Finding a Voice for Lay Sisters in a Monastic Community

Is it possible to talk about monastic women writers without discussing community? Even the collaborative efforts by which so many monastic women’s texts were created and handed down bring the community context and influence to the foreground.

And they give us our general idea of “monastic community”: nuns in their black or gray habits, singing the Divine Office together every day, recording the revelations reported by a particularly special community member.

But this is a purposefully distorted picture. The community of people within a monastery included a variety of servants and lay sisters (or brothers). Lay sisters, sometimes known as conversae, professed similar vows to choir nuns, but their mode of religious life was strictly providing manual labor for the convent. Joining the convent from the rural peasantry or urban lower classes, they did not sing the liturgy, meditate over books and images, or even learn to read at all.

Monastic women authors, so often keen on preserving the words of their (choir) sisters, show little interest in the inner lives of their servants and lay sisters. Authors of the Schwesternbücher from fourteenth-century Germany, especially Elsbeth Stagel of Töss and Katharina von Gebersweiler, offer miniature hagiographies of exceptional lay sisters like Gertrude of Saxony (with all the attendant questions about whether these connect to reality, or to the choir sister’s ideal). The brilliant and courageous Caritas Pirckheimer, prioress of the Dominican Katharinenkloster during the Reformation, is a rare case of referring to some servants by name. But even she writes of the city in the clutch of Reformers:

“Sometimes rather angry, audacious fellows surrounded the cloister and threatened our servants that they were about to attack the cloister on that very night, so we were very afraid and worried and could hardly sleep from fear.” [1]

Pirckheimer tells us the what that happened to the servants, but both the “we” and the emotional reaction (it is clear in context) only apply to the choir sisters.

However, these women joined convents rather than seeking secular employment for a reason. They had spiritual goals and spiritual lives of their own, but they seem almost completely silenced.

To make matters worse: an even rarer case where a lay sister is allowed an actual voice, in the spiritual autobiography of 14th-century Dominican nun Margaretha (Margaret) Ebner, the picture is hardly flattering.

In 1324, Ebner and the other nuns of Maria Medingen had to flee their convent for safety during a flare-up of fighting between yet another Holy Roman Emperor and yet another pope. Ebner reports that the convent prayed feverishly for protection. She even had a vision of the convent filled with “poor people” [souls in purgatory] who instructed her to pray vigils to God on their behalf for the health of the community.

But the war came too close. Rather than move to a different Dominican house, the usual practice, Ebner records in her Offenbarungen that she returned to her mother’s family home at Donauwörth. But she did not go alone:

I continued reading vigils [for the souls in purgatory]. I had a lay sister (weltlich swester) with me who was sad because I read vigils so much, and she was very angry about it and said it would do me woe. Then she saw one time that the house was full of poor souls and they said to her, “As you will not pray for us, do not begrudge that others pray for us.” [2]

Ebner presents a picture of a lay sister who cannot comprehend the importance or the point of an actual monastic life—who does not, it seems, even understand prayer. And it hinders her to the extent of trying to deny Ebner the chance to pray with the goal of the safety of her community—the community they both supposedly belong to.

Was this lay sister just another person who thought Ebner should be relieved to have a “vacation” from monastic drudgery? That does not seem to describe someone who would vow their entire life to serving nuns who sang the liturgy daily.

It’s important to note that Ebner started her spiritual biography in 1344, twenty years after this supposed incident, and that she was working within very specific genre conventions. Namely, both the text and the life it claimed to described needed to fit specific patterns of holiness. Even if the Offenbarungen relate some version of an actual incident, it serves a very particular purpose in the text. Ebner’s commitment to the liturgy, to claustration even in the secular world, to the safety of her convent community is on full display. It even receives divine confirmation!

Instead of a voice of protest, thus, the lay sister is rendered a prop for Ebner’s sanctity. Whether or not she ever thought or told Ebner that maybe she should back off the prayers, the conventions of spiritual autobiography turn her into a literary device.

But conventions only work if they make sense to readers. In this case, that means understanding and accepting that Ebner would flee her convent for her mother’s home, and that a lay sister would accompany her. That was not the typical pattern, in which the community would evacuate together (including servants, books, and chickens, it is often noted). The lay sister is specifically identified as such, not as a servant, and at any rate, there would have been servants aplenty at Donauwörth.

Instead, we have a case of a lay sister who went along with a nun despite an apparent lack of a warm relationship between the two (or, one hopes, Ebner would not have presented her so negatively). In other words: this is probably a woman who had nowhere else to go. Maybe her own home was too far away; maybe it was close enough to be under just as much threat as Maria Medingen.

The lack of security surely shaped the lay sister’s religious life some way, including during times of relative safety. It definitely would have affected how she related to the convent as a whole, and to her experiences there. Further reading through the silences—and the silencing—of monastic texts by women and their male supporters will hopefully allow us to tease out something of the average, not just the exceptional, lay sister’s spiritual life as true members of a monastic community.

