What's it like to be a nun?
June 22, 2011 11:40 AM   Subscribe

What's your nun story?

A friend has decided to become a nun in the Roman Catholic church in the US. I'm going to research the facts, but I'd like to hear from MeFites who've gone this path, or have been close to people who have. I'm interested in a couple of things -

a) What was your story? What led you/the person to decide to become a nun? How old were you/they? How did your family/friends react?

b) What happened then? What was your/their path to becoming a nun?

c) What's your/their daily life like?

d) Any other anecdotal data you'd like to provide.

Thanks! I was raised atheist and remain atheist, so my interaction with this sort of thing has been limited, but I'm very interested in understanding and supporting my pal.

(She just sent me the e-mail today, so I don't have any details about her plans beyond what I've put here.)
posted by Laura Macbeth to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I will admit up front I am relaying information that was given to me second-hand, and only in passing. But -- my ex's aunt is a nun. I never met the aunt, and never found out about her journey towards becoming a nun, but he did mention a couple things in passing about her that may speak to "daily life" or "anecdotal data."

She does live in a convent, but it sounded more like "that's just where she lived" as opposed to "she had to cloister herself from the world;" she regularly visited family and such. The convent actually also paid her way when she wanted to go to law school, so she's a lawyer, she just happens to be a lawyer who's also a nun. In return, her legal practice supports the convent and its outreach services.

Aside from that, the only other thing he ever mentioned was that she didn't wear the habit -- but she owned one, and joked to my ex once that she was thinking of keeping it in her car at all times so in case she got pulled over for any kind of a traffic stop she could put it on real quick and try to get out of getting a ticket that way. (I assumed she was just kidding.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:54 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My cousin became a nun at around 20, and left the convent around 30 or 31. I think her leaving had to do with her deciding she wanted a family and children of her own; she remains a pretty devout Catholic. I don't know what her personal path was exactly -- we're not terribly close. I honestly don't think she thought it through all that well at 20....

Her order (Sacred Heart ...something...I forget exactly) were teachers. So her daily life revolved around the Catholic school. Her order wore a habit.

From what I know from other nuns in my family and ones I've known is that there are HUGE variations among orders. Some wear a habit; many do not. Some or more cloistered than others. Some have specific vocations associated with their orders, like teaching or nursing.

It might be worth finding out a little more about which order she is considering -- some of them do have some amazing stories of missionary work, teaching, and activism that may be more easy for you to relate to and support since the religious aspect may be kind of foreign to you.

What a good friend you are to try and find out more about this. Yay, you!
posted by pantarei70 at 12:06 PM on June 22, 2011

Best answer: Would Nunblog and this list of other nun blogs be of any use?
posted by brownpau at 12:07 PM on June 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the stories so far - just what I'm looking for. And brownpau - yes! Thanks for the resources.
posted by Laura Macbeth at 12:09 PM on June 22, 2011

Best answer: I'd recommend trying to find on DVD or torrent the BBC series "The Convent" where four secular women went to live at a Poor Clares convent for several weeks. It was a really good insight into the nuns' lives. I particularly remember one nun talking about how cheated she felt when, in her 50s, she fell in love with a visiting priest (unknown to him), and realised that this was something completely wonderful which she'd missed out on by being in the convent.
posted by essexjan at 12:31 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I went to catholic grade school. The nuns were very remote and formal. Then this new, younger nun came in. She wasn't one of my teachers, but I would help her design and put up the seasonal classroom decorations. One day we stayed late, creating a mural of Jesus rising from the tomb in a burst of gold foil.

She said, let's get some pizza. I was dumbstruck. I didn't think nuns were allowed to eat normal food. I'd never seen a nun eat anything, ever.

