Of Nuns and Sisters

Would you object to a little light-heartedness on this wet and windy Friday in Lent? Admittedly, my purpose is serious, but one does not always need a sledge-hammer to make a point.

One of the oddities of the world today is that people talk about nuns when they mean religious sisters and about sisters when they mean nuns. We are indeed all sisters, but not all of us are nuns. Most of the time, it really doesn’t matter (well, not to me, anyway); but there are occasions when precision of meaning matters very much β€” when dealing with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) at the Vatican, for example, or applying the relevant canon law to such things as vows, enclosure (cloister) and the like.

One of the main differences between nuns and sisters is that we nuns are useless. We are ‘wholly ordered towards contemplation’, so we don’t teach, nurse, do social work or anything else that the world values. We may write, speak or do things online or within the enclosure (cloister) of the monastery, such as receiving guests or, as in our case, running an audio book creation and postal loan service for the blind, but our lives are largely hidden from public view. We may run small businesses to support ourselves and fund our charitable outreach, but again, they must be such as can be carried on from within the enclosure. Nuns usually wear habits of varying degrees of antiquity (both senses), sigh over their mountains of unanswered correspondence (no time, no time) and suck their teeth whenever they hear the phrase ‘the good sisters’ or are asked ‘what do you do all day?’.

Religious sisters, by contrast, are very useful indeed. They are out in the thick of things and can be found virtually anywhere, working with the poor and marginalised, the druggies and the drop-outs, teaching at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, specialising in law, physics or what you will. They don’t always wear habits and are often unfairly criticized for not doing so. In this country they tend not to have a very political profile, but elsewhere they challenge existing power structures, bring compassion to death row prisoners and act as a salutary thorn in the side of the establishment. We in the cloister admire them very much: they do what we couldn’t, and we pray for them daily. They in their turn are very supportive of us.

The Church needs both nuns and sisters. It is not that the nuns pray and the sisters act. They represent two vital aspects of the Church, and of course they overlap, are complementary, form part of the ‘seamless robe’ that is Catholicism. St Bernard talked of Mary and Martha as sisters, of the same stock, with different characters, but both equally members of the same family, both necessary. During this past week we have heard Pope Francis give a very clear call to service. That service can only be sustained if it is rooted in prayer and sacrifice, and I am confident that the Church’s nuns and sisters will respond whole-heartedly. Please pray for us all.


24 thoughts on “Of Nuns and Sisters”

  1. Love the article and think the work of a nun is very valuable… what is more important than contemplating and praying for Christ’s love for the world?

  2. Yes, we sisters are “useful”, but increasingly less so. When apostolic congregations were founded they filled real, obvious gaps in their society. Now, we have health services, charities and free education, and a lot of what sisters do – education, health care, social work, counselling, spiritual direction, chaplaincy etc – can be done by anyone with the right/same experience and qualifications. Yes, there are still many gaps in provision, but those gaps aren’t waiting to be filled only by sisters.

    So why become a sister? For the same reason a woman becomes a nun: because of a compelling love and a desire for God, which seeks to live and love for God alone. The difference is where that love leads a woman, which determines where the emphasis will be in following that compelling call.

    Nuns do this through a life which is seen to be centred on prayer: the practicalities, small business, housework, book keeping etc are essential for keeping you going, but non-nuns are not aware of them. Sisters are seen to be of service, but what is often not seen is how much our lives are centred on prayer and contemplation. How could they not be?

    So maybe another difference is that you work hard but are only seen to pray, whereas we pray hard but are only seen to work!

    (My own congregation, incidentally, is a bit of a hybrid – apostolic-contemplative, but usually “categorised” as apostolic, whereas for us everything springs from our contemplation)

    And thank you for your prayers and support for us, and all that we are and do. And yes, we do value the knowledge that there are powerhouses of prayer and praise right behind us!

  3. This brings me to the tricky question about forms of address.
    Dear Sisters, when should I be calling you Dames and is there a place for using your Christian names? I write as one that gets twitchy when automatically addressed as ‘Pat’. Another twitch to drop this Lent.

    • Please don’t get twitchy! Our traditional title is ‘Dame’, shortened to ‘D.’ when written. We use it in community as often as we use ‘Sister’. When we sign letters and so on, we use the form S. or Sr as most people wouldn’t understand the use of ‘Dame’.

      When people are being very formal, they use the form Revd D. or, in my case, Very Revd D., on the envelope β€” but never the letters O.S.B. which are a late affectation as far as we are concerned; nor do we add any degrees or other honours after the name. (I rather suspect the name written on the white stone we shall all one day receive will be plain John or Jane, as the case may be, don’t you?)

      In community we never use just the bare name alone. St Benedict expressly forbids it, and certainly the use of the same title, whatever the age or eminence of the individual, does prevent any de haut en bas nonsense and reminds us all that we are one community, sharing in one equal love and obedience.

      Friends of the community often use our religious names or our given names without any title, and that’s fine by us. Cold callers doing the same tend to get short shrift!

  4. My aunt is in the Missionaries of Charity, and when I was younger I naively thought that the work was more important than the prayer but even in such an active order prayer always comes first. Apparently they wouldn’t be able to do the work otherwise, which I found very interesting! Prayers for both nuns and sisters πŸ™‚

  5. It’s always a pleasure to come here to learn something new. When I was in Care it was the Sisters of Mercy who looked after us, so I suspect that they are Sisters, not Nun’s, although we described them as such.

    I find it entertaining that there is as much confusion addressing Sisters, Dames or Nun’s as there appears to be in the Army or services. Everyone is addressed by their rank and surname, or alternatively, Sir or Ma’am’ if they hold the Queen’s Warrant or Commission. But a Subaltern is addressed as ‘Mr or Miss’ while a Warrant Officer who is filling an administrative appointment might be Sergeant Major, Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant, Regimental Sergeant Major, Staff Sergeant Major, Articifer Quartermaster Sergeant, Orderly Room Quartermaster Sergeant, there are so many variations. So, again, a generally addressed by their subordinates as Sir or Ma’am and Officers (who don’t appear to know the difference) as Mr or Miss.

    We also developed group names for groups of those with similar ranks “A brace of subalterns’ etc.

    Off course, the formalities were either observed fully in writing or suitably abbreviated, which could make their deciphering by the uninitiated a nightmare.

    All good fun, but those who stood on their status were easily upset by being incorrectly addressed – I used to have great fun doing so – pricking the balloon of conceit. πŸ™‚

  6. I must confess that I have never really liked the word ‘nun’ and have wished that English had a proper feminine equivalent of the word ‘monk’. At least in some European languages the commonly used ‘moniale’ makes it clear who is being referred to, but personally I would have preferred something directly derived from ‘monacha’.

    Of course, this is also all tied up with the history and development of the theology of consecrated life, women, enclosure etc in the West, something which I once felt strongly about but which I’d better keep quiet about now seeing I’m no longer involved!

  7. The content of today’s post is important, and even so, I am wrapped in the simple enjoyment of the humour and pleasure of good writing. Deo gratias.

  8. Now I understand…..thank you. I do so look forward to your blogs, and can often sense the smile woven through them. Your ministry is much appreciated.

  9. I was 2 1/2 years with a contemplative community. Now people always ask about life in the “convent,” or the “nunnery.” Most frustrating when it was actually a priory, or a monastery, but I have somewhat recovered from the teeth sucking response. And no one seems to believe I was never so busy in my life!

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