"Reaping Much Benefit" From Saint Maron's Teachings: Limnaeus and his Teacher Thalassius 

By Cornelia Horn 
Ph. D. student in the Early Christian Studies Program at The Catholic University of America.

Bishop Theodoret of Cyrrhus (AD 393-466) has most recently been called "the principle chronicler of the great Byzantine ascetics" and "the leading celebrity biographer of his day," (Dalrymple 1998: 157). In his famous Historia Religiosa, the fifth century AD collection of the lives of the monks of Syria, Bishop Theodoret also presents portraits of several disciples of Saint Maron. From among these monks Father Butros Dau (1984: 168) identifies fifteen men and three women as disciples of the "ascetic and spiritual school" of Saint Maron. As immediate disciples of Saint Maron, Bishop Theodoret mentions three people in his Historia Religiosa: James of Cyrrhestica (ch. 22), Limnaeus (ch. 23), and Domnina (ch. 30). James of Cyrrhestica and Limnaeus had become disciples of Saint Maron at about the same time (Historia Religiosa ch. 22.2). 

What these disciples had learned in the "ascetic and spiritual school" of Saint Maron, they later on practiced in a geographical area that extended from the borders of Asia Minor in the North, to the Syrian desert in the East, Lebanon in the South, and the Mediterranean in the West (Dau 1984: 170). In two previous articles in the Journal of Maronite Studies, Domnina (Hourani 1997) and James of Cyrrhestica (Horn 1998) were discussed as examples of male and female disciples of Saint Maron. The present contribution focuses on Saint Maron's third disciple, Limnaeus, and, in connection with him, on one of Limnaeus's earlier teachers, Thalassius. The lives of both of these monks illustrate what great fruits could be reaped from the spiritual seeds that Saint Maron had sown on fertile ground (cf. image of sowing and reaping seeds in Historia Religiosa, ch. 22.1). Thalassius and Limnaeus were both still alive when Bishop Theodoret wrote his Historia Religiosa in 444 AD (Sauget 1969: 104; Quasten 1994: 550). 

In ancient Mediterranean cities, the population often did not meet monks and ascetics with a warm welcome. Dalrymple (1998: 161 f.) points to literary sources that illustrate how these monks and ascetics often had to face harsh criticism and even violent attacks by the population, both from the pagan and the Christian sides. The pagan Libanius, a fourth century orator and philosopher in Antioch, described the monks as "blackrobed tribe who eat more than elephants, sweeping across the country like a river in spate ravaging the temples and the great estates" (quoted in Dalrymple 1998: 161-162). The leaders of the Christian communities also had a hard time trying to restrain their flock from beating up the holy ascetics or from attacking their dwelling-places. John Chrysostom, in one of his sermons, felt the need to complain that "wherever the people [of Antioch] gathered to gossip, you could find one man boasting that he was the first to beat up a monk, another that he had been the first to track down his hut, a third that he had spurred the magistrate into action against the Holy Men, a fourth that he had dragged them through the streets and seen them locked up in jail" (quoted in Dalrymple 1998: 162). In villages and further remote settlements in rural areas, however, ascetics of the kind that Bishop Theodoret describes were more popular.  Two of these ancient and remote villages, Tillima and Targalla, are mentioned by Bishop Theodoret in his portrait of Limnaeus and Thalassius. Unfortunately, scholars have up to this day not been able to locate the sites of these two places with sufficient certainty. 

With regard to the first village, Tillima, Bishop Theodoret expressly states that it was located in his region, i.e., the region around Cyrrhus. Honigmann (1924: 47, entry 470) only lists the name of the site. Canivet (1968: 5, n. 3) deplores that most of the sites and villages in the area around Cyrrhestica still cannot be precisely located . Most recently, however, I. Peña is convinced that he can identify Tillima as a site that is nowadays called Tellalak by Kurdish people, situated about 10 km south of Cyrrhus (Peña 1980: 287; referred to in AbouZayd 1993: 356). What is preserved of the ancient locality fits rather well with the description which Bishop Theodoret had given of the site when he says that "south of it is a ridge neither too rough nor too flat." 

