Women who feel called to a vocation in the religious life often become nuns or sisters. Nuns are cloistered, that is, they never leave the grounds of their convent, and sisters work in the world, for example, as teachers. When they take their final vows for a particular religious order, nuns are required to embrace the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. However, there are some variations in how these evangelical counsels are actually lived out. Everyone is given different charisms at baptism. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “charisms are graces of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefit the Church, ordered as they are to her building up, to the good of all, and to the needs of the world.” Thus, while the same Church is served by various religious orders, those orders have different emphases that represent their respective charisms.

Missionaries of Charity

If your particular charism is service to the poor, you might join the Missionaries of Charity. Founded by Mother Teresa in 1950, this order is devoted to serving the “poorest of the poor,” a vow they add to the three others of poverty, chastity and obedience. Mother Teresa began the order in Calcutta to serve those who were in the lowest caste system, called “untouchables.” They were left to die in the streets. She insisted that everyone possesses a God-given dignity that must be respected. Women who enter the order are required to give up all their worldly possessions and wear a blue sari to show their solidarity with the poor. The Missionaries of Charity have spread throughout the world.

Social Justice Coalitions

If you find yourself concerned with inequality, poverty or the environment, you might be interested in a social justice order. Rather than having a set of religious beliefs binding them together, these nuns find common ground in political ideas. Thanks to the Internet, they are organized into strong coalitions. These coalitions tend to be more liberal than other orders, but because they profess a strong faith in Christ, they are not easily categorized. These nuns do not wear traditional habits, but they often wear a crucifix to distinguish themselves from others.

Benedictines

For those who wish to combine work with prayer, the Benedictines are the order for those women. They wear a traditional black habit, and their Rule is as strict as their clothing. The Rule divides the day into hours of work and hours of prayer. The order’s motto, "Ora et labora," means "pray and work,” which is exactly what they do each day. Rather than take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Benedictine vows are "stability [i.e., they are unable to leave convent], conversion of manners, and obedience."

Carmelites

If you crave structure with isolation, then the Carmelite order is for you. Carmelite nuns are completely cloistered from the outside world, and their particular charism is contemplative prayer. They wear a brown habit and scapular, which is a long strip of cloth as wide as a body, with an opening at the head. Each Carmelite nun has her own cell that contains a bed and a desk. In addition to individual contemplative prayer, Carmelites participate in the Liturgy of the Hours, a series of prayers throughout the day and night. As you might imagine, it is an austere order.