04 December 2015

Remembering Holy Venerable and God-bearing Father John of Damascus

Saint John of Damascus (for a more in-depth biography see the Mystagogy blog), one of the most celebrated authors and hymnists of the early mediaeval Orthodox Church, lived at a time when the Byzantine Levant had been overrun by Muslim invaders. His family were Christian, and were some of the few in Damascus who did not convert to the new belief; however, the new Muslim caliph seems not to have minded overmuch, as he confirmed John’s father Sarkis Mansur in his appointment as the head of the tax department for Syria. However, John’s parents were desirous that he should be baptised and continue in the faith that they had received. When a particularly-learned Sicilian monk named Cosmas was captured by Muslim seafarers and brought to Damascus, Sarkis arranged for him to be freed and to start giving his sons tutelage in their home, in mathematics, grammar, rhetoric and philosophy. John took to his studies eagerly. His biographer cites him as rivalling Euclid in his grasp of geometry and Diophantus in algebra, and as the Holy Father’s corpus of writings shows, Cosmas’s teaching bore a number of very good fruits.

In the Eastern Roman Empire to the north, Leo the Isaurian had begun his campaign of overhauling the laws of Constantinople, and ordering that the holy images in public places be cut down and burnt. Many in the Church were incensed by this outrage the Emperor was committing against them, and John himself no less than those who lived under Leo. From the court of the caliph, John of Damascus wrote his three Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images; he wrote in a bold and God-inspired, but at the same time accessible style to appeal to the common subjects of Byzantium. His writing circulated amongst the Orthodox of Constantinople, who were roused to an equally bold defence of the holy ikons against the impious Emperor. Though he was beyond Leo’s legal grasp, Leo provoked the Caliph against his pious councillor by forging a letter in John’s name agreeing to betray the Caliph to Leo. Enraged, the Caliph ordered that Saint John’s titles be stripped from him, that his hand be cut off, and that the hand be hung in the public market.

John begged the Caliph to return his hand, and he brought it before an ikon of the Holy Theotokos, and begged her that his hand be healed, so that he might continue using it to write in defence of the Faith. Miraculously, as he slept, the Most Holy Theotokos visited him and rejoined his hand to his arm, enjoining him to continue writing for the sake of the Faith. Only a thin red band was left around his wrist showing where the hand had been severed. The Caliph repented of having maimed him and offered him his old position again, but John refused, instead giving everything he owned to the poor and accompanying his younger brother (also named Cosmas) to Jerusalem to become a monk.

When he entered the Holy Lavra of Saint Savas, because of his learning and high station, none of the monks save an old, stern and cantankerous elder dared to guide him as a spiritual father. To foster humility in John, this elder strictly forbade him from following his own will in anything, nor to make merry, nor to indulge any of his intellectual desires for learning, nor to impart any of his secular knowledge to anyone. John gladly accepted the elder’s rule. However, at one time his elder and master instructed him to take the baskets they had woven together into Damascus and sell them, and he specified a price well above their actual value, telling his disciple not to sell them for anything less. John went into his former hometown and sat in the street, unsuccessfully trying to sell these baskets; until at last he was recognised by a former steward of his household. Taking pity upon his former master, who had been reduced to a state of poverty, the steward bought all of his baskets at the marked-up price.

On another occasion, John was begged by a fellow monk to compose a funeral service for another who had departed this life. At first he refused, but being moved to pity by the distraught monk, he began to compose and sing to himself. His elder, hearing him singing, became angry at his disciple for having betrayed his vows, and flung him out of their cell. John knelt outside the cell for a long while, and the other monks of the monastery begged the elder to have mercy upon his disciple and admit him again, but the elder was unmoved. Only at length did the elder agree to forgive John after a penance: that he wash out all of the monastery’s chamber-pots and clean out all of its privies with his bare hands. This John agreed to do at once, and he never complained once as he set about his lowly task. But the Most Holy Theotokos prevailed over the elder to take his disciple back, and revealed to him that John would with the hand that she had once healed write beautiful psalms in praise of Christ and set forth the wondrous truths of His Church. At this, the elder received John back gratefully and asked his forgiveness, and besought him to lift up his voice mightily and relate what the Holy Spirit had inscribed in his heart.

Holy Father John stayed in the Holy Lavra of Saint Savas for the rest of his years, reposing on the 4th of December, 749; for his humility and for his hymns as well as for his profound writings, he is recognised as a saint in the Roman and English Churches as well as in the Orthodox Church. It was in his later years that he wrote his Oktoekhos and Canons, as well as the Fount of Knowledge, which contains a discourse on logic, a refutation of various heresies (including Islam) and the Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, an erudite Scholastic work of the highest calibre which has been of great spiritual and intellectual help to many generations of Orthodox believers (including the author of this blog).

Let us sing praises to John, worthy of great honor,
the composer of hymns, the star and teacher of the Church, the defender of her doctrines:
through the might of the Lord’s Cross he overcame heretical error
and as a fervent intercessor before God
he entreats that forgiveness of sins may be granted to all.

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