Saint John Damascene, Confessor & Doctor of the Church

March 27

Today is the feast day of Saint John Damascene.  Ora pro nobis.

by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877


St. John received his name from Damascus, a city in Syria, where he was born and which at that period was under the Sceptre of the Saracens. His parents were greatly esteemed, not only for their nobility and wealth, but much more on account of their kindness to the poor and their great liberality. They devoted the greater part of their income to ransom the prisoners, and to assist the hermits in the Holy Land, who were at that time much persecuted. Among the prisoners whom they had liberated was a priest from Calabria, called Gosmas, who, being a man of great learning, instructed John, then a boy, with great care both in the liberal arts and in Theology. The father of John was Governor of Damascus, by special favor of the reigning prince, who was himseff a Pagan. After his father’s death, John succeeded him in his high office, with permission to live according to the Christian religion, and he used his influence for the protection of the Christians.

Meanwhile, Leo the Isaurian, Emperor of the East, was destroying holy images and persecuting those who honored them, and John wrote several Epistles and books on the subject, by which he proved that to honor the holy images was not idolatry, but that it tended to benefit mankind; while the persecution of the same was not wrong, but wicked and sinful. This strengthened the Catholics in their veneration of the holy images, but aroused the wrath of the Emperor against John. He determined to revenge himself and had recourse to fraudulent means, which were the more despicable as they emanated from a man of such exalted station. He caused a letter to be written, by some wicked person, in the name of St. John, requesting the Emperor to send an army to Damascus and take the city again from the Saracens, promising to assist him in the enterprize.

This forged letter, accompanied by one written by the Emperor himself, in which he represented John as a traitor, was sent to the Saracen prince, with whom, as before said, John stood in high favor, in order to turn him against the Saint. He added that he disdained to make use of so shameful an act of treason to break the existing peace, but that he hoped the traitor would be rigorously dealt with. The Saracen prince was furious on reading these letters. Having caused John to be brought before him, he showed him both letters, and reproaching him with his treason, gave vent to his rage in the most abusive language. The Saint called God to witness that he had never written letters to Constantinople, except on the subject of honoring images, and requested that the matter might be investigated, as it was clear that there existed some deception. But the furious prince would listen neither to prayers nor protestations, and ordered the executioner to cut off the saint’s right hand without delay, and to hang it in the market-place as a warning to others. The order was publicly executed to the great grief of the Christians, The Saint suffered the pain and the ignominy with Christian fortitude, affirming, at the same time, with undaunted courage, that he was innocent of the crime of which he stood accused On the evening of the same day, he sent to the prince asking permission to bury his hand. The prince, who had already discovered the deceit, granted his request and sent him his hand.

John, filled with trust in Christ and his holy Mother, took his hand, went into the chapel of his house, sank down before the image of the Blessed Virgin, and cried: “Heavenly Queen! Mother of Mercy! Thou knowest that I lost my hand in defence of the honored images of Thee and Thy Son. Counfound thou now the error and let truth prevail. Let this hand grow again to my arm, that with it I may still defend Thine and Thy Son’s holy name: I will use it for no other purpose.” While thus praying he held his hand to the arm, and, having said the last words, he fell into a light slumber, during which he seemed to hear the Blessed Virgin say: “Behold thy hand is again on thine arm. Go, now, and perform thy promise.” John awoke, and found his hand so perfectly grown to his arm, that no one would have believed it had been cut off, had not a red mark, like a thin thread, remained as a token of the miracle. How happy the Saint was and how fervently he gave thanks to God and his holy mother may easily be imagined. The miracle could not be kept secret and the prince, being informed of it called the Saint into his presence, and humbly begging his pardon, assured him of his future favor. John, however, desired no other grace than to be released from public service, that he might pass the remainder of his life in a monastery or in the desert.

