decided by the Roman curia upon the approval that community. 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". Nun and sister are mutually exclusive religious paths.
To be a nun, one must a) live in a cloistered community or monastery; b) have taken the solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (as opposed to the perpetual simple vows of poverty, chastity and obedience taken by sisters); and c) recite the Liturgy of Hours, Divine Office, or other prayers together with her community.
Nuns are restricted from leaving the cloister, though some may engage in limited teaching or other vocational work depending on the strictness of enforcement. Visitors are not allowed into the monastary to freely associate with nuns. In essence, the work of a nun is within the confines of her monastary, while the work of a sister is in the greater world. Both sisters and nuns are addressed as "Sister."
Eastern Orthodox Christian
In the Eastern Orthodox Church there is no distinction between a monastery for men and a monastery for women. In the Greek language both domiciles are called monasteries and the ascetics who live there are Monastics. In English, however, it is acceptable to use the terms "nun", "convent", and "abbess" simply for clarity and convenience. Orthodox monastics do not have "orders" as in the Catholic Church. Orthodox monks and nuns lead identical spiritual lives. There may be slight differences in the way a monastery functions internally but these are simply style differences (Gr. Typica) dependant 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 fair 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. Abbesses hear confessions and dispense blessings on their charges though they still require the services of a presbyter (i.e., a priest) in order to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and other priestly functions. There have been, however, cases where nuns have functioned as deaconesses; though the last one to serve in that position was in the 19th century.
There are a number of different levels that the nun passes through in her profession. When one enters a monastery the first three to five years are spent as a "novice". Novices may or may not dress in the black inner robe (Isorassa), this being dependent on the abbess’ wishes. 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). 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. If a novice chooses to leave during the novitiate period no penalty is incurred. 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, she is given the outer robe (Exorassa) and veil to wear, and because she is now dead to the world she receives a new name. Nuns consider themselves part of a sisterhood, however, tonsured nuns are usually called "Mother". 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 "Schema" which is signified by additions to her "habit" of certain symbolic pieces. In addition, the abbess increases the nun’s prayer rule, she is allowed a more strict personal ascetic practice, and she is given more responsibility. 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.
Denominations that are directly descended from the Roman Catholic Church, such as the Lutherans, Anglicans, and even Calvinists continue to have small monastic communities. In some Anglican orders, there are nuns who have been ordained as priests.
Nuns also appear in Buddhist traditions. While monks and nuns are celibate, it is not unusual for both to exist within the same monastery. There are many variations to the style of "Habit" worn by these monastics, however, most, male and female, shave their head.
Other uses of the word nun
- In biology, Nun is a genus of the hillstream loach, a type of small freshwater fish.
- In Egyptian mythology, Nun is an alternate spelling for Nu, the name by which ancient Egyptians called both the mysterious underworld from where life was renewed and the primordeal god residing there. The name translates as "Abyss".
Nun is also the fourteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Nun and Nunnery were also Elizabethan era slang for prostitutes and brothels.
Nun is also the name of the father of Joshua, the right-hand man and successor of Moses.
- A nun buoy is a type of buoy.