Cait Stevenson, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame


[1] Translated in Caritas Pirckheimer, Caritas Pirckheimer: A Journal of the Reformation Years, 1524-1528, ed. Paul A. MacKenzie (Boydell and Brewer, 2006), 74.

[2] Philipp Strauch, ed., Margaretha Ebner und Heinrich von Nördlingen: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der deutschen Mystik (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1882), 7. A partial English translation is available in Margaret Ebner, Margaret Ebner: Major Works, ed. and trans. Leonard P. Hindsley (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), 88.

Moral Self-determination and the Byzantine Christian Tradition

Though diverging with regards to detail, most historians of intellectual history would readily acknowledge that the advent of Christian antiquity coincided with a new concept of moral self-governance and, consequently, individual culpability.[1] Antique and medieval Christian thinkers cultivated a universal notion of ethical self-determination, affirming that all possess an inherent and unnecessitated capacity for the recognition and pursuit of the good regardless of one’s social upbringing or physical circumstances. A prima facie examination of these late antique and medieval Christian notions might seem to suggest many common features with post-Enlightenment and contemporary conceptions of moral autonomy, which emphasize self-legislation and independently-derived moral criteria. Nevertheless, a closer reading of these sources discloses a mindset that grounds moral self-determination in an ethic of co-governance, establishing the heteronomous “other” as an indispensable aspect of the quest for the good.

A significant exemplar of this “ethic of co-governance” can be found in the corpus of the early Byzantine monk, Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662 AD), a figure revered by both eastern and western Christian traditions. Imbued with the spirit of the eastern ascetic tradition, the Confessor draws upon both monastic literature and the Hellenic philosophy of the Alexandrian intellectual tradition in order to synthesize his theological vision. Prominent among the doctrines prized by the eastern monastic tradition is indeed the idea that every rational agent possesses a free will, a notion that Maximus himself would also ardently defend and develop. Equally prominent, however, is the practice of “obedience” (hypakoē) to a spiritual guide or superior. This practice became an indispensable aspect of spiritual life in the eastern monastic communities that coalesced in the fourth and fifth centuries, and it remained a venerated feature of eastern monasticism through the end of the Byzantine era. Though not a central motif in his spiritual writings, Evagrius of Pontus (345–399 AD), a pioneer of eastern monasticism, is careful to exhort both male and female monastics living in community to attend to the words of their spiritual guides.[2]

Constantinople. Source:

The most well-known literary source providing an exposition of obedience is The Ladder of Divine Ascent, authored by John of Sinai (c.579–659 AD).[3] In the fourth chapter or “step,” John addresses the practice, defining it thusly: “Obedience is absolute renunciation of our own life, clearly expressed in our bodily actions…Obedience is the tomb of the will and the resurrection of humility.”[4] His endorsement of the renunciation of “will” may sound odd to many readers, especially given the Christian emphasis upon moral self-governance. Nevertheless, John is not denying the concept of free will as such, nor is he suggesting that the volitional faculty must atrophy into non-existence. Scholarly evidence suggests that the term John uses here for “will,” thelēma or thelēsis, comes to be associated with the volitional faculty in a philosophical sense in the writings of Maximus the Confessor, whose engagement with the Christological controversies of the seventh century provided the impetus for the standardization of the expression.[5] Thus, when John speaks of “will” and its denial, he is arguably referring to what Maximus the Confessor and his theological progeny would call gnomē, which in the idiom of the time refers to a private or particular disposition of will, or even to a personal opinion.[6]  John’s monk is not so much denying his own intrinsic freedom of will as he is seeking the co-governance and insight of those who are more advanced in virtue, and, through them, struggling to direct his volitional disposition such that it harmonizes with the other members of the community.

Maximus discloses a similar approach to moral self-determination by establishing his ethical teaching on “love” or agapē, which figures prominently in his philosophical and dogmatic treatises as well as his ascetic writings.[7] Agapē is no mere private sentiment but constitutes the impetus and ground for moral practice as a whole, thereby suggesting that moral judgment and orientation presuppose an awareness of one’s community and the persistent presence of a real, tangible “other.” In this way, Maximus retools an older Aristotelian paradigm, exchanging justice for love as the central and all-defining virtue.[8] Insofar as agapē is the chief virtue, narcissistic self-love, or filautia, is its inverse and the progenitor of all vice. As he demonstrates in one of his earliest works, The Ascetic Life, ascetic discipline should not be considered a private enterprise intended primarily for the sake of internal moral perfection.[9] Rather, its purpose is the effacement of filautia and the diachronic restoration of temporal and eternal relationships with the creator and one’s fellow creatures. To quote the Confessor directly: “He who is unable to separate himself from the passionate yearning for material things shall neither love God nor his neighbor authentically.”[10] Defining this activity in ontological terms, Maximus argues that divine love shall eschatologically gather together the fragmented portions of human nature into a functional unity, existing as a single mode in solidarity of will and disposition.[11] If love is the metaphysical impetus for the pursuit of virtue and the ground of morals, mimēsis or “imitation” is the pedagogical means by which it is recognized and acquired. Creatively appropriating and redeploying principles of Neoplatonic philosophy, the Confessor establishes the imitatio Christi, the existential imitation of Christ and his virtues, as the epistemological core of his ethics.[12] True followers of Christ imitate his mode of existence, disclosing through their lives and examples divine virtue. The lives and modes of these “exact imitators” are in turn imitated and imparted unto the morally immature.[13]