This being granted, he divided his wealth among the poor, went to Jerusalem, and thence to the Convent of St. Sabas, where, obliged to obey an old Monk, he was for a time occupied with the lowest menial labor. The Blessed Virgin, however, appearing to this monk, told him to let John work against the heretics in defense of the true faith. The monk informed the saint of the command of the divine Mother; and the obedient servant of Christ began anew to combat not only the Iconoclasts, but also the other enemies of the Church, while at the same time, for the instruction of the Catholics, he wrote many books replete with heavenly wisdom. The patriarch of Jerusalem ordained him priest in the year 750. Enfeebled, at length, by severe penances and incessant labor, he became sick and left this world, old in years and rich in merits, to receive the eternal reward that Christ promised to those that follow Him. (2)

 Saint John Damascene

Cardinal Nicholas Patrick Wiseman, 1869


It was perhaps about sixty years after the conquest of Damascus by the Saracens, that is, about the year 690, that was born John of Damascus, or Damascene, the last of the Greek Fathers. His family was of the very first rank, and indeed was closely mixed up with the public life of the city. The parents of S. John had not lost the Christian faith of their fathers. In the midst of the thorns, we are told, they preserved the flower of godliness and the good odor of the knowledge of Christ. Where many were faithless, they were faithful, and among the great and rich families their race was almost solitary in their unswerving attachment to their religion. Their constancy and their virtue were so remarkable that the very infidels had come to honor it.

The father of St. John was very rich. Both in the city and throughout Judaea and Palestine, he had great possessions. But the most curious fact in his history is that he was chief minister of the Saracen prince. The caliphs of the dynasty of the Ommaiades had made Damascus the seat of their empire very shortly before the period of which we speak, and it seems that the Saint’s father was nothing less than the grand vizier of the reigning caliph. The author of the life that we chiefly follow lays great stress on this remarkable circumstance, finding fitting parallels only in Daniel and Joseph, and extolling the power of virtue and of the fear of God. The Christian minister used his great power and wealth in doing good wherever his hand found it to do, redeeming Christian captives, helping them in their wants, securing them toleration from the infidels, or assisting them to find a home in other lands.

The child that was the reward of this pious life was baptized in his infancy. It is noticeable that this, according to the Life, was a difficult and dangerous proceeding. As it is impossible that private baptism can be here meant, for there could be neither difficulty nor danger in that, we must infer that the minister was bold enough to have his child baptized with all the solemnities of the Church.

His education was the next concern. His father had higher views for him than to make him a soldier or a hunter; he did not teach him to ride (like an Arab), to throw the spear or shoot the arrow (like the sons of the desert), or to hunt beasts and turn his natural kindliness into sanguinary ferocity (like the hunters of the Syrian mountains). And it so happened that he found a tutor for him that left him nothing to desire. One day a band of Saracens brought into the city a troop of captives, whom they were proceeding to sell or to execute. We are told that they had brought them from the “sea-coast and it is probable, therefore, that they had landed with them at Beyrout after some piratical expedition; for the Saracens began to infest the Mediterranean about 699 or 700. Among these captives was a Greek monk, called Cosmas, who had been brought from Italy (that is, from Calabria, which was full of Greek conventual settlements). His face was grave and beautiful to look upon; his mind, the life assures us, was still graver and more beautiful than his face. His fellow captives seemed to have extraordinary veneration for him, for they flung themselves at his feet and begged his prayers.

The Saracens, seeing this, asked him what he was. He told them he was nothing but a priest, except a useless monk, and a poor student of philosophy. And as he spoke they saw the tears in his eyes. The father of St. John was present at this scene. He spoke to the monk, and asked him how it was that he, who by his garb was dead to the world, seemed to feel his lot so deeply. The monk’s answer reads like a genuine voice of the time, and though it is rather a long one, we must translate it; for it is such utterances that repay the labors of a searcher in the past.

