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The Real Poop

You feel deeply connected with a spiritual force, you prefer to be alone with your thoughts, you really like wearing your bathrobe, and now you’re looking for a career that gels with all these traits. Unfortunately, becoming a Jedi isn’t a viable career path in this galaxy.

But while you can’t be the next Obi Wan, you might be interested in the something a little more Mother Teresa-esque.

Yep, we’re talking about becoming a nun (or the male equivalent, a monk). What is a nun or a monk? The answer spans a lot of time, geographic regions, and world religions. Monasticism (living like a monk) has been around, in one form or another, since before 600 B.C. Though the number has decreased steadily over the years, there are still thousands of nuns and monks in Buddhist, Jain, Taoist, Catholic and Protestant religious orders carrying on this old profession today. Clearly, those early monks were onto something.

Nuns and monks live deeply spiritual lives, spend a lot of time alone, and their “habits” (the black dress robe thing) aren’t that different from a bathrobe. But like becoming a Jedi, becoming a nun or a monk requires a lot of personal sacrifices on your part. Beyond the fact that their robes aren’t made out of terrycloth, and that no, you don’t get a light saber.

Before we go through what exactly those sacrifices entail, and why in God’s name (literally) anyone would make them, we have to confess something. Some nuns and monks will tell you that becoming a nun or monk isn’t a decision you can make according to a scientific method, Newton-style. Deciding to live a monastic life is a matter, they would say, of “discernment,” of discerning what it is God is trying to tell you. Either God calls someone to a religious vocation, or he doesn’t.

But what if God hasn’t called just yet? You might still be sitting by the phone, absolutely positive he’s going to call any minute now. In that case, it can’t hurt to have a general sense of what God might say when he calls to draft you into the monastery.

The general qualities of who will make a good nun or monk are probably (hopefully) pretty obvious. You’ve got to love people and serving the Church (or temple, or what have you). You need to be wholesome enough to commit to a lifetime of celibacy, and you need to be generous enough to commit to a lifetime of poverty. And you need to really, really, really love God.

Speaking of which, getting married and becoming a nun are kinda super similar. Deciding to live in a cloistered, enclosed community apart from the rest of the humanity is way bigger than an occupation or a “clutter-free lifestyle” that you adopt one day after reading Real Simple magazine. Sure, you can “abdicate,” just like you can abdicate a throne or get a divorce (both of which are generally a pretty big deal). But if you’re a nun or a monk, you don’t divorce the Church—or there will be serious hell to pay. (Again, get it? Hell?)

All right. So what exactly are you committing yourself to, in this world and the next? Some religions, like Jainism, have a greater emphasis on yoga practices, fasting (yeah, fasting) and maintaining a strict vegetarian diet. Others allow communal meals. But no matter the religion, the vows you’ll take as a nun or a monk are pretty gosh darn similar, and similarly harsh. Say goodbye to your cellphone, your television, the laptop that you’re probably reading this on right now. Some monks are forbidden even from singing or dancing. And you can kiss any hope of ever getting another kiss goodbye. Nuns and monks are celibate pretty much across the board. No spouse, no children. And because of the clothes you have to wear, those few times that you wander outside the castle – ahem, monastery – walls, you’ll have to endure stares and gawking from people who prejudge you as a “religious freak.”

Basically, it can be an incredibly lonely and visually un-stimulating life to sign up for. The only real upshots here are the free healthcare and that pesky, all-consuming love you have for your maker.

If you’re not already running for the door, desperate for any human interaction at all, then let’s talk through the process of becoming a nun or monk. Remember when we said entering a monastic order is a little like getting married? Yeah, well, you don’t just get married to a rando off the street. You date for a while. Same thing happens when preparing to join a monastery or abbey. You don’t just walk into your nearest abbey, don a black habit, and declare yourself a nun. First, you need to go through a process called “postulancy,” a fancy word for getting to know that specific order’s structure and sense of community over a period of time that can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Essentially, you “date” them.

And just like in real dating (which, remember, is a serious no-no for a nun or a monk), postulency is how you gauge your preferences. Do you like large, international religious orders? Or are you looking for something more local, more geographically contained? And what kind of lifestyle do you want? Do you want to focus on your individual prayer in what’s called a contemplative order? Or do you want to link yourself with an active (“apostolic”) order, in which you venture outside the walls of the monastery? And while you’re at the monastery, how much time do you hope to spend with other people? In communal orders, you’ll talk, pray, and eat with others. In eremitic orders, you’ll spend your days in your cell. (That’s right. It’s really called a cell.)

Did that sound like a lot of tough-to-answer questions? Good, because we’re talking about the rest of your life here. The least you could do is think out some unique, deeply personal answers to those questions.

Now let’s say you’ve been “dating” your monastic order for a while now, and you’re pretty sure this is the one. Now, you’ll need to gather complete health, legal, and work histories, as well as a full financial disclosure, and letters of reference. Thought devoting yourself to a life of service meant you’d get a free pass on paperwork? No such luck.

Next begins the “Novitiate Phase.” This is a time of reflection and contemplation, during which you think through the responsibility you owe to your chosen deity (God, a free-flowing spirit, the Force). This period ends when you make a Temporary Profession of vows.

There’s one more stage yet. (Note: if this already sounds like a lot of rules and a lot of slow-going bureaucracy, monasticism might not be for you. Monks aren’t exactly known for being heckling, anti-authority movers and shakers.) If all goes well as a Novitiate, at the end of between three and six years, you can make your Perpetual Profession of Vows.

This last stage lasts for—you guessed it—perpetuity.