Imagine if you were asked to give up your career, possessions, sex life and the possibility of ever having children. It's a way of life many women worldwide gladly accept in order to serve God.
There are more than 60,000 Catholic nuns in the United States, with 750,000 worldwide. As nuns, sisters take three strict vows: chastity, poverty and obedience to God and their church. Nuns believe they are married to Jesus Christ, and some wear wedding rings to symbolize their devotion.
Their traditional clothing is called a habit, which consists of a white cap, veil and long tunic. Nuns consider this their wedding dress.
Not all nuns live the same lifestyle. Cloistered nuns rarely leave the confines of their monastery and pray up to 12 hours a day. Some sisters choose an independent path, which means they live alone, go to college, pursue careers and don't wear a habit.
Oprah Show correspondent Lisa Ling is no stranger to exploring different ways of life. She's traveled to the Congo, reported on North Korea and gone inside a prison. Now, she's going where she's never gone before—inside a convent.
The nuns of Dominican Sisters of Mary, a thriving convent outside of Detroit, invited Lisa to spend the night. Just under 100 nuns live at the convent. The average age of a sister is 26; the youngest sister is only 18. When she arrives at 5:30 p.m., Lisa says she expects to find the sisters in prayer. Instead, they're playing cards and Scrabble!
At 7 p.m., a bell signals the call to nightly prayer. The first 15 minutes are conducted in complete silence. A procession follows, with nuns lined up from youngest to oldest. "At the end of this, it's silence," Sister Joseph Andrew says. "The sisters go and they either study, or if there's duties to be done, [they do those]."
At 10 p.m., the sisters have profound silence. "That means absolutely no talking and everyone should be in her cell," Sister Joseph Andrew says.
The 100 cells, or bedrooms, of the convent are cloistered, which means no one is allowed in. An exception is made for Lisa and the cameras.
The rooms are free of possessions. "We don't really have a lot of things, and that's a part of our vow of poverty," she says. "Our time is given to God and to people."
Bedtime is also the only time of day a nun does not wear her habit. "We always say it's kind of like a woman's wedding ring. It says someone loves me. Someone has claimed me as his own," she says. "And of course we would say that's Christ."
At 5 a.m., a bell rings to rouse Lisa and the sisters. Twenty minutes later, everyone's at morning Mass. "We live in a culture where we're bombarded with so much noise and so much insecurity," Lisa says. "This was actually a very peaceful night's stay that I had."
At 7 a.m., everyone heads to breakfast. All meals are eaten in silence. There's no time to linger as the sisters attend to their daily jobs—cleaning, teaching and whatever else is needed to keep the convent running.
Lisa then sees Sister Joseph Andrew use something she never thought she'd see at the convent—a BlackBerry! "Wherever I go, I grab my prayer books and I grab my BlackBerry," she says. "If a young woman is really looking at this [life], she immediately wants to know is there a family spirit here."
Every day after lunch, the sisters get some exercise. Their favorite activities? Field hockey, soccer and basketball. "They obviously always have to wear their habits. They just pull them up a little bit and put their sneakers on," Lisa says. "Let me tell you something, these sisters are competitive."
It can take up to nine years to become a nun. Women who have just joined the convent are called postulants. These sisters-in-training don't yet wear a veil. "When you're a postulant, [it's] the first year you enter," Sister John Dominic says. "The idea of a postulant means 'to ask.'"
The next step after being a postulant is to become a novice. It's a time of study, and novices can be identified by their white veils. "We're right now in what's called canonical year," novice Sister Maria says. "It's a year that you spend really entering more fully into the life, focusing more in prayer, and you're trying to really avoid as many distractions as you possibly can."
Once sisters have taken their final vows, they wear a black veil. Mother Assumpta, one of the founders of the convent, has been in this life since age 17. She says she never feels that she missed out on other experiences like having children. "I think every woman is called to be a mother, you know, physically," she says. "But God called me to this, and this is what I want to be—a spiritual mother."
Sister Mary Judith, now 26, joined the sisterhood at age 21. "I was really at a crisis point in my life. I had been in college for three years, and prior to that I grew up in northern Saskatchewan on an Indian reservation, so I encountered a lot of suffering, drugs," she says. "I was looking to be filled, and I felt empty. But it's interesting because I wanted to save the people I saw drowning, but I was drowning myself."
Sister Mary Judith says she removed herself from the situation by going to college. While away volunteering at Thanksgiving, she received a call that a close friend had been shot back home. "It kind of just put me face-to-face with my life. [It] wasn't just a joke or just having fun," she says. "I needed to find a direction."
Sister Mary Judith says she turned to God. "He made it very clear to me that if I wanted to be happy, I had to give my whole life to him."
Sister Francis Mary, now 26, says she received the calling when she was 22. Though she was baptized Catholic, Sister Francis Mary says she wasn't particularly religious. In fact, she thought she was meant to marry her serious boyfriend, who was also Catholic.
All of that changed when her boyfriend invited Sister Francis Mary to see his own sister take her vows to become a nun. "Something within me changed," she says. "All of a sudden, I knew that Christ wanted me for himself. And it was mind-boggling. I was afraid."