The monk replied: “The loss of this life I do not grieve, for, as you say, I am dead to the world. But my regret is this. I have searched human wisdom from end to end, and have made myself skilled in the circle of the sciences. I have practiced my tongue in rhetoric; I have mastered logic and demonstration; in ethics I have learnt all that is delivered by the Stagirite or Aristo’s son; arithmetic I know; geometry is familiar to me; I am at home with the rhythms and the harmonies of music; all that concerns the movements of the heavens and the courses of the stars I have carefully studied, that from the greatness and beauty of the creature, I might rise by analogy to the contemplation of the Creator. Then I have penetrated into the mysteries of theology, both the natural theology of the children of the Greeks, and that which is the theme of our Christian writers. And my grief is this. I have studied and learnt, but as yet I have not imparted what I know. I have begotten no children of my mind to rejoice me when I myself must pass away. My talent has been given me by my Master, but I have not delivered it to the bankers. Lo! here it is still laid up in a napkin. I had set my heart upon being reckoned in the number of the faithful servants, and my prayer was that I might give freely what I had received; and because this is denied me, therefore I am filled with sorrow and my eyes run down with tears.” This seems a singular speech. But consider the situation. A man, whom a life of long and painful study has made the heir of the civilization and culture of Greek learning and Christian knowledge, stands bound in the hands of barbarians. What strikes him is the “pity of it”–the folly, the waste, that is involved in the ignorant exertion of the brute force that is about to cut him off!

To a thoughtful mind, the Greek monk before the Saracen prince is an image of the whole Greek civilization of that time in presence of the unaccountable brute strength of Islamism. The new power was burning libraries and slaying the men that read them, and the thought that, it seems, may have often filled with sad tears the eyes of the races that had to bow to it, would be one of impotent sorrow that the work of centuries should be erased from the face of the earth, so willfully, and so wastefully.

In the instance of Cosmas himself, however, that which he lamented was not to be. The father of St. John Damascene listened with much interest to his words, and then resolved that he was the very man he had been longing for to be tutor to his boy. “Forbear, holy man,” he said to him, “be of better cheer; for perchance the Lord will give thee the petitions of thy heart.” He hastened to the caliph (chronologists have found that it would be either Abdul Melek, or his son Walid) and obtained the captive for himself. Cosmas was instantly made free, and whatever the minister’s house contained was placed at his service. The monk set about his grateful task with willing love. Besides his benefactor’s son, he had another disciple, a young orphan called Cosmas, like himself, whom the good rich man had adopted in one of his visits to Jerusalem. What the course of their studies was, is sufficiently indicated in the speech of the monk just given. What the progress of the two scholars was, the compiler of the life finds it difficult to convey.

If John was like an eagle cleaving the skies, the young Cosmas was like a ship well laden, with every sail set and the west wind prosperously sending it through the waters. Indeed, it is certain that this first preceptor of St. John Damascene exerted a very great influence over his genius, as we shall see when we come to consider his writings. When the two boys had been trained in all human science and Divine truth, and had progressed so far as to excel (so the monk humbly said), their master himself, Cosmas resigned his charge and retired, with the gifts and blessings of the father, to spend the rest of his days in the laura of St. Sabas, near Jerusalem. Soon afterwards the father also died, and St. John, succeeding to his wealth and honours, was installed by the caliph, though much against his will, in the same post as his father. In the absence of exact certainty as to dates, we may put down these occurrences to the year 720 or thereabouts.

The remainder of St. John’s life at Damascus is intimately connected with one important religious and political movement–the Iconoclast heresy. Leo the Isaurian (714-741) was undoubtedly an energetic and able man. In him the Greeks of the empire found a master who could govern them, and a leader whom they had no choice but to follow. He taught the Arab hosts that were now swarming into Asia Minor, and besieging Constantinople itself, that the Roman power was not yet a mere name, and the bloody defeats which they encountered at his hands staved off for centuries the ruin of the empire of the East. It was about the year 726, when he felt comparatively safe against the Saracens, that he decidedly took part with the new sect of heretics who were attacking the lawfulness of honoring images of Christ and the Saints.