To the south of the village of Tillima, Saint Thalassius, the first teacher of Saint Limnaeus, had built for himself an ascetic dwelling on top of a little hill. Canivet (1977: 195) thinks that it must have been sometime before 378 AD, i.e., during the last years of the reign of the Roman Emperor Valens that the founding of this ascetic dwelling-place took place. 

When discussing the life of James of Cyrrhestica (Horn 1998), it has already been pointed out how influential the sect of Marcion and his followers had been in Syria in the third, fourth, and still in the early fifth century AD . Marcion had been expelled from the Church for his distinction of two separate gods: a benign God, the Father of Jesus Christ; and the powerful, just Judge, the God of the Old Testament, the creator and lord of this world.(Aland 1992:523). Marcion's interferences with the text of Holy Scripture caused further dismay. Since the Marcionite communities persisted in the East with even greater vitality than in the West, they were vehemently refuted, especially by Ephrem the Syrian, Bishop Rabbula, and Bishop Theodoret of Cyrrhus. (Aland 1992: 524). Supported through the prayers and intercessions of holy ascetics like James of Cyrrhestica, Bishop Theodoret had been successful in converting eight villages back to the Catholic faith. At the time when Bishop Theodoret recounts the life of Thalassius, he is pleased to announce that the Marcionite heresy finally had been overcome in the region around Tillima. 

Theodoret's Historia Religiosa is the only source we have for Thalassius. From personal acquaintance and immediate experience with Thalassius, Bishop Theodoret had learned about his extraordinary virtues of simplicity, gentleness, and modesty (Historia Religiosa XXII.1; Ceillier 1861: 59-60), through which he distinguished himself above all the other solitairies of his time. The Greek word aploth which is here translated by "simplicity" is a quality of character that was said not to exist in heretics. It bespeaks singleness of mind and heart as an ordinary Christian virtue, and is used in the sense of "sincerity" and "guilelessness" (Lampe 1961: 186) The word also designates an advanced stage of the spiritual life and is as such closely connected with humility(1). Simplicity was the hermit's proper response to all the artifice he saw in the world. (AbouZayd 1993: 197) . Among Bishop Theodoret's ascetic heroes, Romanus also was known for his simplicity. (Historia Religiosa 11). Bishop Theodoret further praises Thalassius for his praoth, a word which can be translated by gentleness or mildness. This virtue is especially pleasing to God as John Chrysostom says in his homilies on the Gospel of John (Lampe 1961: 1128). In disputes, John Chrysostom found gentleness to be more effective than fierceness(2). Repeatedly, the Fathers emphasize gentleness as one of the important virtues that should be practiced and cultivated especially by members of the clergy, by bishops, and by emperors (Lampe 1961: 1128). The third virtue, in which Thalassius excelled, is fronhmato metrioth, i.e., modesty or humility of thought. These three virtues taken together come quite close to fulfilling a demand put upon every baptized Christian by the author of a third century Syriac ascetic document, the Acts of Thomas. In this document it is clearly emphasized that the life of the new man or woman in Christ, i.e., the life of the baptized believer, needs to be characterized by striving for purity, temperance, and humility(3)

Bishop Theodoret does not provide any further information about Thalassius. This is to be regretted; but since Thalassius had already been described as one who has come close to the summit of perfection for which a Christian should strive, Theodoret had sufficiently characterized Thalassius as a suitable teacher and master for Limnaeus. For a proper introduction into the practice of the ascetic life, it was indispensible for the newcomer to the ascetical life to receive instruction from a teacher or master and thus to become a disciple in an ascetic school. The master, being advanced in age, experience, and wisdom, would provide an example of maturity in the eremitic life for those under his direction as Bishop Theodoret clearly states in his description of the life of Theodosius (Historia Religiosa 10.2). 

As was the case with Thalassius so also it is with Limnaeus. Theodoret's Historia Religiosa is the only source we have for his life. When still a very young boy, Limnaeus had received training in absolute silence from his first teacher, Thalassius. For long periods of time, he would live without speaking a single word to anyone. Douglas Burton-Christie has remarked about the Egyptian desert fathers and mothers that they were greatly concerned about words but also attached considerable importance to the keeping of silence in their lives in the desert. "Silence not only prevented one from using language in a harmful way but also provided the fertile ground out of which words of power could grow and through which these words could bear fruit in lives of holiness." (Burton-Christie 1993: 135.) Burton-Christie's observation can also explain why silence was valuable for ascetics in Bishop Theodoret's church province around Cyrrhus, and why it was practiced especially by Saint Limnaeus. Apollonius of Tyana, whose life was described by Philostratus, was known for keeping silent for a period of five full years (Festugière 1959: 303, n. 1). 