Eventually, she had to tell her boyfriend of her new life plan. "We both cried," she says. "He was really shocked at first, but then again he was extremely supportive and I am so grateful to him."
As it turns out, God had plans for her boyfriend as well. "God takes care of everything," she says. "He's going to be ordained a priest the same year I make my final vows."
Both Sister Mary Judith and Sister Francis Mary admit they experienced an adjustment period after giving their lives to God. "The very first day I entered I was, like, 'What did I just do?'" Sister Mary Judith says.
Sister Francis Mary says she had a hard time filtering out the things society once told her were important, such as material possessions, wealth and sex. "I really had to weed it out, if you will, slowly. Because you can't just isolate yourself into a little bubble suddenly," she says. "That's why, when I did enter the community, there's that first year of postulancy, which is really a year of being introduced to the life to know how to let go of all these things."
Both sisters say there were times they could have turned back, and no woman is forced to stay. "There's many periods," Sister Mary Judith says. "You're in discernment for basically seven years before you make your final vows."
Sister John Dominic has been a nun for nearly 30 years and says the transition to the church is often harder on the sister's family than the woman herself. "Any mother, the moment they lay their eyes on their child, they have dreams for them," she says. "And they [ask], 'What is my child going to be?'"
She says her own mother was upset with her decision. "I became a Catholic when I was in high school," she says. "Not being Catholic and not being exposed to it was very difficult for her. I had a family member that had been in a cult, so her idea was that I would be cut off from the world, I would be brainwashed and I wouldn't be able to think for myself."
Over time, Sister John Dominic says her mother realized she was still the daughter she'd always known. "They begin to see that we become who we are. My personality hasn't changed," she says. "They begin to see the freedom and the joy in that and there's an acceptance, and she's my biggest supporter now."
Sister Mary Judith says her brothers are always amazed she hasn't become a different person. "[They're] quite amused that I'm just the same person I was before—but almost more so," she says. "If it's your calling, if this is what you're meant to be, you're going to become more of yourself over time."
The vow that most nonclergy are curious about is the vow of chastity. Instead of giving their sexuality to another person, nuns instead give it to Jesus. "He's a hard husband to be married to because if something goes wrong in the relationship, I know it's me," Sister Mary Judith jokes.
"A lot of times people will think that we're repressed because we don't have sex or we're not indulging in the same kind of things that most people our age are indulging in," Sister Mary Judith says. "I feel like I've reclaimed my sexuality from an oversaturated, sexualized world and that I don't want to be an object. I view my sexuality as a precious thing."
Sister Mary Judith says sexual urgings don't go away once a woman becomes a nun—sisters just have a different way of approaching them. "I think that there's a common concept that sexuality or sexual urges or sexual feelings are bad and dark," she says. "It's an integrated part of who we are and expresses a part of who we are. It is not all that we are."
Sexual feelings are kind of like chocolate, she says. "Just because I have this desire for chocolate all the time doesn't mean I'm going to have to eat chocolate every time," she says. "It's using the desires, the same desires I have for a greater calling and for a greater cause."
During her time at the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Lisa asked the sisters what the biggest misconception about nuns is. "That we all have a ruler in our pocket," one sister says.
Lisa says she was surprised by the freedom the sisters felt. "I think the perception of sisters and nuns is that they lead very strict existences," she says. "So many of the women whom I met, they had successful lives and careers, but they never felt like they could be skinny enough or consume enough. They always felt this underlying insecurity and they wanted more out of life. So in a way, rather than being very strict, their lives are actually much more liberating."
Another myth is that a woman has to be a virgin to become a nun. "If there are any young women out there that are interested in the religious life and they happen to have had sex, is it possible if they could enter the convent? Yes," Sister Maria says. "[They have] to prove that they have been living a chaste life prior to entering. They would also be committed to living chastely for the rest of their lives."
Nuns live in the way God commands them to, but they aren't severely punished if they break a vow. "I don't think any of us view our life like a life of rules. It's an integrated way of life," Sister Mary Judith says. "So to break a vow is like saying you're not living integrated. You're almost lying to yourself. So you're inflicting your own punishment on yourself."
"We do make these vows in complete freedom," Sister Francis Mary adds. "It takes three years before we can even first pronounce those vows, even just discerning and seeing if this is really what God wants and I want."
Since the Dominican Sisters of Mary was established 13 years ago, Sister Mary Samuel says they are seeing more interest than ever from prospective nuns who want to serve more than just themselves. "Our culture is certainly a very challenging culture to live in. It's very secular. Very materialistic. Getting more so," she says. "But our Lord is still calling them to himself. So all our life is a journey toward God and our life, as religious, is a more intimate journey that we have allowed ourselves that time by freeing ourselves from material things, through the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience."
Sister Mary Samuel says the most difficult vow for any nun is that of obedience. Once that is overcome, nothing but good can come. "Everyone has to do the will of God, and when we're doing that, we're the greatest and happiest people. But we have that struggle because we like to do our own will," she says. "We're able to, in religious life, gear that and have that time in silence and prayer to grow closer to him. Our journey is to him and that union, and then we, by being his spouse, we are spiritual mothers as we're mothers to all the children we serve."