The origin of the sect of the Iconoclasts is shrouded in mystery. On the one hand, ecclesiastical writers speak as if one or two evil counsellors, a Syrian renegade, two Jewish soothsayers, and a dissolute bishop, had been the sole instigators of Leo’s conduct. On the other hand, it is certain that the Mahometan movement made hostility to all graven things one of its foremost war-cries; and it is not improbable that an imaginary reformation which was so profoundly moving a large portion of the Semitic races may have attracted sympathy among factious or mistaken Christians beyond the reach of the swords of the Saracens.

The objects of the emperor in taking it up are somewhat more evident. First of all, he did so in obedience to that spirit of insolent meddling ignorance, that would be laughable had it not been so often serious, which instigated the Greek emperors to assume the settlement of theological questions. But he perhaps had a really deep design in declaring for the Iconoclasts. The worship of images had never yet been the subject of the definition of any Council. It existed in the Church, but an emperor’s order might abolish it. Now it was certain that the Saracens, the Jews, perhaps also the Fire-worshippers of Persia, besides the heterodox domestic faction, would all be gratified by the abolition of what they abominated. The power of the empire was still great, and its prestige was greater, and it did not seem an idle dream to hope that a masterful mind might bind together by such a timely move elements that were in dissolution, and even enlarge the boundaries that then were so difficult to hold. It may seem that the question of images was a slight issue on which to ground such a wide conception. But against this, two things are evident–first, that the Church has, at some periods and in some places, considered it most important to restrict the use of images; secondly, that the people of the Semitic races, as experience testifies, seemed to oscillate between the two extremes of Iconoclasm and idolatry. As Leo could not hope to reign over an empire of idolaters, he perhaps took measures to inaugurate an age of Iconoclasts.

That his scheme was a total failure we now know. He entirely mistook the character of Islamism. He took the opposition to images to be its very essence; and he was to be excused in this, for St. John Damascene lays very great stress on it; but the enthusiastic soldiers of the Crescent were far from being mere heretics. As it was, the success of Iconoclasm consisted in the loss of Italy, and in the division of the East from the West.

The news of the emperor’s defection soon reached Damascus, and with it the further intelligence that the worshippers of the images were being burnt in the same fires that were kindled to destroy the images. St. John Damascene took up his pen for the first time, as far as we know, to write for the truth. What he wrote the author of the life calls “epistolary orations,” in which he showed, with much elaboration and learning, that images ought to be honored. They were addressed to people whom he knew, probably the Church of Constantinople, and he zealously exhorted them to use their own endeavors to spread the truth, to show his letters as widely as possible, and circulate them from hand to hand. It would seem that we have either the very treatises here mentioned, or at any rate their substance, in the ” Three Orations against the Opponents of Holy Images.” (Migne, t. 94.)

The first of these orations was written, as we gather from the text itself, as soon as the first news of what had begun at Constantinople reached Damascus, and even before the emperor had deposed St. Germanus the Patriarch. Its date, therefore, must have been about the year 727. It will be interesting to take a glance at a treatise which, together with its two companions, and perhaps some others now lost, have acquired for their author the distinguishing title of the Apostle of Holy Images. They passed from hand to hand in every church from Jerusalem to Constantinople, and, partly by their reasoning, but more by their rallying power over the orthodox multitude, they achieved a success that is best read in the furious anger of the Iconoclast emperor himself.

He begins by professing his own unworthiness to open his lips. But “all things are good in season;” and the Church is now tossed in a furious tempest; the seamless tunic of Christ is being torn asunder; His body, that is the word of God and the ancient tradition of the Church, is being cut in pieces; and he cannot remain silent. One special reason makes him speak. “A weighty thing is the word of a prince to challenge the obedience of his subjects.” Experience shows that when an emperor heads a heresy very few are found bold enough to uphold the truth. Therefore, as one who rides out of the barriers with his horse well in hand, so he lets loose his eager speech:

For really and truly I have thought it grievous, intolerable, that the Church, with all her glittering prerogatives, with the traditions of the holy men of old, clothing her in perpetual beauty, should go back to needy elements, and fear a fear where there is no fear; that she, as though she had never known the living God, should dread to fall back again into idol-worship; that any unworthiness, however slight, should deform her peerless beauty, like a spot upon a fair face. And little things are not little when they are the causes of great; and it cannot be a little thing to pluck up the ancient tradition of the Church, and to condemn our fathers, whose conversation we are to look upon and whose faith we are to follow.

