I offer, half-facetiously, another “option”: the “Remnuoth Option”1
In Letter 22, his famous advisory treatise to Eustochium, which contains his memorable account of his dream,2 Jerome specifies three types of monastic communities in Egypt: those of the coenobites, the anchorites, and the “Remnuoth.” He looks upon the latter somewhat, erm, unfavorably.
34. As I have mentioned the monks, and know that you like to hear about holy things, lend an ear to me for a few moments. There are in Egypt three classes of monks. First, there are the cœnobites, called in their Gentile language Sauses, or, as we should say, men living in a community. Secondly, there are the anchorites, who live in the desert, each man by himself, and are so called because they have withdrawn from human society. Thirdly, there is the class called Remoboth, a very inferior and little regarded type, peculiar to my own province, or, at least, originating there. These live together in twos and threes, but seldom in larger numbers, and are bound by no rule; but do exactly as they choose. A portion of their earnings they contribute to a common fund, out of which food is provided for all. In most cases they reside in cities and strongholds; and, as though it were their workmanship which is holy, and not their life, all that they sell is extremely dear. They often quarrel because they are unwilling, while supplying their own food, to be subordinate to others. It is true that they compete with each other in fasting; they make what should be a private concern an occasion for a triumph. In everything they study effect: their sleeves are loose, their boots bulge, their garb is of the coarsest. They are always sighing, or visiting virgins, or sneering at the clergy; yet when a holiday comes, they make themselves sick— they eat so much.
Indeed, it would be understating things somewhat to say that Jerome casts a jaundiced eye upon the third type of community; he is always one to take the invitation, or to offer it to himself, to “tell us what you really think.” Jerome had many qualities, but bashfulness was not one of them.
But one may justly regard his criticisms, or some of them, with suspicion. Jerome had his own monastic agenda, and appears to have considered himself something of a monastic impresario; communities that went about their business in a way different from what he would recommend were a threat to his prestige and authority, and they made his trigger-finger rather itchy. So there is nothing untoward in reading his comments against the grain. Indeed, Jerome’s polemic of self-regard often seems positively to beg for it. His criticisms here may be on point: the Remnuoth may have been the Christian hipster doofuses of their own day.3 Then again, maybe they weren’t, and so we might be excused for getting the salt out of the cupboard and the grain-measurer out of the utensil drawer.
In any event, my reason for drawing attention to them in this post is heuristic. What sets the Remnuoth apart from the other types of monastic communities he delineates (besides flagrant immorality, which, as I have said, I am going to treat with some skepticism on the present occasion) is that they do not withdraw from civic life. The coenobites form their own communities apart. The anchorites form their own communities of one. The Remnuoth, on the other hand, stay where they are. They have a measure of freedom, as they are bound by no rule, besides (presumably–and, again, for the purposes of this post) the rule of the gospel. They take no vow of poverty, but they do contribute from their resources to “a common fund, out of which food is provided for all.” They are apparently engaged in business and commerce. They take care of themselves. They seem to have a measure of independence not subject to clerical rule. They are comfortable with the opposite sex rather than hostile to it or anxious about it.4 They are festive.
What might we learn from the above? Perhaps that we can find models of faithful discipleship in history (or can imagine them, as I am doing here) that run counter our typical imagined Christian pasts: that is, in addition to models of the cloister and the separated few of the holy calling who inhabit them, we can find ways of being Christian–not simply half-Christian, secularized-Christian, worldly-Christian, but really and fully Christian–where we find ourselves right now, at this very moment. Perhaps that not everything of Christian value flows through official channels, whether Jerome’s or anyone else’s. Perhaps that there is much to be said for informal association, sodality, confraternity, a spiritual res publica benevolens fidei caritatisque, for the good of our brothers and sisters and for the good of the world for which we maintain good hope. The “Remnuoth Option” is, in other words, closely related to the “Diognetus Option,” and each has the benefit of being possible and attainable hic et nunc.
- The word is found as “Remoboth,” as in the text used for the translation below.
- I discuss it in overview in my essay in last year’s Convivium volume.
- John Cassian, in Conferences 18.7, lambastes what seems to be the same group, though he calls them Sarabaites.
- It is perhaps not accidental that Jerome shows them in open violation of what would later become standard monastic vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity. I am, as I have indicated, reading these criticisms against the grain to see what one might say positively about their practice.