So You Wanna Be a Nun?
So you want to be a nun or religious sister? You might be reading this because you’re thinking about a vocation to being a vowed Bride of Christ on this side of heaven, or you might just be interested in learning about the process. It is a process with many steps and a lot of serious decision making. Over and above all, it is a process of discernment and prayer. It is a process of conforming to God’s plan, just as any vocation is.
What Exactly is a Vocation?
The word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare – to call. Our state of life vocation is what the Lord calls us to do. He does not force us into our vocations, but asks us to answer His call. Thinking about becoming a nun or religious sister might seem overwhelming because it is a life so different from the norm. Not getting married to a spouse you can see and touch, not having physical children, and living in community with other women for the rest of your life is not the usual way of doing things. While Christ desires us all to participate in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, the religious life is an anticipatory participation in the life we’re all called to – perfect union with God forever. It is a super-natural life imbued with great graces and great sacrifices. It is an invitation to love Christ with a totally undivided heart.
Being Open to God’s Will
Because it is an invitation from Christ himself, the first step is an openness to his will. This openness expresses itself in a desire to conform yourself to his will for your life. You might waver on this out of fear or pressure from those around you, but an incipient openness is the first step, and it is often the most difficult one. A lot of women have a skewed understanding of religious life and resist God’s first prompting. Some people can only see the sacrifices and do not see the great joys of following Christ with attentive obedience. Many young women begin to express their desire only to meet opposition from family or friends who do not understand the beauty of a life wholly dedicated to God. Or rather, there seem to be a lot of parents who recognize the goodness of religious life, but they cannot comprehend that it might be a good for their daughter to participate in. If you encounter this kind of opposition or difficulty in your initial openness and desire, do not despair. The Lord works on the hearts of his faithful. This openness and desire is best discussed with a spiritual director. If you do not have a regular confessor or spiritual director, now would be a good time to find one, or at least a good time to talk to a trusted spiritual advisor such as a priest or religious.
Researching Religious Orders
If you do not already have a religious community you know and love and desire to discern with, this will be the next stage: looking into different religious orders. Most women start with those closest to them either physically or spiritually. Are you attracted to the service to life of the Sisters of Life? Do you have a deep devotion to Franciscan spirituality the Eucharist like the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist? Do you deeply desire to teach wisdom and truth under the tutelage of St. Dominic like the many Dominican orders? Do you align yourself to the spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila or St. Therese? Another question to consider is: are you open to cloistered orders like the Poor Clares, the Discalced Carmelites, or the Benedictines?
Even within the discernment of religious life, the question of cloistered orders is another hard and beautiful option to discern and reflect on. Cloistered orders remain where they are – rooted in their monasteries – and live a life totally dedicated to prayer and work in their monastery. Other religious orders have a life dedicated to prayer, but also devote themselves to serving the Church through different apostolates – teaching, nursing, running retreats, serving the poor. The contemplative orders pray for the Church and the world, but those who are in contemplative-active orders are also acting in the Church and in the world.
Making a Visit
Once you contact an order you’re interested in, the process begins to look a little different depending on the order you’re discerning with. Many of the larger orders have regular discernment retreats where young women can spend the weekend getting to know the order and their way of life. Smaller orders might arrange something for you to come and visit and pray. This time is one of great personal reflection and self-reflection. Is this what I want? Is this what Jesus wants for me? Does he want me to give myself to him in this way?
Beginning the Application Process
After a certain amount of time, getting to know an order, and personal discernment, the hopeful will ask for an application from the order, usually requested from the mother superior herself. After the mother superior or mother abbess grants an application, the woman will fill out the application. The application process is usually rather extensive, and includes deep spiritual and psychological probing. A psychological examination is usually required to make sure the woman is healthy psychologically. She will likely have a long meeting with the mother superior or the novice mistress or both.
Preparing to Enter Religious Life
After the application has been completed and accepted by the order, then the preparation for entrance begins. Some orders have a set entrance day while others have receive women as they are ready at a time agreed upon by her and the mother superior. Any debts the woman might have will have to be paid off before she can enter. Many women ask for help with this from friends, family, and people in their community so that they might enter freely and as soon as possible. Another aspect of the preparation to enter is relinquishing material possessions. Women will also have to gather specific items of clothing for her new everyday wear, or might even begin sewing their postulant outfit.
Upon entrance day, the woman transitions from being one outside the community to (typically) being what is called a postulant. Postulancy often lasts about a year, and is a time of preparation and learning. This is a time of formation that leads the woman to really know the order and the sisters in her community. It is a time of discernment for her – is this the right fit for me, and a time of discernment for the community – does she fit in with our community?
After postulancy, the novitiate follows. Becoming a novice usually involves a transition from less religious garb to more religious garb – a pared down habit, adorning a veil that is often a different color than the fully professed sisters. It might be at the beginning of the novitiate when a sister receives her religious name, and sometimes that comes at her first vows. Depending on the order, the novitiate can last anywhere from a year and a half to three years. It is a time of more intense spiritual preparation, obedience to the Lord and to the mother superior, and humility. Some orders take first (also called temporary) vows during the novitiate. For others, first vows signals a change in a sister’s status.
Whether or not first vows signal an actual change in the status of the sister, there is usually some kind of time where a sister is called a “junior professed” – this is the time in between making first vows and making final vows. This time can last a year to three years depending on the structure of the order. Following this time of final preparing and discernment, a sister makes her final vows, also called her solemn profession. When she takes her final vows, she is totally consecrated to God forever and fully initiated into the life of the order. There is nothing like the joy of a bride of Christ on her final profession day!
Clearly, it is a long and involved process to become a nun or religious sister. It can take anywhere between six and nine years between her entrance day to her final vows, not counting the time of discernment that might come before that leap of faith to enter. It is a long time of prayer and preparation, but it is one that is exquisite, beautiful, and exalted. If you think you might have a vocation to the religious life, seek the Lord’s will above all else and speak to people you trust about it. If someone you know is discerning religious life, try to be as loving and encouraging as you can, even if you have a difficult time understanding the call. It can be easy to be selfish or afraid, to want to stay in the world, or to want your loved one to stay in the world, but it is a great grace to allow the Lord to draw a woman to himself in this way. A priest once told me that it is the prayers of religious that keep the world turning, and this can’t be an exaggeration. We need good, holy, faithful religious to love and serve Christ and his Church through their ora et labora – through their prayer and their work. May more women (and men!) rise to the joy and challenge of this call.
“Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, ‘What do you seek?’ And they said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which means Teachers), where are you staying? He said to them, ‘Come and see.’” John 1:38-39a