We received a question from a reader in the United Kingdom who asks, "I am interested in becoming a nun however, I am currently a heavy smoker. Would that affect my chances of joining a nunnery?"
First, a quick note about the word “nunnery.” Back in the day, the word was used to refer to a convent or other place where sisters or nuns resided. The term was popularized by Shakespeare in Hamlet: “Get thee to a nunnery.” Today, it is more common to talk about joining religious life.
So, can you become a nun if you’re a heavy smoker?
Let’s look at a number of considerations. First, there’s the health issue. We know that cigarette smoking causes serious health problems, not only for the person who smokes but also for those who are exposed to second-hand smoke. Heavy smoking exponentially increases the health risks. I don't think that any religious community would want its members or potential members to do anything that poses a well-known serious health risk to themselves or others. Of course, there are MANY issues around what health risks, such as eating too much sugar or too many preservatives, not getting enough sleep, drinking too much, etc. I will gingerly lay aside those matters for the purpose of this question. Suffice it to say, engaging in a habit that is deleterious to our health is definitely not advisable.
In addition to the health risks (that should be enough to give us pause), smoking also has financial consequences. Smokes are not cheap! For women and men who profess a vow of poverty, it is extremely challenging to justify using the community's money (or anyone else's) to buy cigarettes. It's not that we sisters and nuns can't use money for personal needs. We can and do -- within moderation and according to the customs of each community. For example, I recently replaced my handlebar tape and picked up a reflector for my bike. When we do spend money, for whatever reason, we must be very conscious of how it contributes to the good of our life together as sisters and our own good within that. Each community, each sister must discern this, even when purchasing bike reflectors!
Smoking also has social ramifications. It can be very tough for non-smokers to live with and engage with people who are heavy smokers. Smoking can mean that a person has to make adjustments in how they are with others. For example, the choice to smoke indoors involves others: they’ll breathe second-hand smoke and may resent the lingering smell of cigarette smoke on their clothes. For the heavy smoker, it may be depressing to be relegated to the outdoors in order to have a cigarette, a situation exacerbated by bad weather. In religious life, the commitments to community and relationships are central, making it quite likely that heavy smoking will not be conducive to community life.
To the dear smoker who wrote to us, I urge you, please for your own sake, stop and find a healthy solution to your heavy smoking. Secondly, I commend you for even asking the question because it's a good awareness to have that your own personal choices can and will affect life in community. Know of my prayers as you think on this, and open yourself to how God is calling you. I know stopping smoking is not at all easy, but your life is totally worth it.