Once Limnaeus had learned everything there was to learn from Thalassius and had become like "an impress of his virtue", Limnaeus left Thalassius's ascetical community and together with James of Cyrrhestica joined Saint Maron, through whom both became acquainted with open-air asceticism. James of Cyrrhestica would develop this style of asceticism to extremes (Horn 1998). But also Limnaeus embraced this particular ascetic practice whole-heartedly: and at the time when Bishop Theodoret was writing his Historia Religiosa in 444 AD, both James of Cyrrhestica and Limnaeus had already completed their thirty-eighth year of open-air contest (Historia Religiosa, 22.7 end). According to Prize (1985: 153, n. 2), Limnaeus had started his open-air life-style in 402 AD. This dating seems to conflict somewhat with the information given just a few lines above unless one assumes that Limnaeus lived for about four years under the direction and guidance of his second teacher, Saint Maron. Theodoret's counting of years would then only start after James and Limnaeus had taken up their own, individual and independent dwelling places for open-air asceticism. Theodoret himself did not know Maron personally, but learned about him through James of Cyrrhestica and Limnaeus, with whom he often met (Festugière 1959: 299). 

Honigmann (1924: 42, entry 443) believes that the village which Theodoret names Targala kwmh is in other sources called cwrion Tarcwla or cwrionT ercala , since a change in consonant from g to c can also be observed in other instances of topographical designations for areas in northern Syria in ancient times. It has, unfortunately, not yet been possible to identify a place by either one of the suggested names. For the moment, one needs to content oneself, therefore, with the information Theodoret provides, namely, that after his time with Saint Maron, Limnaeus dwelled on top of a hill in the environs of a village named Targalla and did not allow access to his enfenced but un-roofed dwelling place to anyone besides Bishop Theodoret who came by for occasional visits. Other people only were allowed to talk to the saint through a window. 

Imitating Christ in their lives was one of the strongest incentives for ascetics in the Syrian Church to take up all the labors and hardships that their life-style demanded from them. They gave up everything because of Christ. Many of the Old Testament Prophets and especially the Apostles in the New Testament times functioned likewise as examples that could be followed. In the account of the life of Saint Limnaeus, Bishop Theodoret points out how Limnaeus imitated the apostles in his miracle-working by using the name of the Savior (Historia Religiosa, ch. 22.3). By having recourse to the divine name, Limnaeus also is able to bring relief to those who are possessed by demons and to bring healing to the sick. 

When ascetics are able to bring healing and soothing of pain to the sick or freedom from demonic inflictions to the possessed, it is repeatedly pointed out by Bishop Theodoret that this was not achieved by the ascetics through any of their own powers. Rather, they only acted as instruments of God who worked in and for man through man. Theodoret emphasizes this particular awareness in the lives of several of his ascetic men, and also in the Life of Limnaeus (Historia Religiosa 22.3; cf. Andès-Canivet 1967: 151). The most common means used are the Sign of the Cross, prayer for healing or deliverance, and invocation. 

It was not  uncommon for ascetics to be confronted with temptations by Satan who would often appear disguised as a serpent or snake (AbouZayd 1993: 173). One of the best weapons in such cases was for the ascetic to make the Sign of the Cross over the beast and it would disappear or dissolve into smoke. AbouZayd (1993: 173-4) has gathered several stories about such occurrences from the Life of Symeon the Stylite. When Bishop Theodoret relates the incident of Limnaeus stepping on a viper and being bitten several times in his heel and hand by the beast, there is no explicit connection made between the viper and Satan. Yet, the fact that Theodoret speaks of the "anger of the beast" and "its rage" might well suggest that for him, the viper is at least an agent of Satan sent out against this holy man. In order to make it clear that this struggle with the viper actually illustrates a contest on a higher level between God and the powers of evil, it is emphasized by Theodoret that Limnaeus did not seek any medical help against the bites and the bitter pain but relied exclusively on faith as remedy, and applied to his wounds the Sign of the Cross, prayer, and invocation to  God to achieve healing (HR 22.5). 