From the way in which St. John treats the controversy one interesting conclusion is evident. The great argument of the Iconoclasts was the Divine prohibition, in the Old Law, to make images. The Jewish spirit was at the bottom of the whole movement. This the apologist calls going back to “beggarly elements.” After explaining and commenting on the Scripture texts that were commonly quoted, he says, “Such was the Jewish law; but we, to use the words of the Theologian (Gregory Nazianzen)–we, to whom it is given to have avoided the error of superstition, to have acknowledged the light and to walk purely with God, to serve Him alone and to possess the perfect riches of His knowledge, to have passed out of our childhood and to have met unto a perfect man, we are no longer under a pedagogue; we have received from God the power and habit of discerning, and we know what an image can express and what it cannot express.”

Then, to make the matter clearer, he enters into the explanation of certain terms. What is an Image? What is Worship? What is Adoration? This part of the treatise is exceedingly clear and useful to this day; and, what is more, it is written with a nervousness of language, a precision of thought, and a facile wealth of illustration which are unmistakable proofs of a cultured mind and a practised hand. In his remarks on adoration he is led to speak on a subject which was once hotly debated, but which now is almost devoid of interest. “To worship images was to worship matter; but matter was evil.” The spirit of the Manichaeans was kept up among the least instructed of the population by the influence of such neighbours as the Persian Fire-worshippers, and also by the whole tendency of the ascetical Eastern mind, so prone to fanaticism when not checked by Christianity. And the Paulicians, who renewed the errors of the Manichaeans, were at that moment influential with the Saracens. St. John Damascene grounds his defence of what we may call the aesthetic element in religion, on the great fact of the Incarnation. “God having been seen in the flesh and having conversed with man, I make an image of that which is visible of God.

What a book is to those who know letters, that an image is to the ignorant; what words are to the ear, that an image is to the sight.” . . . . “If the Jew was ordered to take twelve stones from the Jordan’s bed, and to narrate the cause thereof to his inquiring children, why shall we not express by images the salutary sufferings and the wonders of Christ our God, so that if my son ask me what this means, I may answer that God the Word was made man.” There were some, however, who admitted images of Christ or the Mother of God, but refused to allow those of the Saints. “The absurdity!” answers St. John. “You are contending, not against the images, but against the Saints . . . . No! In the story of Christ our Lord and King we cannot leave out the King’s army. I worship the image of Christ, as the Incarnate God; of the Theotokos, the Queen of all things, as the Mother of God; of the Saints, as the friends of God, who have resisted sin even to the shedding of their blood, who have imitated Him who shed His blood for them by shedding theirs for Him. Their deeds and their sufferings I express in pictures and put them before me, and I grow holier from the sight, and am strengthened to imitate them. For the honor paid to the image passes on to the prototype, as saith the divine Basil.”

In conclusion, the Saint appeals to the Fathers, and cites a number of passages at length from nearly all the great Fathers of the fourth century. The emphatic way in which he falls back on the tradition of the Fathers must have struck the reader even in the short extracts that have already been given. To him there is no possible appeal from “the tradition of the whole Church, from one extremity of the earth to the other.” The appendix of citations must have had extraordinary weight with his readers; they must have confirmed many a waverer and furnished many an orthodox believer with some reason for the faith that was in him. To this day they cannot be read without some emotions of that triumph which must have stirred the monasteries of Constantinople and moved its vast congregations, when the bold and successful vindication began to spread in that city, to which it was specially addressed. Omitting, however, all examination of passages which are hardly St. John Damascene himself, let us quote his conclusion, not so much because it is on the subject as because it gives some additional idea of his genius and style:

