Life of an Orthodox Nun
Orthodox monastic's do not have "orders" as in the Catholic Church. Orthodox monks and nuns lead identical spiritual lives. There may be slight differences in the way a monastery functions internally but these are simply style differences dependent on the Abbess or Abbot. The Abbess is the spiritual leader of the convent and her authority is absolute (no priest, bishop, or even patriarch can override an abbess within the walls of her monastery). There has always been fair equality between men and women in the Orthodox Church. Abbots and Abbesses rank in authority equal to bishops in many ways and were included in ecumenical councils. Abbesses hear confessions and dispense blessings on their charges though they still require the services of a presbyter (i.e., a priest) in order to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and other priestly functions. There have been, however, cases where nuns have functioned as deaconesses; though the last one to serve in that position was in the 19th century.
Orthodox monastic's, in general have little or no contact with the outside world, especially family. The pious family whose child decides to enter the monastic profession understands that their child will become "dead to the world" and therefore be unavailable.
The Different Levels of Nuns
There are a number of different levels that the nun passes through in her profession. When one enters a monastery the first three to five years are spent as a novice. Novices may or may not (depending on the abbess's wishes) dress in the black inner robe (Isorassa); those who do will also usually wear the apostolnik or a black scarf tied over the head. The isorassa is the first part of the monastic "habit" of which there is only one style for Orthodox monastics (this is true in general, there have been a few slight regional variations over the centuries). If a novice chooses to leave during the novitiate period no penalty is incurred. When the abbess deems the novice ready, the novice is asked to join the monastery. If she accepts, she is tonsured in a formal service, given the outer robe (Exorassa) and veil (Epanokamelavkion) to wear, and (because she is now dead to the world) receives a new name. Nuns consider themselves part of a sisterhood, however, tonsured nuns are usually called "Mother". The next level for monastic's takes place some years after the first tonsure when the abbess feels the nun has reached a level of discipline, dedication, and humility. Once again, in a formal service the nun is elevated to the "Schema" which is signified by additions to her "habit" of certain symbolic pieces. In addition, the abbess increases the nun’s prayer rule, she is allowed a more strict personal ascetic practice, and she is given more responsibility. The final stage, called "Megaloschemos" or "Great Schema" is reached by nuns whose Abbess feels they have reached a high level of excellence. In some monastic traditions the Great Schema is only given to monks and nuns on their death bed, while in others they may be elevated after as little as 25 years of service.
A Nuns Prayer & Obedience Life
Nuns choose a prayerful existence. Most monastic's are imitators of Christ. Like Christ, they fast. Like Christ, they live the life of poverty, both in what they wear and what they possess. They do, therefore, spend time thinking about food and clothing, but this in the strange sense of thinking how best not to think of these. They are careful not to eat that which invites gluttony or attachment to food, but to partake of the "daily bread" that provides for sustenance. They are worried about clothing that might move them away from the hem of the Savior's garment, which we all touch, entreating Christ to clothe them in His righteousness. And all of this monastic's do for the very purpose of salvation. It is precisely the search for salvation which prompts them to be concerned about such things. As Christ was obedient, so, too, the monastic is obedient.