Similar differences

A few months ago Digital Nun - a Benedictine - wrote a blogpost about the difference between nuns and sisters. In it she wrote 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... Religious sisters, by contrast, are very useful indeed... There are, of course, other fundamental differences. Sisters, for example, by virtue of being apostolic, go out every day to do all this useful work, often with added parish or other commitments, whilst nuns live enclosed in their monasteries, usually only emerging for essential reasons like medical treatment.

I've been reminded of that blogpost, and my long comment on it, by a couple of conversations I've had this week, explaining the difference to a couple of young women who are tentatively thinking of religious life but confused by the plethora of communities and the various 'labels'. In each conversation, I also explained what is usually not perceived...

Nuns lead lives which are organised and structured in such a way that, as Digital Nun said, they can be wholly ordered towards contemplation. They do not, however, spend all day in their chapels or wafting around in an apparently contemplative haze: much of the day has to be spent keeping the monastery going, through cooking, housework, growing vegetables, book keeping, laundering and so many other practicalities, as well as running whatever cottage industry the monastery might have which helps pay bills. As far as possible, though, this work is done in a silent, contemplative atmosphere, which flows into their prayer, reading and reflection.

Sisters, meanwhile, 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, when we have pledged our very existence to God and spreading the good news of his love? Certainly for RSCJ, our contemplation is at the heart of and the source of everything we do: as our foundress wrote almost 200 years ago The spirit of the Society is essentially based on prayer and the interior life... And when a sister is unable to 'do' things for God - for example, due to age or infirmity - she can still 'be' totally for God, because she is centred in prayer.

So maybe another difference (or similarity!) is that nuns work hard but are only seen to pray, whereas sisters pray hard but are only seen to work!

There is another similarity/difference. There are many today who do not value or see the usefulness of a life devoted to prayer; whereas we sisters are lauded for being 'useful', but - in reality - are increasingly less so. When apostolic congregations were founded they filled real, obvious gaps in their society. Now - in the west at least - 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 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 or a nun? Basically, for one fundamental reason: because of an inner fire, a passion, which renders thoughts of utility redundant... because of a compelling love and a desire for God, which seeks to live and love for God alone. The difference is simply where that love leads a woman, which determines where the emphasis will be in following that compelling call.


  1. Excellent! Having been influenced by many wonderful apostolic sisters and eventually ending up in a monastic community, I know that both calls have some seeming differences, but at the heart is the search for God.

    Sr Miriam osb
    Turvey Abbey


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