Saint John Damascene

Pourer of the Golden Treasure of the Faith

    The seventeenth Doctor in this series on the Doctors of the Church was the most remarkable of the Greek writers of the 8th century. He stood up strongly to false doctrines. He led the defenders of the orthodox Catholic faith against the iconoclast movement of the Byzantine regime. He was known as the last of the Greek Fathers and one whom greatly inspired the Angelic Doctor several centuries later. He was Saint John of Damascene.

    In the year 676, as Mohammedanism was making its mark in the Holy Land, Saint John Damascene was born into a wealthy Christian-Arab family. His mother was Catholic, his father Mansur a Moslem. His father was also a civil authority who converted to Christianity amid the Saracens of Damascus, whose caliph made him his minister. This enlightened man found in the public square one day, amid a group of sad Christian captives, a priest of Italian origin who had been condemned to slavery. The monk was named Cosmas, a slave bought by John's father during a Moslem raid in Sicily. Mansur ransomed Cosmas and assigned him to his young son to be his tutor. Young John made extraordinary progress in grammar, dialectic, mathematics, music, poetry, astronomy, but above all in theology, the discipline imparting knowledge of God. John became famous for his encyclopedic knowledge and theological method, later a source of inspiration to Saint Thomas Aquinas.

    When his father died, the caliph made of him his principal counselor, his Grand Vizier. Thus it was through Saint John Damascene that the advanced sciences made their apparition among the Arab Moslems, who had burnt the library of Alexandria in Egypt; it was not the Moslems who instructed the Christians, as was believed for some time in Europe. Saint John vigorously opposed the ferocious Iconoclast persecution instigated by the Emperor of Constantinople, Leo the Isaurian. He distinguished himself, with Saint Germain, Patriarch of Constantinople, in the defense of the veneration of sacred images.

    In the early 700's Leo the Isaurian released a decree condemning the veneration of images. John knew it was a direct assault on Catholicism and he refuted all the Emperor had decreed which naturally drew the wrath of the Byzantine rulers who wanted to silence him, but they were prevented because John was under the Caliph's protection and rule.

    The Emperor, irritated, himself conjured up a plot against John. A letter was forged, signed with Saint John’s name, and addressed to himself, the Emperor of Constantinople, offering to deliver up the city of Damascus to him. That letter was then transmitted by the Emperor to the Caliph of Damascus, advising him as a “good neighbor” should do, that he had a traitor for minister. Although Saint John vigorously defended himself against the charge, he was condemned by the Caliph to have his right hand cut off. The severed hand, by order of the Caliph, was attached to a post in a public square. But Saint John obtained the hand afterwards, and invoked the Blessed Virgin in a prayer which has been preserved; he prayed to be able to continue to write the praises of Her Son and Herself. The next morning when he awoke, he found his hand joined again to the arm, leaving no trace of pain, but only a fine red line like a bracelet, marking the site of the miracle.

    The Saint was reinstated afterwards to the favor of the local prince, but he believed that Heaven had made it clear he was destined to serve the Church by his writings. He therefore distributed his property and retired soon thereafter to the monastery of Saint Sabas near Jerusalem. Even though Leo's successor, the Emperor Constantine Copronymus denounced John at a false synod he convened in Constantinople, the Patriarch John V still ordained John in 726.

    St. John Damascene spent most of his remaining years in apologetic writings and prayer at the Monastery of St. Sabas. Occasionally he left to console the Christians of Syria and Palestine and strengthen them, even going to Constantinople in the hope of obtaining martyrdom there. However, he was able to return to his monastery.

    Known as both a poet and theologian, John wrote his famous The Fount of Knowledge, translated into Latin with the title De Fide Orthodoxa. It had the most profound effect on theology for centuries. Teaming up with the Patriarch John V and Pope Gregory II, St. John defended the faith and the right to use images and icons of Our Lord, Our Lady and the saints with the beautiful rationale, "It is not the material that we honor but what it represents: the honor paid to images goes to the one who is represented by the image." He wrote countless works including poems still used in the Greek liturgy. The Greeks called him "Chrysoorhoas" which meant "pouring forth gold" since his words were a treasure so profound to those who heard them. John's peaceful death at the monastery at St. Sabas, at the ripe age of 104, on December 4, 779 marked the end of the Greek Fathers of the Church. He was buried near the door of the monastery church in 780.

    1111 years later, on the same December date in 1890, Pope Leo XIII proclaimed John Damascene a Doctor of the Church adding his feast to the Roman Calendar for March 27th.

Note: [editor's bold, brackets and italicized for emphasis] Some of the sources taken from: Les Petits Bollandistes: Vies des Saints, by Msgr. Paul Guérin (Bloud et Barral: Paris, 1882), Vol. 5; The Catholic Encyclopedia, edited by C. G. Herbermann with numerous collaborators (Appleton Company: New York, 1908).

Feast of St. John Damascene on March 27