She found that funny, and assured me that nuns are in fact people under those garments.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:33 PM on June 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My father's sister is a nun. She entered the convent when she was 13 or 14 and has been there ever since. She's in her mid-sixties now. I always remembered her being around for family holidays and weddings and such, and it seemed like she had quite a bit of freedom for travel, especially during summers. However it seemed she had very little choice about where to work. Her order would send her around to different positions. She teaches math at a Catholic high school in Arizona now, but for a time she was teaching at a very small Catholic university in northern Wisconsin. I have never ever seen her not wearing some sort of nun habit. Not even during family vacations at the lake. She always has some sort of nun gear on. She always seemed very happy and I think she really enjoys her life and does "normal" things. During the super bowl last year they did a cute story about her group in the local news. I've been an athiest since my teens so I've never talked to her about religion because, well we just wouldn't need to, so I really don't have any insight into her personal beliefs, but I would be truly shocked if she ever said she had regretted joining. One thing of interest to me, when my grandfather was doing his estate plan it came up that any inheritance she would receive would ultimately go to the church, per their rules. My grandfather was a devout Catholic, so it wasn't too much of an issue but it was something I'd never considered.

I also know of a family acquaintance who recently left the convent. She's in her late 20s. She had come from a secular family and had became interested in the church while watching a Christian channel. She awas so much of a fan that she actually became a nun in the order led by Mother Angelica. I had sort of followed her journey because she and I were roughly the same age and it seemed so alien to me that anyone would voluntarily do this (and I kind of had a crush on her at one point). And evidently she the order she was in was very cloistered, like literally very little outside contact and nothing but prayer all day. At least this was the story the family told. So I was shocked to recently learn that she had left the convent and gotten married within the span of a year. Apparently she became disillusioned with the organization that is running Mother Angelica's church since she had her stroke. She felt it was too commercial and caused her to doubt that she was accomplishing what her goals were by entering the convent. I'm probably not expressing what her feelings are because I heard about her third hand, but the point of the story was that Catholocism is still a major part of her life, even though she didn't feel that being in the convent was right for her or for the church. Evidently though she was so impressed with Mother Angelica that she has said that if there were another like her she would immediately rejoin. Apparently around the time she left a good dozen or so of the other younger women had left as well.
posted by greasy_skillet at 12:45 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've known many nuns (and sisters -- there's a difference, but in casual conversation it's not a big deal). The one I knew best spent a great deal of time in prison for war protesting and civil disobedience of various sorts from the 60s right up until her death fairly recently. She was so bad-ass. She always wore a full habit and was still out protesting stuff in her wheelchair.

Most of the nuns I knew in college (Catholic university) were "plainclothes nuns" as my friend liked to call them. (As in, "I fucking hate plainclothes nuns because then I don't know not to swear in front of them and I feel like I have to go to an extra fucking confession!") They generally had lives much like any professor or grad student (depending on their role), with simple possessions and simple, modest, regular clothes. They went to more church than most of the rest of us, but otherwise basically did the same things we did, weather they were learning or teaching.

Now I live near a Catholic hospital system and meet nun-doctors from time to time. Basically similar situation to what Empress said with her lawyer-nun.

Most sisters I've known love their vocation; it's not really the kind of thing you make it all the way into (at least, not anymore) without giving it a lot of thought and consideration. Virtually ALL sisters I've known are seriously bad-ass, hard-core feminists. There's a book about becoming a Jesuit priest called "In Good Company" about a young man who's climbing the corporate ladder at GE when he decides to leave and become a Jesuit. Obviously a little different, but I think it has enough similarities that it'd give you some insight into your friend's decision. And it's a pretty enjoyable read. He's pretty upfront about "OMG, you have to be CELIBATE?" and stuff like that, and is good at addressing those issues to an audience of mainstream modern culture, since that's where he came from.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:50 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The one nun I know is the spiritual director at my church (Catholic, obviously!). She has a BA and a BEd and used to teach (not sure what level and not sure if it was at a Catholic school or if it was before or after she became a nun). She wears normal clothes, not a habit, and she lives on her own in an apartment; I believe she has lived in a convent before though, as well as at a mission she worked at. She's a SJ (Sister of St. Joseph) and there is a convent nearby, but it doesn't really look like one from the outside -- it's just a nice, newish institutional building. It's so close to my church that I'm sure a big group of nuns must go there every Sunday, but can't say for certain because there are no women wearing habits there. I'm not sure if this is typical of the order or just typical of that particular group at this (rather liberal) church. From what I've gleaned from the spiritual director, there are lots of different career paths that a nun, at least in her order, can take and much of their lives is spent outside of the convent walls, being hands-on in the community.
posted by pised at 12:54 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One consistent story you'll hear from nuns and about ex-nuns who entered in the 50s-70s is one of an escalating level of political repression from Rome in the more recent years. There are many super-cool radical nuns, who were actually working to help the poor, who became disillusioned at the Church's attempts to stamp down liberation theology. Many of these nuns left, or remain and complain a lot about the Pope. So if your friend was hoping for a life of social justice work with rabble-rousers, then she might want to think about other options. Here's some more information about the Vatican's Nunquisition.
posted by yarly at 1:08 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My great-aunt is a nun, presumably of the old variety, in Bavaria. Her convent is associated with a hospital, and I think she and her fellow nuns pretty much take care of everything. I have only visited once. I went with my grandmother for Christmas. All the sisters seemed very serene and happy with their choice, and seemed to lead pretty normal lives. They are not cut off from family (Oma visits often), though I did recently find out that my great-aunt had to change her name. The sisters were incredibly welcoming, had excellent accommodation for us and provided us with lovely food and gifts. We weren't required to go to the Christmas services, either, though I went and enjoyed it. On the second day of Christmas, my grandmother, great-aunt (in her habit) and I went to a concert in town.

