Like so many who grew up Christian, I have a complicated relationship with the faith. I was raised Catholic and believed fervently until one day at mass when I was about 14, when I realised I didn’t. As the years passed and I learned more about the religion as an institution, it became harder and harder to reconcile faith with the ways in which the church has fundamentally failed so many people. Plus, it’s difficult to put your full force behind something that doesn’t recognise your lesbian marriage. After that initial mental break, I never really felt drawn back in.
It doesn’t help that Christianity as a whole is not 'cool' in the public imagination. Built into its history is the idea that non-believers must be converted to be saved and so creative methods had to be found to bring people into the fold. Initially this was done through an exertion of force (i.e. religious crusades) or by paternalistic imposition (i.e. missionaries). But as the appeal of the church waned throughout the 20th century and the teenager became the target audience in the West, spreading the word had to be done by Connecting With The Youth. Which is how we ended up with well-intentioned but cringeworthy offerings like the Extreme Teen Bible or jokes about folk bands and acoustic guitar. When you no longer have faith – or never had it in the first place – obvious pandering is, well, obvious.
Despite all this, I’ve always had a place in my heart for the religion, Catholicism in particular. I have seen the affirmation and serenity that faith can bring and how spirituality, when approached with love and not dogma, can hold people up. As long as someone's dedication to religion is not actively hurting anyone, why would I begrudge them that? In an endlessly cynical world it’s something I can look to in my own, non-religious way.
The first video I found was one that recently went viral. Sister Monica Clare, an Episcopal nun in New Jersey, amassed 350,000 views for talking about her skincare routine. She started her account in June this year as a way to share her daily life but, perhaps unsurprisingly, ended up being asked a lot about how she looked so youthful at 55. As she wrote in the caption: "I thought people would be asking questions about transubstantiation and Gregorian chant, but the ladies want the nunly skincare tips."
Her tips, for those interested, are good lighting, staying out of the sun and an oatmeal-based soap used once a day for her sensitive skin. The comments add (maybe rightly) that a life largely without men must help.
There was something about Sister Monica Clare's approach to using the app that drew me in – warm, funny and welcoming, with a sense of calm you rarely find on TikTok. Before long I was seeking out #NunsOfTikTok and spending time with pranking nuns, chanting nuns, frolicking nuns, dancing nuns, nuns reuniting with family. Every one of them had a calm, uplifting, joyful energy which, when you first happen on it, feels like an oasis in an internet storm.
I’m not alone in this. There are comments from so many people wondering how they got to this part of TikTok but who love it now they’re there. "Seeing nuns have fun and laughing is so refreshing in a new way," wrote one user. "I’m not religious in any form but this brought comfort in such a strange way to me," said another. Nuns themselves say that they were wary of posting, fearful that people would be mean or mocking – but that hasn’t been the case at all. There are even TikToks of people talking about how despite "avoiding religion like the plague" they think that "Nun TikTok is the greatest thing ever".
The appeal, in part, seems to be that it’s a window into a world that many of us know so little about, which we have only encountered through films or experienced in Catholic school. Many people have a difficult relationship with religion and seeing nuns – so often disciplinary figures – in this light adds a new dimension to their perspective.
It’s also appealing because Nun TikTok is not an attempt to convert you or pander to you. Seeing the daily life of a nun shows that the most deeply devoted are people too – people who can make jokes like "Feelin monastic, might delete later" about architecture, pull pranks on other nuns or get in on dance trends. Modern life isn’t resisted or demonised but adopted into their way of life.
While I’m not returning to the faith any time soon, Nun TikTok reminds me how affirming it can be. Finding the purpose that guides you, whether that’s faith and devotion to God or meaning through meaninglessness, seems key to navigating these tumultuous times. It’s not about ignoring or glossing over the world’s problems or disconnecting from reality but reaffirming that the people who find this kind of purpose are people too, with great skin and a wicked sense of humour. Seeing the world in this way is infinitely hopeful – and honestly, what more could you ask for? As Sister Monica Clare comments on one of her TikToks: "I think in these difficult times people are looking for meaning, and that’s a good thing. Most people want to make the world a better place."