If I join a religious community do I have to change my name and cut my hair?

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Tuesday 25, August 2009 | Category:  
I am writing a work of fiction in which there is a character who wants to be a nun. Do nuns have to cut their hair and change their names?

Such a simple question, yet one that can be answered in so many ways! The answer depends on when your fictional nun lived. Her time in history is very important because the customs of Catholic nuns and sisters have changed. It also depends on the kind of community to which she belongs because each community has its own particular customs.

Regarding a nun’s hair, if your character lived prior to the 1960s chances are good that she wore a habit and veil and was required to have her hair cut. The reasons are two-fold: 1. It’s easier to wear a veil with short hair, and 2. The cutting of one’s hair symbolized the sister’s giving everything—even her hair which enhanced her uniqueness and femininity—to God. If she lived after the 1960s, which was the time of many changes in the Catholic Church, she may or may not have had to cut her hair.

As the church changed and opened up more to embracing and serving in the world, opportunities for Catholic sisters and nuns shifted to a focus on gospel living and ministry. Some veils got shorter and others were retired, which simultaneously meant allowing one’s hair to show. Many sisters were no longer required to shave or cut their hair. Their hairstyle was left to their own discretion. Of the communities that kept a veil, some still kept the hair-cutting custom while others adapted it.

In regard to a sister’s name, again, the 1960s is an important marker. Prior to this time your character most likely was given a religious name symbolizing her new life commitment. The name may have been in honor of Mary or a saint or some combination thereof, e.g., Sister Mary Benedicta. After the 1960s sisters in many communities, in the spirit of the changes occurring within the church, decided to use their own baptismal name (usually the name they ordinarily went by) as their religious name because baptism was the ultimate sign of new life in Christ.

Blessings on your writing project and may Saint Teresa of Avila, herself a writer and a nun, be with you as you create your nun-character!

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