Word Magazine April 1964 Page 5-9
ST. JOHN OF DAMASCUS
A Compendium on the Life and Works of St. John of Damascus Prepared On The Occasion Of The 55th Anniversary Of The Founding Of The Parish Of St. John Of Damascus Boston, Massachusetts,
December 4th, 1962
Prepared by: ARCHPRIEST PAUL W. MOSES
No brief work, such as this, can pretend to do justice to so great a champion of our faith as St. John of Damascus. Therefore, it is proper at the outset to acquaint the reader of this paper with certain facts.
Only two churches in the entire world, to our knowledge, are dedicated to St. John the Damascene. One is in his native city of Damascus, and the other is in Boston, Mass., U.S.A. He is commemorated, however, in all Orthodox churches on December 4th. The purpose here is to introduce, so to speak, members of our faith to this great patron of our church.
Most writings about St. John of Damascus are written in foreign languages such as Latin, Arabic, French, and German; and very few works in the English language give much account of him. He is known variously as Johannes Damascenus, Johannes von Damaskus, John Chrysorroas (golden flow), and John the monk of St. Saba. These names may be used during the course of this paper.
In reading, one must understand that a person as great and as important as Saint John is often given credit for writing many things which he really may not have written. In the process of research it is learned that many hymns and sermons and other works have been attributed to him, but which are doubted as authentically done by him. Experts feel that literary style, characteristic expressions, mode of spiritual interpretation, historical facts, and other factors rule many of these out completely. Perhaps it is just as well, for often these doubted works are unable to reflect in a good way. On the other hand, it must also be considered that not all of his manuscripts were found; and there must undoubtedly be many works by him lost to the world forever. However the case may be, his accomplishments are tremendous and marvelous; and have earned for him a place of high honor forever in the Orthodox Faith.
We hope that this short paper is received by Orthodox Christians and others who read it as enthusiastically as it was prepared; and that it will bring some measure of enjoyment to all.
On His Biography
Only one biography was ever written about St. John of Damascus; and even that is not really satisfactory. It was written by one John Patriarch of Jerusalem, almost two hundred years after the lifetime of our patron. The author of this only existing biography lived in the 10th century, and was put to death by the Saracens around the year 969 AD. Therefore we must assume that he wrote according to certain documents which he had at his disposal, filling in the blank portions with his own turgid, rhetorical style. Patriarch John embodied all the rude and fragmentary accounts of our patron saint, which he had found preserved in the Arabic; and added his own reverend (possibly imaginative) account of what St. John must have been like. Since it is the nearest approach to St. John’s contemporary life that has ever been written, the abstract of this biography is here given.
(According To Patriarch John of Jerusalem)
St. John the Damascene was a brilliant star in the ecclesiastical firmament, shining with steady rays in the dark night of heresy. He was a champion of the faith, who refused to flee from the roaring turbulence existing in the church during his lifetime. He was a citizen of a great city. His city of Damascus was famed for its beautiful gardens and its rushing streams. Its streets had been trodden by the great Saint Paul, when he first became a Christian. It had given birth to many noble men; but none more wise or more worthy than John. Like fragrant flowers in the midst of thorns, such had been his forefathers amid the infidel conquerors of Damascus. Like Joseph or Daniel, their virtues had won for them the respect of their unbelieving rulers. They had been stewards in high trust among the Saracens.
As the father of John the Baptist had been a faithful servant of God, so was Sergius, the father of St. John. He was a man in high office, being appointed to administer the public affairs throughout the entire country. He was very wealthy; but he devoted all his riches to the good work of ransoming Christian captives, and enabling them to find subsistence in the land to which they had been brought as slaves. His son was born during the year 676 AD.; and was baptized John after the great Baptist, even though baptizing one’s child in those days risked the displeasure of the ruling powers, the Saracens. As John grew up he was taught, not to hunt or shoot with the bow, or ride, or throw the spear; but rather he was trained in things more fitted for his future calling. Facilities were limited in Damascus during the years of John’s youth, and his education was interrupted when he completed all the learning available from the teachers at hand. Nothing was more desired by his father than a good tutor for his son. Providence – in due time brought him just what he desired.