There is another possible explanation for Limnaeus having to fight against the viper. Usually it was thought that hermits and lay Christians who had to fight with Satan disguised as wild beast were actually fighting against their own sins (AbouZayd 1993: 179). The need for ongoing combat illustrated that the respective person had not yet fully overcome their own sins and, according to Ignatius of Antioch in his Letter to the Ephesians (1.1), still had to learn how to be a real disciple of Christ. For Ignatius, this meant that when fighting with the wild beasts in the arena in Rome, he actually would be given a privileged way of proving himself as Christ's disciple and suffer martyrdom in that way. In the particular case of Limnaeus, Bishop Theodoret interprets the combat with the viper as a special grace from God who thus revealed the distinguished and exceptional level of endurance which Limnaeus had obtained. By comparing Limnaeus with the biblical prophet Job, the example par excellence of patient endurance in situations of undeserved suffering and pain, the reader's impression of Limnaeus as a new model of endurance for the ascetic communities is greatly enhanced. 

Limnaeus was not only a model of endurance. He also was a model of compassion for those who suffered and were in need. Among his concrete efforts to remedy their difficult situations was the founding of two hospices for the blind and the beggars. Adnès and Canivet (1967: 152) point out that the only instance in the whole of the Historia Religiosa where two hospices for the needy and blind are mentioned is here in the account of the Life of Limnaeus. The hospices were located east and west of Limnaeus's own enfenced dwelling place; and food and sustenance for those living there was provided upon his request in the form of alms brought along by the numerous visitors he attracted (see also Schiwietz 1938: 251). Festugière (1959: 316, n. 1) cautions that these two places must not be confused with monasteries in the more strict sense of the word as the dwelling places of ascetics. However, the question cannot really be decided so easily. The range of meaning of the word katagwgion which Bishop Theodoret employs extends from shelter, stopping-place, inn, or abode to monastic cell or monastic house and is used at another instance in the Historia Religiosa (3.1149) to describe the guest house of a monastery (Lampe 1961: 706).  In a very special way these hospices or monastic guest houses for the blind and needy were proof that hospitality had been given to Limnaeus as a gift from God.  Limnaeus encouraged all the inhabitants to sing praises, psalms, and hymns to God, their Master, and thus to return thanks to the Lord for what they had received. And this is certainly a very characteristic element of the daily life of ascetics and monks proper. Limnaeus also put the talents given to him to good use, and could in his mature years reap the fruits of many men gathered around his dwelling place who would praise the Lord in one accord with him. 

Fr. Devos observed that one of the structural principles applied by Theodoret of Cyrrhus in the composition of his Historia Religiosa is to center several individual shorter portraits of monks and ascetics around a single, outstanding individual (Devos 1979: 319). The present couple Thalassius and Limnaeus are a very good illustration of this principle, with Limnaeus as the main character and Thalassius a supportive figure. Fr. Devos has demonstrated that, in fact, there are further ascetic figures grouped around the central Limnaeus, namely John and Moses, who are the heroes of chapter 23. One can see that in comparison to most of the other chapters in the Historia Religiosa , the text of chapter 22 lacks a proper ending (Devos 1979: 327) and chapter 23 does not have a beginning that would be in line with the opening formulas of other chapters (ibidem), so that Fr. Devos concluded that these two chapters were intended as a single unit by Theodoret. What is commonly treated as a separate chapter 23 in the manuscripts, Theodoret had originally composed as part of chapter 22 to provide further examples of ascetics who, in the footsteps of Limnaeus--and the main hero of open-air asceticism, James of Cyrrhestica, in ch. 21-- lived their ascetic lives out in the open-air without protection. 

The following English translation is taken from R. M. Price,  A History of the Monks of Syria by Theodoret of Cyrrhus(4)



Thalassius, Limnaeus, John

XXII. 1. Tillima is a village in our region, which formerly received the seeds of the impiety of Marcion, but now enjoys cultivation by the Gospel. South of it is a ridge neither too rough nor too flat; here an ascetic dwelling was built by the wonderful Thalassius, a man adorned with many other good qualities, but surpassing the men of his time in simplicity of character, gentleness, and modesty of spirit. I say this, not relying on hearsay alone, but having had experience; for I visited the man and often enjoyed his sweet company.