Karen Armstrong has written a couple of books about her experiences as a nun: The Spiral Staircase and Through the Narrow Gate.
posted by bibliophibianj at 1:19 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Mascara and Prayer is my cousin's blog about her discernment with the Sister's of St. Francis of Philly.
posted by Loto at 1:37 PM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My mom's cousin is a nun (Sisters of Mercy), and has been one for...wow, 50 years now? She's "retired" now -- still under vows but not working and she lives in a big house in the Hamptons with some other aging nuns. However back when she worked, she lived in an apartment in the city (NY) and worked in schools as a teacher, and later at state-run day care facilities as the person in charge. You would not have known she was a nun simply by looking at her (didn't wear a habit). Other than her living expenses she had to turn over what she earned to the order. She had a car of her own. So, all that was just to add anecdata that becoming a nun does not always mean habit/cloister/etc. I have no idea what inspired her to become a nun but it was not really that uncommon back when she joined, it's just that so many have left or died.

I would say her main gripe would be that the church treats its nuns a lot different than it treats its priests (different = "worse"). Recently there was a bit of a crackdown against nuns becoming a bit too "feminist" and going off the books practicing Reiki and such. The church would probably prefer that they stayed meek and humble and poor and not have any radical opinions.
posted by contessa at 2:20 PM on June 22, 2011

Seconding the recommendation of the books by Karen Armstrong about her years in the convent, though you should remember that she left her order right before Vatican 2 came into effect. The first book in particular chronicles the actual "becoming a nun" part more than the second.
posted by Mimzy at 4:14 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just wondering, is she becoming a nun specifically or a sister?

I don't have much experience with nuns, but have known alot of sisters, most were as teachers or in volunteer work. As mentioned above them, some of them can lean pretty far to the left, depending on the order.
posted by drezdn at 4:18 PM on June 22, 2011

Best answer: i have two close family/friend members who are Sister of Mercy nuns, also in new york, but on Long Island. They are both older -- late 70s/early 80s. they have always been involved in the catholic school system. one is now a principal. they also used to foster kids awhile back.

As for daily life, now they live in a house on parish grounds with 2 other nuns who are similar in age (although they used to live in a convent, which was just apartments attached to a school). their lives are basically the same as anyone else their age. the two i know travel somewhat frequently for pleasure. i'm not sure how their finances work.

they both are super open/accepting/awesome. while my mom (who is related to one of them) is catholic, my dad is jewish, but i was raised with no formal religion. they have absolutely no problem with that and they are more into the "do good stuff" part of the bible than the dogmatic side.

as contessa mentioned, under the new pope, the catholic hierarchy is trying to crack down on the "feminist" behavior of the nuns in the US -- my two nuns are working on telling them to shove it :-).
posted by nanhey at 5:06 PM on June 22, 2011

Best answer: The nuns and sisters I met and saw when I was in Irish dance (our school was at a church, and my sister and I were two of the four non-Catholics in a group of around 300 dancers) all seemed significantly more "normal" than the priests. Only about three in twenty seemed to wear the habits - you'd recognize them because of the beads, their modest outfits, etc., plus the fact that they traveled in packs. You'd see them drinking beer at festivals and so forth. Actually, they kind of reminded me of the female pastors I knew in my days as a kid in the UU church. Friendly, politically/socially aware/active (less liberal, but admittedly, I knew some extremely liberal female pastors.) It seemed like the only ones with habits were older. None of the local Catholic schools are run by sisters, by the way. From what I remember from the dance moms, that really started to fade in the 1970s - my grandma's school was entirely run by nuns in the 1920s.