If any one sees the image of Christ crucified, and asks, Who is this? the answer is, Christ the Lord, who took flesh for us. Yes, O Lord, we worship everything that is Thine! With burning love we clasp to our hearts Thy Godhead, Thy power, Thy goodness, Thy mercy to us, Thy abasement, Thy Incarnation! We adore Thy flesh, not because it is flesh, but for the Divinity which is joined to it in hypostasis. We adore Thy passion. We do not adore death, nor sufferings : we adore the death of God in the flesh, and His saving sufferings. We adore Thy image, we adore all that is Thine, Thy servants, Thy friends, and, above all, Thy true Mother. I beseech, therefore, the people of God, the holy nation, to cling to the tradition of the Church. For the gradual abrogation of tradition is like the gradual removal of stones from a house; the house is sure to fall. God grant that we may all stand firm and unshaken, grounded on the Rock, which is Christ! to whom is glory, and honour, and worship, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, now and ever, unto infinite ages. Amen.

There can be little doubt that the doings of St. John at Damascus would soon be known to Leo at Constantinople. It was to the latter city, indeed, that his letters were addressed. Leo was a determined man, not a mere crowned grammarian, like some of his predecessors and successors. The story of his revenge on St. John Damascene, though not confirmed by sufficient evidence, is quite possible, and perhaps would be admitted by all to be quite probable, except in one or two of the details. Damascus was out of the Emperor’s power, and the Caliph’s first Minister was not likely to have much to fear from a Court that could only with difficulty hold its own on the Bosphorus. Under these circumstances, we are told, Leo had recourse to a perfectly Greek piece of perfidy. His agents, “putting on the mask of piety,” mixed with the faithful, among whom St. John’s letters were passing from hand to hand, and by dint of great exertion, got hold of an autograph of the writer. The manuscript was given to the Emperor’s notaries, who studied it until they could perfectly imitate, not merely the characters, but the thought and the style. He then ordered them (“for,” says the Life, “he did find persons to obey him in this”) to indite a letter to himself from St. John. It was an invitation to the Emperor to come and occupy Damascus, which, he assured him, a rapid and secret movement of a sufficient number of troops would effect with the greatest ease; “and I myself will help you to good purpose, for the whole place is in my own hand.”

This epistle was despatched to the Saracen Caliph, with another in Leo’s own name. “Anxious to preserve the inestimable blessings of peace and friendship,” he says, “I have ever striven to the best of my power to observe the treaties I have made with your Serenity; notwithstanding that I am continually urged by a certain Christian among your subjects, who is always sending me letters, to march on Damascus, and possess myself of it. Wherefore, to show you what man I am, how truthful and how faithful, and also to let you know what he is, I send you a sample of these letters, written in his own hand.” Both these documents reached the Saracen prince in safety. St. John was summoned before him, and, to his wonder, read the treason under what seemed even to himself to be his own handwriting. He saw the plot; its diabolical ingenuity struck him; but he stoutly and earnestly protested his innocence. But the “enemy of Christ,” the Caliph, at once believed it all. He would not listen to a defence (“like the ass and the lyre,” as the Life remarks), would not give him a moment to disprove the accusation, but instantly ordered him to lose his right hand, “being out of himself and mad with rage.” The sentence was executed, “and the hand that had reproved the enemies of God was stained, no longer with ink, as when writing for holy images, but with its own blood.” And the hand was hung up in one of the principal squares of Damascus.

The sequel of the narrative is the part which critics regard with the greatest suspicion. But it shall be given. On the evening of the same day, when it was to be expected that the wrath of the Caliph would have cooled down, St. John sent messengers to him to beg that his hand might be restored to him; and the reason they were instructed to give was, that as long as the hand remained unburied, he suffered intolerable pain. The Saracen prince acceded “at once” to his prayer. On receiving the severed member, he retired to the oratory of his own house, and, “prostrating his whole body before an image of the Mother of God, he joined the hand to the part from which it had been divided, and, with sighs and tears, prayed thus from the very bottom of his heart”:

Lady! Queen! All-holy Mother!
Christ my God was born of thee!
In thy cause and for thy image
This right hand was lost to me.Why the Lion raged and ravened
Thou in heaven above dost know;
Help me, Lady! heal me quickly,
Here before thee lying low!Wonders oft at thy sweet pleading
Hath thy Son vouchsafed before;
Heal my hand and let it praise Him–
Thee and Him for evermore!Of His Faith and of thy honour
Still the champion let it be!
What thou askest thou obtainest;
Christ my God was born of thee!