2. In his choir was enrolled Limnaeus, now celebrated by all. At a very young age he entered this wrestling-school and received a fine education in this consummate philosophy. At first, knowing the treachery of the tongue, he imposed on it a rule of silence while still an adolescent, and continued for as long as possible saying nothing to anyone. When he had received sufficiently the teaching of the godly old man and made himself an impress of his virtue, he came to the great Maron, whom we recalled above--he came at the same time as the godly James. After reaping much benefit from there again, and keenly embracing the open-air life, he repaired to another hill-top, lying above a village called Targalla. 

3. Here he has continued till today, without a cell or tent or hut, but fenced round by a bare wall built of stones and not joined with clay. It has a small door always sealed with mud, which he never opens to other visitors, but allows me alone to open when I visit him. For this reason, very many gather from all over when they hear of my arrival, desiring to share my entry. To those who visit him at other times he speaks through a small window and gives his blessing, by this means bestowing health on very many; by using the name of our Saviour he ends diseases, drives out demons, and imitates the miracle-working of the Apostles.

4. Not only to those who come to him does he pour out healing, but he has often applied it to his own body also. Some time ago he was assailed by the disease of the gripes. The agonizing pain this causes is known precisely both by those who have experienced it and by those who have been witnesses of it: they roll about like lunatics, turning over on this side and on that, at the same time stretching out and then bending back their legs. At various times they sit, stand, and walk, endeavoring to find some means of repose; and for this reason they sit by baths and often go into them, to enjoy some relief. But why should I describe at length what is known and manifest to all? Struggling with this disease and afflicted with pains of this kind and magnitude, he benefited from no medical help, could not endure a bed, and got no relief from medicines or food; but seated on a plank lying on the ground, he received treatment by prayer and the Sign of the Cross, and lulled his pains by the spell of the divine name.

5. On another occasion, when walking at night, he stepped with his heel on a sleeping viper, which caught the flat of his foot and inserted its teeth. Trying to protect his foot, he stooped down and moved his hand to it, which merely transferred to his hand the mouth of the beast. When he then used his left hand to help the other one, he attracted the anger of the beast against it as well. When it had satisfied its rage--it had inflicted on him more than ten bites--  it departed and went to its hole, while he was afflicted with bitter pains all over. But not even on this occasion did he accept medical skill, but applied to his wounds the remedies only of faith--the Sign of the Cross, prayer, and invocation of God. 

6. I am therefore of the opinion that the God of the universe allowed the beast to rage against his sacred body in order to reveal undisguised the endurance of this godly soul. We see this same dispensation of His in the case of noble Job. He allowed him to be submerged by many and varied waves, through a wish to display to all the wisdom of the pilot. How else could we know the courage of the one and the endurance of the other, if the adversary of piety had not been given room to shoot all kinds of arrows against them? Therefore this is sufficient to teach the endurance of the man.

7. Let us from a different indication show his humanity: he gathered together many who were deprived of their sight and had been compelled to beg. Building dwellings on both sides, east and west, he invited them to live there and sing hymns to God, telling those who visited him to supply the food they needed. He himself, immured in the middle, exhorts both groups to hymnody. It is possible to hear them hymning the Master continually; and he continues to show such humanity towards his fellow-men. The length of time of open-air contests has been the same both in his case and in that of the great James; they have already completed their thirty-eighth year.

XXIII. 1. John too has keenly embraced this mode of life, a man conspicuous, in addition to other virtues, for gentleness and kindness. Repairing to a jagged ridge, prone to storms and northward-facing, he has now spent twenty-five years there, exposed to the contrasting assaults of the atmosphere. All the other things--not to proceed through them individually-- food and clothing and loads of iron, are much the same as with the ascetics described above. He is so raised above all human things that he reaps no comfort from them. Clear proof of this I shall provide at once. When some well-meaning person planted an almond-tree right by his bed, which then with time became a tree, providing him with shade and feasting his eyes, he ordered it to be cut down, to stop him enjoying any relief therefrom.