You might want to read more about the apostolic visitation from the folks who are running it, by the way.
posted by SMPA at 6:02 PM on June 22, 2011

Best answer: I found Helen Prejean's book, from which the film Dead Man Walking was made, very interesting on the subject of the Modern Nun.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:28 PM on June 22, 2011

Best answer: Try A Nunʻs Life. It is very welcoming and informative. As for nuns and sisters, the difference between a nun and a sister: While both Nuns and Sisters are called “Sister,” there is a distinction made in the Catholic Church which is generally not made by the public. Nuns take solemn vows and are cloistered, that is, they reside, pray and work within the confines of a monastery. Sisters take simple vows and live a life governed by the particular mission, vision, and charism of the respective Orders or Congregations of Sisters. Sisters embrace ministries that take them out to serve the people in hospitals, schools, parishes, social services, and the like.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 7:38 PM on June 22, 2011

Response by poster: This is great. I didn't know there was a difference between a nun and a sister -- fascinating. My friend is going to be a sister. I don't want to go too much into her details, but it sounds like she's joining (what she hopes is) a very liberal, social-justice-focused group. Sounds like a group of feminist nuns, as many of you described.

Thanks again for all this! I have a lot of reading to.
posted by Laura Macbeth at 7:58 AM on June 23, 2011

Best answer: Yep. If you find the right ones, Catholics can be absolutely awesome. I owe most of my liberal/humanist sensibilities to my (fairly liberal) Catholic upbringing.

I'm not the greatest storyteller around here, but I do have a few nun stories...

I used to volunteer as a sysadmin for a convent in my hometown, which will probably dispel most of your notions about life as a nun right away. Life in the convent can certainly be anachronistic, but I certainly wouldn't call them luddites -- they were eager to learn about technology, especially when it could be applied to their teaching jobs.

Many of the anachronisms practiced in the convent stemmed from the fact that it was at one time entirely self-sufficient. Once the number of vocations started to drop, and the population of nuns residing within the convent grew more elderly, it was no longer practical for them to farm their own crops. However, much of that mentality stuck around. (As a sidenote, I've also never been in a building that was so meticulously clean or well-preserved as that convent. It was like a museum-piece for 1930s institutional architecture.) The bits of their lifestyle that seemed odd in the 2000s still made a lot of sense when practiced in the convent.

I'm not sure I can provide a great insight into the daily lives of the nuns, but they were almost universally pleasant to be around. The ones I worked with were mostly elderly, as the younger ones were out teaching at Catholic schools across the state (and each year, there were fewer and fewer new recruits. This was before Benedict, which I can't imagine helped things. Those years certainly drove me away from the church.)

We used to joke that I'd inherited 200 new grandmothers through the job. If I was ever there helping out for more than an hour or two, they'd insist on giving me a meal. One time, I was there into the late hours of the night working on a particularly nasty mail server problem, and must have accidentally let slip that I hadn't stopped home before finishing up at my day job, and therefore hadn't eaten dinner, because about 20 minutes later a nun showed up at the door with a grilled cheese sandwich with a slice of tomato, an apple, and a glass of orange juice. As Catholics are wont to do, she instantly sensed that I felt guilty about this, and just smiled said "Oh, don't be silly. You look like you could use a break."

Like I said. Nicest people I've ever worked with. Going to the convent never felt like work or volunteering. They still send me a card every year on Christmas and my birthday. It was really difficult for me to hate on the Catholic church, given that these most wonderful people were their representatives to me.

Hm. They may not be as pronounced as laypeople, but the nuns I met all certainly had personality and opinions. The ones who had surviving families stayed in touch with them, and had tons of contact with their parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews. They eat normal food -- maybe a bit more fish than most folks eat, and were starting to become more adventurous with their cuisine as they began to receive a large number of vocations from abroad.

So, that's my nun story.
posted by schmod at 10:41 AM on June 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

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