A member of a female religious order living under vows of chastity and asceticism. With the dissemination of Christian ideals in the apostolic age, many widows and virgins separated themselves from society to worship God, initially in seclusion and later in communal groups (cf. 1 Tm. 5:9-10). Cenobitic conventual monasticism can therefore be said to antedate its male counterpart by several generations, as evidenced by several instances from the history of the Coptic church. For example, upon his consecration as patriarch in 199, DEMETRIUS I, twelfth patriarch of Alexandria, entrusted his wife, with whom he had lived in total abstinence, to the care of a community of devout women. Likewise, Saint ANTONY (c. 251-356), rightly called the Father of Monasticism, consigned his only sister to the care of a pious sisterhood before he devoted his life to solitary worship in the desert. Again, after Saint PACHOMIUS (c. 290-346) had established cenobitic Christian monasticism, his sister Mary is said to have visited him asking for guidance to lead a life of similar austerity and devotion. The cell that he built for her in the hills of Tabennese later developed into a convent near Dandarah in Upper Egypt, of which his sister became the superior. This was followed by another near Akhmim. When Pachomius died, Theodorus, his favorite disciple, established another convent at Faw in the vicinity of modern Qena.
Besides being the spiritual father of thousands of monks living under his supervision, Apa SHENUTE the Archimandrite (343-425) founded a convent that accommodated about eighteen hundred nuns. When Palladius (c. 365-425) visited Egypt, twelve convents had already been established in Antinoopolis alone. He recorded lengthy accounts of the saintliness of inmates of these convents. One such was Talida, whose prudence in administering her community was proverbial. Sixty nuns lived with her in real Christian fellowship and devotion, without once thinking of deserting the community, whose gate was never locked. Another was Taor, who lived in absolute self-negation for thirty years, consecrating all her time to prayer and worship.
Mention must also be made of Saint Theodora (295-412), an ascetic of Alexandria, who was initiated nun by Saint Athanasius. According to De Lacy O’Leary, “she is said to have been the author of several useful treatises on spiritual subjects” (1937, p. 261).
No candidate would be admitted to a convent until it was ascertained whether she had a real and unshakable desire to take the veil. Pachomius laid down strict regulations to organize the devotional activity of nuns, their fasting and prayers. They were given the task of making articles of clothing for monks in return for provisions and essential food supplies. But he forbade visitation between them except in the presence of the abbess or an aged monk.
As to the minimum age of admission, it appears that no standard rules were enforced. While BASIL THE GREAT stipulated sixteen or seventeen years of age, Ambrose, bishop of Milan, regarded maturity of character as the basic consideration. Again while the third Council of Carthage (397) agreed upon the age of twenty-five, that of Saragossa (381) raised it to forty.
According to Canon 3 of the third Council of Carthage, the rite of initiation was to be performed only by a bishop or a priest authorized by him. In his commentary on The Rudder, Cummings (1908, p. 606) says of this canon, “Note that some say that the consecration of their virgins by means of prayers can be performed only by a bishop, and not also by a priest. But as for sponsoring these girls with the monachal habit, and reading to them the rite of bestowing the habit and tonsuring them, these things may be done by a priest by permission of the bishop. In fact some declare that even the consecration of virgins may be performed by a priest with permission of the bishop.”
- Cummings, D. The Rudder (Pedalion), pp. 529, 606. Chicago, 1957. O’Leary, De L. The Saints of Egypt, p. 261. London, 1937.
- Smith, I. G. “Nun.” In A Dictionary of Christian Antiquity, Vol. 2. London, 1908.