Praying thus, sleep overcame him, and in his sleep he saw the holy image turn its eye upon him, full of compassion, and he heard it say, “Behold, thy hand is whole; henceforward continue to do as thou hast promised.” He awoke healed, and, rising up, he sang one of his hymns in thanksgiving. Then, calling his family around him, he spent with them the remainder of the night in thanking God. The rejoicings were heard by those who dwelt near, and the news, spreading through the city, soon reached the Caliph. St. John was summoned and questioned. He showed his right hand; it bore no trace of the knife, save that a thin red line ran round the wrist. The Caliph was astonished and convinced. He asked his pardon, confirmed him in his office, even giving him, it would seem, a higher rank, and proclaimed that he would never do anything without consulting him.

But the Saint had done with Damascus and with worldly matters. He used his new-found favour with his prince to bid adieu to him forever. The Caliph, with great difficulty, allowed him to go. He stripped himself of the whole of his great wealth, and made it over to the poor and the captive. Then, turning his back on the beautiful city of his birth, he travelled the road that St. Paul had come, over the low barren hills through Galilee, along the valley of the Jordan, and so over the Samaritan mountains to Jerusalem. After adoring our Lord in the holy places of His passion, he entered the great laura of St. Sabas. It was hither that St. John Damascene retired, to fast, to labour, to repeat the Psalms, to read Holy Scripture, to obey, and to save his soul like one of the many hundreds that filled those mournful solitudes with silent life.

From the Roman Breviary, the following is related concerning his monastic life:

In the religious life (St. John Damascene) was an example of virtue to all the monks, especially in his humility and obedience. He sought for the lowest offices in the community as though they were peculiarly his own, and fulfilled them with the greatest care. When he was sent to Damascus to sell baskets which he had made, he welcomed the mockery and jests of the lowest classes in that city where he had once held the most honorable offices. He was so devoted to obedience, that not only was he ready to obey the mere nod of his superiors, but he never thought it right to ask the reason of any command, however strange or difficult. While practicing these virtues, he never ceased earnestly to defend the Catholic doctrine as to the honoring of holy images. It was by this that he drew upon himself the hatred and persecution of the emperor, Constantine Copronymus, as he had once drawn that of Leo, the Isaurian, and this all the more because he freely rebuked the arrogance of these emperors who meddled with matters concerning faith, and pronounced sentence on them according to their own judgment.

It is a wonder how much John wrote, both in prose and verse, for the protection of the faith and the encouragement of devotion. He was worthy of the high praise which was given him by the second Council of Nice, and was surnamed Chrysorrhoas, on account of the golden stream of his eloquence. It was not only against the enemies of the holy images that he defended the true faith, for he also vigorously opposed the Acephali, the Monothelites and the Theopaschites. He strenuously maintained the power of the Church. He asserted the primacy of the Prince of the Apostles in eloquent words; and often called him the pillar of the churches, the unbroken rock, and the teacher and regulator of the world. And all his writings are not only distinguished for doctrine and learning, but have a savor of simple piety, especially when he praises the Mother of God whom he honoured with a singular love and devotion. But John’s greatest praise is that he was the first to arrange in order a complete course of theology, thereby preparing the way for St. Thomas who has so clearly dealt with the whole body of sacred doctrine. At length, this truly holy man, full of days and good works, fell asleep in the peace of Christ about the year 754. Pope Leo XIII declared him to be a Doctor of the Church, and ordered his Office and Mass to be said throughout the Universal Church. (2)

Image: John Damascene (8)

Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff


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