When viewed through a contemporary lens, we might say that Maximus’ view and the tradition that informs him entail the recognition of “autonomy”—as we would construe it now—as the point of departure for human agency. However, the ideal of agapē calls for the voluntary sacrifice of autonomous moral space for the sake of moral co-governance and a reciprocal unity of wills, which depends upon the concrete example of Jesus Christ and his “exact imitators.”

Demetrios Harper
Byzantine Studies Post-doctoral Fellow

[1]This is strongly reaffirmed by Kyle Harper (From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity[Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013], 80-133), who objects to Michael Frede’s assertions that the concept of free will is not unique to the Christian tradition but can, in fact, be attributed to Epictetus. See Frede’s A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought, Sather Classical Lectures 68, ed. A. A. Long(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), pp. 66-88.

[2]See The Two Treatises: To Monks in Monasteries, and Exhortation to a Virgin, in Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, trans. Robert Sinkewicz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 127-28, 131.

[3]These dates are based on what still remains tentative conjecture. Cf. Alexis Torrance, Repentance in Late Antiquity: Eastern Christian Asceticism and the Framing of the Christian Life c. 400-650 CE (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 158-60.

[4]The Ladder of Divine Ascent 4.3, revised edition, trans. Lazarus Moore (Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1991), 21. For the original text, I consulted the Κλίμαξ, in Ἰωάννου τοῦ Σιναΐτου ἅπαντα τὰ ἔργα, Φιλοκαλία τῶν νηπτικῶν καὶ ἀσκητικῶν πατέρων 16, ΕΠΕ, Ἐλευθέριος Μερετάκη (Θεσσαλονίκη Πατερικαὶ Ἐκδόσεις Γρηγόριος ὁ Παλαμᾶς, 1996).

[5]John D. Madden is among the first to argue for the originality of Maximus’ contribution to the genealogy of the concept of will. Cf. his “The Authenticity of Early Definitions of Will (thelēsis)” in Maximus Confessor: Actes du Symposium sur Maxime le Confesseur, Fribourg (2-5 Septembre 1980), eds. Felix Heinzer and Christoph Schönborn (Fribourg: Éditions Universitaire Fribourg, 1982), 61-82. Madden’s “originality thesis” is defended by David Bradshaw, St Maximus the Confessor on the Will, in Knowing the Purpose of Creation Resurrection, Proceedings of the Symposium on St Maximus the Confessor, ed. Maxim Vasiljević (Alhambra: Sebastian Press, 2013), 143–58 For an up-to-date and comprehensive overview of Maximus’ view, see Ian McFarland, “The Theology of Will,” in The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor, eds. Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 516-32.

[6]Ian McFarland, “The Theology of Will,” 520-522. Cf. for the context and background of “will” and its correlative expressions in Maximus, cf. Paul Blowers, Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 156-65.

[7]Cf. Maximus’ Four Hundred Texts on Love, in The Philokalia, eds. and trans. Kallistos Ware et al., vol. 2 (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 48-113; Letter 2: On Love,in Maximus the Confessor,The Early Church Fathers, trans. Andrew Louth (Abingdon: Routledge, 1996), 84-93.For a systematic account of Maximus’ aretology and its foundations, see Demetrios Harper, Chapter 4, The Analogy of Love: St. Maximus the Confessor and the Foundations of Ethics(Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2018).

[8]See Maximus’ Quaestiones ad Thalassium I 40.60-70, Corpus Christianorum, Series Graeca 7, eds. C. Laga and C. Steele (Turnhout: Brepols, 1980), 269-71.

[9]Liber asceticus 100-115, CorpusChristianorum, Series Graeca40, ed. P. Van Deun (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000), 17. Cf. also the introduction to the Quaestiones ad Thalassium I 380-390, 39-41.

[10]Liber asceticus 100-110, 17. The translation is mine.

[11]Letter 2: On Love, 88.

[12]Cf. St. Maximus the Confessor’s Questions and Doubts III, 1, trans. Despina Prassas (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2010),156-57;Ambiguum 48.6,in On Difficulties in the Church Fathers II, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 29, ed. and trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 218-20.

[13]Liber asceticus 635-665, 73-74.