2. This life has also been embraced by Moses, who contends on a high hill-top surmounting the village of Rama, by Antiochus, an elderly man who has built an enclosure on a quite uninhabited mountain, and by Antoninus, who in an aged body contends just as youths do. They have the same dress, food, standing posture, prayer, labors all night and all day; neither length of time nor old age nor physical weakness overcome their endurance, but they preserve in themselves love of labor in full bloom. God, the Umpire of virtue, has very many other contestants in our mountains and plains; it would not be easy merely to number them, let alone record the life of each one. So having offered sufficient benefit from them for those who wish to profit, I shall turn to a different class of narration, while asking to receive the blessing of these men as well.

The feast day of Thalassius and Limnaeus is celebrated on February 22 (Baudot and Chaussin 1936: 456).


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Acta Sanctorum, Februarii, tom. III. "De SS. Thalassio et Limnaeo Anachoretis Juxta Cyrum in Syria." pp. 295-296. 

Adnès, André and Pierre Canivet. "Guérisons miraculeuses et exorcismes dans l'"Histoire Philothée" de Théodoret de Cyr." Revue de l'Histoire des Religions 171 (1967) 53-82, 149-179. 

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Baudot and Chaussin, Vies des Saints et des Bienheureux selon l'ordre du Calendrier avec l'historique des fêtes, Paris, Librairie Letouzey et Ané (1936). 

Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca, vol. 2, p. 266, entry 1706. 

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Canivet, Pierre. "L'Emplacement du Monastère de S. Théodose de Rhôsos au Skopélos," Byzantion 38 (1968), pp. 5-17. 

Canivet, Pierre. Le monachisme syrien selon Théodoret de Cyr, series: Théologie Historique 42, Paris (1977). 

Canivet, Pierre and A. Leroy-Molinghen, Théodoret de Cyr. L'histoire des Moines de Syrie, Sources Chrétiennes, vols. 234 and 257, Paris (1977-79). 

Ceillier, Remy. Histoire Générale des Auteurs Sacrés et Ecclésiastiques, volume 10, Paris (1861). 

Dalrymple, William. From the Holy Mountain. A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East. Henry Holt and Company, New York (1998). 

Dau, Butros. Religious, Cultural and Political History of the Maronites, Lebanon (1984). 

Devos, Paul. "La Structure de l'Histoire Philothée de Théodoret de Cyr," Analecta Bollandiana 97 (1979), 319-336. 

Festugière, A.-J. Antioche Païenne et Chrétienne - Libanius, Chrysostome et les Moines de Syrie, Paris (1959). 

Honigmann, Ernst. "Historische Topographie von Nordsyrien im Altertum," Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 46 (1923), 149-193; 47 (1924) 1-64. 

Horn, Cornelia. "James of Cyrrhestica, a Disciple of St. Maron," Journal of Maronite Studies [http://www.maroniteinstitute.org/jms/january98] Vol. 2, no. 1 (1998). 

Hourani, Guita. "Domnina: A Female Disciple of Saint Maron," Journal of Maronite Studies [http://www.maroniteinstitute.org/jms/april97] Vol. 1, no. 4 (1997). 

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Quasten, Johannes. Patrology, vol. 3: The Golden Age of Greek Patristic Literature from the Council of Nicaea to the Council of Chalcedon, reprinted by Christian Classics, Inc.: Westminster, Maryland (1994). [On Theodoret of Cyrrhus see pp. 536-554.] 

Sauget, Joseph-Marie. "Talassio e Limneo," Bibliotheca Sanctorum 12 (1969), 104-105. 

Schiwietz, Stephan. Das morgenländische Mönchtum, vol. : Das Mönchtum in Syrien und Mesopotamien und das Aszetentum in Persien, Missionsdruckerei St. Gabriel, Mödling bei Wien, 1938. 

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(1) For example by John Climacus, Ladder 4 and 24 (PG 88.688B and PG88.981A). |Back to Text|

(2) See Chrysostom's homily 6.2 on 2 Tim as referred to in Lampe, Lexikon, 1128. |Back to Text|

(3) Klijn, Acts of Thomas, ch. 132. |Back to Text|

(4) The following English translation of chapter 22-23 of the Historia Religiosa is the one by R. M. Price, published in: A History of the Monks of Syria by Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Cistercian Studies Series 88, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, Michigan (1985), pp. 150-153. |Back to Text|

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