The Monk John Damascene

Commemorated on December 4

      The Monk John Damascene was born in about the year 680 at the capital of Syria, Damascus, into a Christian family. His father, Sergios Mansuros, was a treasurer at the court of the caliph. John had also a foster brother, the orphaned lad Cosmas, whom Sergios had taken into his own home. When the children were growing up, Sergios concerned himself over their education. At the Damascus slave market he ransomed from captivity the learned monk Cosmas of Calabria and entrusted to him the teaching of his children. The boys displayed uncommon ability and readily mastered their courses of the secular and spiritual sciences. After the death of his father, John at court occupied ministerial posts and became city-governor.
      During these times at Byzantium there had arisen and quickly spread about the heresy of Iconoclasm, supported by the emperor Leo III the Isaurian (717-741). Rising up in defense of Orthodox Icon-Veneration (Ikonodoulia), Saint John wrote three treatises entitled, "Against the Revilers of Holy Icons". The wise and God-inspired writings of Saint John enraged the emperor. But since the author was not a Byzantine subject, the emperor was unable to lock him up in prison, or execute him. The emperor thereupon resorted to slander. By his command there was composed a counterfeit letter under the name of John, in which the Damascus official was supposed to have offered his help towards the conquest of the Syrian capital. This letter and its hypocritically-flattering answer was sent off by Leo the Isaurian to the caliph. The caliph immediately ordered that Saint John be removed from his post, and that his right hand be cut off and then led through the city in chains. That same evening they returned the cut-off hand to Saint John. The saint began to pray to the Most Holy Mother of God for healing. Having fallen asleep, he beheld an icon of the Mother of God and heard Her voice telling him that he had been healed, and together with this commanded him to toil unceasingly with his healed hand. Awakening, he saw that his hand was intact.
      Having learned of the miracle, which witnessed to the innocence of John, the caliph asked his forgiveness and wanted to restore him to his former office, but the saint refused. He distributed away his riches and together with his step-brother and comrade in learning, Cosmas, he set off to Jerusalem, where as a simple novice he entered the monastery of the Monk Sava the Sanctified. It was not easy for him to find a spiritual guide. Among the monastic brethren there consented to this only one very experienced monastic elder, skilled to nourish in a student the spirit of obedience and humility. Before anything the elder forbade John to write, on the supposition that success in this area might present a source of pride. One time he sent the monk to Damascus to sell baskets, made at the monastery, and commanded him to sell them at a certain inflated price, more than their real value. And here, passing by on the tormenting path under the searing sun, the former dignitary of Damascus was now to be found at the marketplace in the ragged garb of an humble basket-vendor. But Saint John was recognised by his former house steward, who bought up all the baskets at the entrusted price.
      One time at the monastery, one of the monks chanced to die and the brother of the deceased besought Saint John to write down something by way of consolation. Saint John for a long time refused, but out of pity he yielded to the petition of the grief-stricken, and wrote his reknown funeral tropari. For this disobedience the elder banished him from his cell. All the monks began to plead for John. The elder thereupon assigned him one of the worst and most unpleasant tasks to remove the wastes from the monastery. And even in this the monk was a model of obedience. After a certain while, the elder was commanded in a vision by the All-Pure and Most Holy Mother of God to allow Saint John again to write. The Jerusalem Patriarch learned of the monk: he ordained him priest and made him a preacher at his cathedral. But the Monk John soon returned to the Laura of the Monk Sava, where until the end of his days he spent his time in the writing of spiritual books and church song. He left the monastery only to denounce the iconoclasts at the Constantinople Council of 754. They subjected him to imprisonment and torture, but he endured everything and through the mercy of God he remained alive. He died in about the year 780, at perhaps over age 100.
      [trans. note: It is extremely deplorable that this and several other Russian accounts of Saint John of Damascus, Saint John Damascene, gloss over and ignore his great significance within the area of dogmatic theology. Saint John is generally considered to represent the close of the classical Patristic age, and his great work, "Exposition on the Orthodox Faith" ("De Fide Orthodoxa"), presents a collection and summary of the dogmatic teachings of the fathers. The "Exposition on the Orthodox Faith" is part of a larger work, the "Fount of Wisdom" ("Pege Gnoseos"), which includes "Philosophic Chapters" and an "History of Heresies", reviewing the teaching and examining the defect of thought in all the heresies up to his time. Saint John Damascene, when he was "discovered" in the West during the Medieval period, exerted an enormous influence within Western Christianity, and was highly esteemed and used by Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics. For Eastern Orthodoxy too, Saint John Damascene's work serves, and should serve, as a dogmatic primer and summation of Patristic thought. Its sad neglect, East and West, points to the religious and dogmatic slumber of our times].

1996-2001 by translator Fr. S. Janos.

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The Monk John

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