One day, among the captives which were brought into the slave market at Damascus, there was an Italian monk. His name was Cosmas. This simple monk had such a reverend air about him and such a hearing of sincere love of God, that his fellow-prisoners were throwing themselves at his feet, begging him to bless them and to pray for them in their distress. It was no wonder that his captors were impressed with this old man. Sergius, St. John’s father, was standing by (for he often came to try to help these captives, especially when they were Christians), and he observed what was happening. The monk was evidently scheduled to be executed since he was too old for any physical labor. Sergius saw the poor monk’s eyes filled with tears as he blessed and prayed for the others; and he drew near to question him. He learned that Cosmas did not fear death for its own sake, but he was distressed for the loss it would bring of all the learning he had painfully acquired. The wide knowledge of the Stagirite, the philosophy of Plato, all the stores of Grecian learning and theology were as an inheritance which he had laboriously won, and would now be lost by his death for want of a heir to succeed to it. Such a heir, such an intellectual son, he himself had not had the opportunity of finding. Here, it was evident, was the very tutor for whom the father had so long searched. Sergius hastened with all speed to the caliph Abd al Malek, and obtained permission to set the monk Cosmas free. The old monk rejoiced; and gladly agreed to undertake to continue the education of John, and along with him a foster-brother also named Cosmas.
Under their new tutor and his excellent instruction, the two young men made wonderful progress. In the science of numbers they vied with Pythagoras and Diophantus. In geometry they were almost as Euclids. Also with harmony, astronomy, and the other sciences they excelled greatly. Into all these, and into the “queen” of all, theology, John penetrated with an intellectual vision as keen as the glance of the eagle when it meets the sun; and his foster-brother Cosmas (the younger) was also a brilliant companion in this learning. Years passed, and the time came when their tutor had imparted all he knew to the young students; and he felt that his work was done. With deep regret he resigned his office, and asked permission to retire once more into a monastery. He chose the laura of St. Sabas, and there spent the remainder of his life.
When John’s father died, he (known at that time as John Mansour) was called to the court of the caliph. He was placed in a very high office, even higher than his father had occupied, being made protosymbulus, or chief councilor, the equivalent of “visir”. We must understand that during the occupation of the Saracens it was not unusual to have Christians as holders of high office in government, because they were often the only persons educated well enough to handle the important affairs of state. It was during these years of his public office that the great controversy on Image-worship broke out.
The Emperor Leo the Isaurian, the “roaring lion”, had issued his first edict against the practice (AD. 726). John, privy-councilor of Damascus, could not remain silent. He girded up his loins to the contest with a zeal like that of Elias in the days of Ahab. To arouse the orthodox faithful to resistance, he sent out circular letters to be passed from hand to hand among the Christians. This roused the anger of the emperor. Since John was under the citizenship of the Saracens, and not the Roman empire, the emperor was unable to crush John by force of his imperial power. This might incur the wrath of his hostile enemy the caliph. Leo, therefore, refrained from this course of action. Instead, he used a stratagem. He had someone intercept one of the autographed letters of John of Damascus, and placed it in the hands of his scribes, that they might familiarize themselves with the form of the characters and the rudiments of expression. He then had them concoct a letter, in imitation of John’s writing. He had the letter appear to be addressed to himself (Emperor Leo), in which John was shown to propose a treasonable surrender of Damascus to troops of the emperor. According to this forged letter, the Saracen guard at Damascus was weak and negligently kept, and if Leo would dispatch a band of resolute men he would capture the city with little trouble. John (so the letter ran) would aid in bringing about such a result. This forged letter, with another from the emperor himself, was then forwarded to the caliph. “Let the caliph beware of his Christian subjects, when such were the proposals they were capable of making.”
