Becoming a nun: Rules and facts you must know

Thinking of becoming a nun? Make sure you read this fact sheet first.
Loading the player...

When a woman decides to become a nun, she leaves the civilian world behind and has to follow a whole new set of rules. From the vows they make, to what goes on in their daily life, this article will deal with all of the interesting facts about nunhood.

WATCH: Patricia Bosworth & Audrey Hepburn in 1959 classic The Nun’s Story

What is a nun? What do nuns do?

A nun is a member of a religious community (usually a woman) who commits to a life of faith, poverty, and chastity. Although most people associate nuns with the Christian or Catholic religion, other religions such as Buddhism, Judaism, and Taoism also have similar communities of religious women.

Nuns join orders or congregations – these are usually ‘sects’ within a religion. Different orders abide by different rules and have different expectations for their members. Generally, a nun’s daily duties could involve praying, maintaining their church’s facilities, and committing charitable acts.

A nun sitting on the seats of a church
Here’s everything to know about becoming a nun. (Credit: Getty)

How to become a nun

Becoming a nun is a difficult process that requires a lot of time and sacrifice. The process itself varies from order to order.

Some orders have very strict requirements about who can or cannot become a nun. For example, certain Christian and Buddhist congregations require their nuns to be single, without children, and without debt.

Once you commit to an order, you’ll undergo ‘training’ where you learn more about the faith, live with the other nuns in the order, and progress through different vows until you become a full-fledged nun. The whole process usually takes years.

What is the difference between a nun and a sister?

A lot of people use the terms ‘nun’ and ‘sister’ interchangeably. This is because a lot of nuns go by ‘Sister [Name]’. But there’s actually a major difference between the two.

The term ‘nun’ is applied to women who have taken serious, solemn vows to live a simple life in a convent or monastery. Their lives are dedicated to prayer and religious study. Sisters, on the other hand, take vows which are much simpler. Also, sisters mostly focus on ‘works of mercy’ like charity, outreach, and evangelism.

Three nuns in dresses looking over a stone wall
There are several different types of nuns. (Credit: Getty)

Are there different types of nuns?

Yes, there are several different kinds of nuns. First, nuns are divided by religion – Christianity (specifically Catholicism), Buddhism, and other religions may have their own nun communities. 

Second, nuns within a faith are further divided into ‘orders’, such as the Order of Saint Benedict, Order of Saint Clare, or the Sisters of Charity. While orders may share a general religion, each may approach the faith from a different perspective or with a different focus.

What do the different styles of nuns’ habits mean?

Nuns typically wear a religious ‘habit’ or clothing that distinguishes them as members of a specific order. These usually look like long robes or tunics, plus a headpiece to cover the hair.

Nuns’ ‘uniforms’ can come in a variety of colours – black and white attire is the most common, but colourful habits also exist, like in the case of the aptly-named ‘Pink Sisters’ or Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters.

With a bit of knowledge and a close enough eye, you can tell which order a nun belongs to (and, in some cases, if she’s a novitiate or full nun) based on the habit they wear.

A young nun looking at the camera
Nuns typically wear a religious ‘habit’ or clothing that distinguishes them as members of a specific order. (Credit: Getty)

What do nuns wear under their habit?

Some nuns, especially those that live in colder climates, may wear regular clothing under their habits. Others may only wear a t-shirt and shorts. In hotter countries, nuns may even just wear underwear.

Nun rules you must follow

Since orders can determine their own guidelines, there’s no single set of rules that all nuns must follow. Below are just a few of the most common restrictions nuns (especially within the Christian tradition) have to follow:

  • You must take a vow of chastity, which means you cannot get married or have sexual/romantic relationships.
  • You must take a vow of poverty, which means you must live a simple life. In most cases, this means giving up your personal possessions (and any sense of ‘ownership’) and share what you have with your community. Nuns do not get paid, either; anything you earn (even from outside work) goes back to your order, unless otherwise permitted.
  • You must take a vow of obedience, which means you commit to following the faith and your religious leaders.
  • You may be required to take a vow of silence.
  • You must wear modest clothing when not wearing your nun’s habit.
  • Catholic nuns, as decreed by Pope Francis, are not allowed to use smartphones or social media.
  • You cannot become a nun if you have been previously married. Your marriage needs to be annulled (not ‘divorced’) first.
A mexican catholic church
Nuns who have taken solemn vows tend to live in cloistered communities. (Credit: Getty)

Where do nuns live? Where do they go after retirement?

Nuns who have taken solemn vows tend to live in cloistered communities, like in a convent or monastery. This way, they are separated from society and can commit to a religious life without distraction.

Nuns generally spend their entire lives in their convent. ‘Retired’ nuns may choose to stay in their order (some orders have retirement lodging just for this purpose), or they may live in an outside retirement home or with their families.

What happens if a nun breaks her vows? Or gets pregnant?

Technically, a nun can break her vows and/or leave the order whenever she wants. There are also plenty of opportunities to ‘drop out’ of becoming a nun, such as when you’re in the earlier stages and you’ve only taken your ‘temporary vows’. 

Unfortunately, the process of breaking your vows is a long and complicated one. If you do not follow that process (which involves dispensation from a bishop or other leader), it’s considered a sin or betrayal of the faith. Nuns who break the three main vows (chastity, obedience, poverty) may be dismissed from their community.

WATCH: Jimmy Fallon talks about how his mum Gloria was a nun

Loading the player...

The nun life

Becoming a nun is a major life decision you shouldn’t take lightly – after all, it involves giving up the world you know for a lifetime of devotion, prayer, and celibacy.

It’s definitely not for everyone, and only a special kind of person would be able to make that commitment.

Related stories