There are many ways to explore the religious life. The first step is to get in touch with a religious community that interests you, either directly or through your priest. Religious orders will be happy to provide you with plenty of information about their history and their way of life. Some offer special retreats or similar programs to help potential sisters and brothers discern their vocation. You may have the opportunity to participate in the work of active religious orders, volunteering your time at their hospitals, religious education classes, or social services. Even if you are considering the contemplative life, it can be very rewarding to participate in the social work of active sisters and brothers.
In both exploring the religious life and preparing for it, you should be conscientious about living the Catholic faith as fully as you can; that is the essence of the contemplative life. Attend Mass and other services frequently; read about church history, doctrine, and current events; take part in parish activities. Finally, religious sisters and brothers will tell you that the key to preparing for a vocation and to discerning it is prayer.
Sisters and brothers form an important, though sometimes misunderstood, part of the Roman Catholic Church. Brothers, for example, are not priests, but lay-people. Not all brothers can be properly called monks, a term usually reserved for contemplative brothers. The term "nun" properly refers to a female contemplative, though a nun is addressed as "sister."
In the United States there are more than 300 Roman Catholic orders and congregations, many of which have both male and female communities and some of which have both active and contemplative religious.
Active religious brothers and sisters are primarily engaged in education, health care, social work, and spreading the Catholic faith, either as missionaries or through their daily work. Sisters and brothers who teach may work at the elementary, high school, or college level—usually, but not always, in Catholic-funded schools. Others may serve as librarians, counselors, or principals, or in other administrative positions. Those involved in health care work in hospitals owned by their religious order or by the local diocese, serving as nurses, physicians, pharmacists, medical technicians, administrators, physical therapists, or related positions.
In impoverished areas in the United States, such as inner cities, active religious may live among the people, teaching basic literacy and life skills such as sanitary procedures and rudimentary job skills. They may conduct programs to help the poor or homeless, or work in homes for disadvantaged children. Sisters and brothers who work as missionaries may work in countries plagued by famine, disease, civil war, or places where the Catholic faith has not yet been established.
More and more active religious are working in parishes as pastoral associates or directors of religious education. They may handle administrative duties, particularly if their parish does not have a priest of its own but shares one with another parish. Some serve as spiritual directors, counseling others on living the faith more deeply. Active sisters and brothers also work in communications, either on behalf of their order or their diocese. They might work in public relations or in the media, such as publishing books or producing video and audio recordings.
Contemplative sisters and brothers generally live their lives entirely within the bounds of the monastery or convent. They spend several hours a day in chapel for Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. They may spend their private prayer time in the chapel, in their rooms, or outside in the monastery grounds. An hour or so is usually devoted to study, learning about church history, the lives of the saints, and other issues. Much of the rest of the day is spent on manual labor, tending to the needs of the community. Gardening, laundry, cooking, cleaning, and household repairs are some of the tasks to which brothers and sisters are assigned.
In many contemplative communities, particularly cloistered orders where there is little interaction with other people, an hour or two is set aside each day for recreation, when the religious can talk and relax in a less formal atmosphere. Meals are taken together, often in silence or while listening to a spiritual book on tape.
Cloistered contemplative communities enjoy papal enclosure, which restricts access to their monasteries or convents. This ensures that a quiet, reverent, prayerful atmosphere is maintained. To enter the enclosure, people must have special permission from the bishop or a superior within the order—except in case of emergency. To leave the enclosure, religious must also have this kind of special permission, although most have standing permission to visit doctors and dentists as needed.
Members of contemplative religious communities often perform additional work to raise money. Nuns, for example, traditionally earn funds by baking bread used for communion and by sewing vestments. Cottage industries and small businesses such as crafts, a printing service, or wine and cheese production are now common.