When the caliph received this letter, he summoned John at once, and the letter was shown to him. John admitted that the writing was similar, but indignantly denied the authorship of it. His denial was in vain, and his appeal for a chance to prove his innocence was refused. The sentence was given that his offending right hand should be chopped off. This was done; and that same hand, which was previously dipped in ink in defense of the truth, was now dipped in blood. When evening came, the pain of the wound became intolerable; and John ventured to petition the caliph for restitution of the amputated member, that it might receive burial, instead of being left hanging in the market place. Such rites of interment might bring him the relief they did to Archytas. The desired request was granted, and the hand sent back. Then John, prostrating himself before an Icon of the Blessed Virgin in his private chapel, poured out his soul in supplication, praying that the hand which he placed against his mutilated arm might grow again
to the limb from which it had been severed. He fell asleep, worn out with pain and weariness, and in a dream beheld the Holy Virgin signifying that his prayer had been heard. The vision came true. On starting up he found his hand to be indeed restored whole as the other.
The news of this miracle soon reached the ear of the caliph. Again John was summoned to his presence, and strictly questioned. His enemies tried in vain to explain it away; but the red line showing where the knife had cut still remained visible, and no earthly physician could h a v e wrought such a work of healing. The caliph was not only convinced that this was a miracle, but he pleaded with John to resume his former office as privy-councilor. But John sincerely asked to retire from public affairs, and his ruler yielded. And so . . . having disposed of all his worldly goods (which was much by way of wealth) he set out, accompanied by his foster-brother Cosmas, for the convent of St. Sabas, situated on the south side of the “Wady en-Nar” (Valley of Fire) some distance from the outskirts of Damascus.
On arriving there he was lovingly received by the abbot; but, for a while none of the inmates would undertake the task of training so distinguished a novice. At last an aged monk was found willing. Taking the new-comer with him to his cell, he taught him the first principles of monastic obedience: to do nothing of his own private will, to pray incessantly to God, to let his tears wash out the stains of bygone sins. Hardest of all these, was the injunction to write to no one, to keep silence even from good words, and to remember the precepts of Pythagoras. A less earnest spirit might have broken down under such probation: but John was not one to flinch. The seed of instruction was falling, in this case, neither among thorns nor on the rock, but into good ground. Yet harder trials still remained. The old monk bade him load his shoulders with baskets made by the monks of the convent, and to go with them to Damascus. There he was to offer them for sale at double their value, and on no account to lower his price. With the fondness of Oriental nations for driving a bargain, this fixedness of price would expose the vendor to abuse and ill-usage. But, undaunted, the once privy-councilor of Damascus trudged on under his burden, till he reached the streets of his old city. There he braved for hours the jeers and ridicule of all such as asked the price of his wares. At last, a former acquaintance, recognizing him in his squalid clothing, bought all the baskets out of compassion, and the novice returned unvanquished to his task-master.
On another occasion, the brother of one of the monks who had died besought John to prepare a funeral hymn, as consolation to his feelings. At first John was afraid to comply with this request, for he feared transgressing the command of his superior: but at last he yielded to the mourner’s plea, and composed a short dirge:
“All mortal things are vanity and exist not after death. Riches endure not, neither doth glory accompany on the way; For when death cometh, all these things vanish utterly . . . etc.”
When the old monk, who was John’s instructor, heard the sound of music, he angrily reprimanded the novice and expelled him, as an insubordinate, from his cell. The other monks interceded, but for a long time the elder was obdurate, and would listen to none of their pleas. At last he consented to name a penance as the condition of receiving the offender back: but it was such a humiliating one, involving a menial labour so degrading, that the very monks themselves stood aghast. John, however, had no scruples. He had felt as one driven from Paradise, and no servile labour should count too base for him, if only he might find the gate of entrance open again. Thus he won the admiration of all, even of his severe teacher.
The time soon came when the probation might cease. The old monk was warned by the Blessed Virgin in a dream, to check no longer the outpouring of a spirit of song in his gifted pupil. The hymns of John Damascene were to be a joy of the whole Church, surpassing even the Song of Moses and the choral minstrelsy of Miriam. His exposition of the Faith, his refutation of heresies, would be as pillars of support on which the Church might lean. Thus admonished, the monk called John to him, and bade him give free course to the inspiration by which he was moved.
Thus set free at last, and with those pursuits now sanctioned to which he was by nature inclined, John gave full play to his voice and to his pen. Now were composed the great works on which his fame as a writer will forever rest: His “Fons Scientiae” (Fountain of Knowledge), his sermons, his hymns. In all of these he had, during the years, a great friend and adviser in his companion, the younger Cosmas, who was himself a fine poet and composer of hymns. In about the year 743 A.D. Cosmas was promoted to be Bishop of Maiuma, near Gaza in Palestine, and had to leave the monastery and his friend. John himself had already been ordained to the holy priesthood some years before his foster-brother was made Bishop: but although he was given the rank of “presbyter”, he seldom left the monastery of St. Sabas. He ventured only far enough to sermonize in some of the various churches. He set himself the mental labour of diligently revising and correcting his former writings. Along with this he continued his work of preaching in defense of the sacred images, earning from his followers the title of “venerable and inspired”.
John of Damascus died at a very old age, the exact date of which is not known. And so ends this brief biography of the life of our patron as written by the Patriarch John of Jerusalem. He had very scanty materials to work from, and he tried to compensate for the consequent scarcity of facts by enlargements and superficial conclusions from the writings of Damascenus. On the incident of the cutting-off of John’s hand, it is chiefly considered to be “legendary” and “fabulous”. Such a story is thoroughly in keeping with the habits of thought in the Greek Church at the time. This does not say that this story has no credence but only that there is no real documentary proof or dependable written testimony to substantiate its ever having happened. This is left up to the wish of the reader; and since it is the only biography of any pretensions which is extant, we must accept it for its real value and speculate on the rest.
On The Iconoclastic Controversy
Little need be said here regarding this controversy, except as it pertains to some of the writings of St. John of Damascus. During his fight against removal of Icons from the churches, he wrote a total of three “Apologies” or discourses. He said, among his most effective words. “I adore not the earthly material, but its Creator, who for my sake vouchsafed to dwell in an earthly tabernacle, and who by the earthly material wrought out my salvation”. He said that to forbid the rendering a share of honour to Christ and the Virgin Mary and all the Saints by veneration of their likenesses, would degrade that human nature which Christ exalted by His very incarnation.
In 730 AD. emperor Leo issued another edict, which not only forbade the worship of images, but which decreed that it was absolutely unlawful to have them in the churches. Any found there were to be destroyed, and the vacant spaces where they had been were to be washed over. Hearing of this, John composed his second address: and made it much stronger than the first one.
After Leo died, his son Constantine Copronymus was much worse. He ordered all who fought his edicts against images to be anathematized. “Anathema to Mansour,” ran the sentence, “cursed favourer of the Saracens, traitorous worshipper of images, wronger of Jesus Christ, and disloyal to the Empire! Anathema to Mansour, teacher of impiety, and bad interpreter of Scripture!” Additional insults were devised by the emperor, causing John’s last name to be written “Manzer” instead of Mansour—which was a terrible and insulting word.
Constantine Copronymus died in 775, and his son, Leo IV only reigned four and one half years. Constantine VI became the new emperor; and, being only 10 years of age, his mother (empress Irene) was left as regent during the minority of her son. She directed the 7th ecumenical Council to be assembled in Nicaea in 787, where it was decided that, “even as the figure of the cross was honoured, so images of the Saviour and Blessed Virgin, of angels and of saints, whether painted or mosaic, or of any other suitable material, are to be set up for kissing and other honourable
reverence, but not for that real worship which belongs to the Divine nature alone. Thus was the matter settled (probably not too many years after the death of our patron).
On His Writings
Of St. John of Damascus it might almost be said that his written works constitute his life’s story for us. There is no settled order of chronology to his writings, although according to John of Jerusalem, the letters of “Apology” written against the iconoclasts were composed before his monastic life. Let us now treat the matter of his “Fons Scientiae” or Fountain of Knowledge.
The “Fons Scientiae” is actually a group of three works, each complete in itself, but forming together an encyclopedia of Christian theology. They are: (1) “Capita Philosophica” or Heads of Philosophy, (2) “De Haeresibus Liber” or Summary of Heresies, (3), and “Expositio accurata Fedei Orthodoxae” or An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith.
This work consists of a series of short chapters (68 in all) on the categories of Aristotle, and the Universals of Porphyry. Here he indicates the uses of logic and dialetic as instruments of philosophy; and does so in a six-fold definition of philosophy, dividing this field of learning into Speculative Philosophy and Practical Philosophy. He further sub-divides these into Speculative: Theology, Physiology, and Mathematics: and Practical: Ethics, Economics, and Politics. No detailed account of this marvelous work shall be further attempted here, as it would serve no purpose. We should realize, however, that very few works of Aristotle were known in Europe until the beginning of the 12th century: yet here we have our patron familiar with them and employing them in the 8th century. This shows the truly remarkable importance of his work in the history of philosophical inquiry.
De Haeresibus Liber:
In this work. St. John. in his introductory remarks, disclaims all pretense to originality. It is little more than a transcript of a similar work by Epiphanius of the 4th century, with some additions by Damascenus himself. Epiphanius, in his work, had enumerated 80 sects, or heresies, beginning with pagan Greeks and ending with the Massalians. All these reappear in the work of St. John, and are followed by 23 more drawn from Timotheus Presbyter, and others.
De Fide Orthodoxa:
This third work in his Fons Scientiae is the most important of all, for it is the first complete “Body of Divinity” that we possess, and has had an influence that simply cannot be measured. It was made known to the Latin Church in 1150 A.D. and greatly influenced the works and thoughts of St. Thomas Aquinas (the father of Latin Theology). Here we see the first visible link between the Church of the East and the Church of the West. This De Fide Orthodoxa is itself divided into 4 books, or 100 chapters. It is interesting to note that De Fide was not available in 1882, but is today translated and available to all students of Orthodoxy. In it St. John touches upon such subjects as: (a) The impossibility of our knowing or comprehending God, (b) On the Trinity: the distinct personality of the Word and Holy Spirit, (c) On the creation. (d) On man: his creation, faculties, passions, free will, (e) God’s scheme for man’s redemption. . . and so on.
“Proof that there is a God”
EXCERPT: Book I, Ch. III.
“That there is a God, then, is no matter of doubt to those who receive the Holy Scripture, the Old Testament, I mean, and the New; nor indeed to most of the Greeks. For, as we said, the knowledge of the existence of God is implanted in us by nature. But since the wickedness of the Evil One had prevailed so mightily against man’s nature as even to drive some into denying the existence of God, that most foolish and woefulest pit of destruction (whose folly David, revealed of the Divine meaning, exposed when he said, ‘The fool said in his heart. There is no God’), so the disciples of the Lord and His Apostles, Made wise by the Holy Spirit and working wonders in His Power . . etc”
On The Mahometan Controversy:
Here St. John writes two beautiful dialogues or disputations between a Christian and a Saracen. By means of this ingenious dialogue he brings forth the reasons why Christianity is right for man while Mahometanism is a false teaching. This work is not of extreme importance except as it
sheds light upon the various facets of his work, and leaves us impressed with his great ability in the employment of varied literary devices.
On His Sermons:
The work of St. John of Damascus as a preacher does not fill any great space in the record. In fact, it is uncertain whether he actually delivered the sermons which he composed, or whether others delivered some of them for him, or whether he merely wrote them as rhetorical or devotional exercises. He wrote sermons on such topics as: “The Withered Fig Tree”, “The Transfiguration”, “Good Friday”, and some 11 others. Under the general heading of “Homiliae” there are known to be 13 complete discourses and the fragment of a fourteenth. The genuineness of some of these are doubtful . . . in other words, it is doubted that St. John was the actual author of them all. In addition to the three listed above, there is one on the topic “Holy Saturday”, two on the Annunciation (both doubtful), two on the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, three on her Falling Asleep, one