Saint John Damascene
St. John of Damascus, the last of the Greek fathers and the first of the long line of Christian Aristotelians, was also one of the two greatest poets of the Eastern church, the other being St. Romanus the Melodist. The whole of the life of St. John was spent under the government of a Mohammedan khalif, and it exhibits the strange spectacle of a Christian father of the Church protected from a Christian emperor, whose heresy he was able to attack with impunity because he lived under Moslem rule. He and St. Theodore Studites were the principal and the ablest defenders of the cultus of sacred images in the bitterest period of the Iconoclastic controversy. As a theological and philosophical writer he made no attempt at originality, for his work was rather to compile and arrange what his predecessors had written. Still, in theological questions he remains the ultimate court of appeal among the Greeks, and his treatise Of the Orthodox Faith is still to the Eastern schools what the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas became to the West.
The Moslem rulers of Damascus, where St. John was born, were not unjust to their Christian subjects, although they required them to pay a poll tax and to submit to other humiliating conditions. They allowed both Christians and Jews to occupy important posts, and in many cases to acquire great fortunes. The khalif's doctor was nearly always a Jew, whilst Christians were employed as scribes, administrators and architects. Amongst the officials at his court in 675 was a Christian called John, who held the post of chief of the revenue department - an office which seems to have become hereditary in his family. He was the father of our saint, and the surname of al-Mansur which the Arabs gave him was afterwards transfered to the son. The younger John was born about the year 690 and was baptized in infancy. With regard to his early education, if we may credit his biographer, "His father took care to teach him, not how to ride a horse, not how to wield a spear, not to hunt wild beasts and change his natural kindness into brutal cruelty, as happens to many. John, his father, a second Chiron, did not teach him all this, but he sought a tutor learned in all science, skilful in every form of knowledge, who would produce good words from his heart; and he handed over his son to him to be nourished with this kind of food". Afterwards he was able to provide another teacher, a monk called Cosmas, "beautiful in appearance and still more beautiful in soul", whom the Arabs had brought back from Sicily amongst other captives. John the elder had to pay a great price for him, and well he might for, if we are to believe our chronicler, "he knew grammer and logic, as much arithmetic as Pythagoras and as much geometry as Euclid". He taught all the sciences, but especially theology, to the younger John and also to a boy whom the elder John seems to have adopted, who also was called Cosmas, and who became a poet and a singer, subsequently accompanying his adopted brother to the monastery in which they both became monks.
In spite of his theological training St. John does not seem at first to have contemplated any career except that of his father, to whose office he succeeded. Even at court he was able freely to live a Christian life, and he became remarkable there for his virtues and especially for his humility. Nevertheless, after filling his responsible post for some years, St. John resigned office, and went to be a monk in the laura of St. Sabas (Mar Saba) near Jerusalem. It is still a moot point whether his earlier works against the iconoclasts were written while he was still at Damascus, but the best authorities since the days of the Dominican Le Quien, who edited his works in 1712, incline to the opinion that he had become a monk before the outbreak of the persecution, and that all three treatises were composed at St. Sabas. In any case John and Cosmas settled down amongst the brethren and occupied their spare time in writing books and composing hymns. It might have been thought that the other monks would appreciate the presence amongst them of so doughty a champion of the faith as John, but this was far from being the case. They said the new-comers were introducing disturbing elements. It was bad enough to write books, but it was even worse to compose and sing hymns, and the brethren were scandalized. The climax came when, at the request of a monk whose brother had died, John wrote a hymn on death and sang it to a sweet tune of his own composition. His master, an old monk whose cell he shared, rounded upon him in fury and ejected him from the cell. "Is this the way you forget your vows?" he exclaimed. "Instead of mourning and weeping, you sit in joy and delight yourself by singing." He would only permit him to return at the end of several days, on condition that he should go round the laura and clear up all the filth with his own hands. St. John obeyed unquestioningly, but in the visions of the night our Lady appeared to the old monk and told him to allow his disciple to write as many books and as much poetry as he liked. From that time onwards St. John was able to devote his time to study and to his literary work. The lefend adds that he was sometimes sent, perhaps for the good of his soul, to sell baskets in the streets of Damascus where he had once occupied so high a post. It must, however, be confessed that these details, written by his biographer more than a century after the saint's death, are of very questionable authority.
If the monks at St. Sabas did not value the two friends, there were others outside who did. The patriarch of Jerusalem, John V, knew them well by reputation and wished to have them amongst his clergy. First he took Cosmas and made him bishop of Majuma, and afterwards he ordained John priest and brought him to Jerusalem. St. Cosmas, we are told, ruled his flock admirably until his death, but St. John soon returned to his monastery. He revised his writings carefully, "and wherever they flourished with blossoms of rhetoric, or seemed superfluous in style, he prudently reduced them to a sterner gravity, lest they should have any display of levity or want of dignity". His works in defence of eikons had become known and read everywhere, and had earned him the hatred of the persecuting emperors. If his enemies never succeeded in injuring him, it was only because he never crossed the frontier into the Roman empire. The rest of his life was spent in writing theology and poetry at St. Sabas, where he died at an advanced age. He was proclaimed doctor of the Church in 1890.
The gospel of the man with the withered hand, which is appointed in the Roman Missal for the Mass of St. John Damascene, refers to a story once widely credited but now regarded as apocryphal. When the saint was still revenue officer at Damascus, the Emperor Leo III, who hated him but could not take him openly, sought to destroy him by guile. He therefore forged a letter purporting to have been written to him by John to inform him that Damascus was poorly defended and to offer his aid in case he should attack it. This forgery Leo sent to the khalif with a note to the effect that he hated treachery and wished his friend to know how his official was behaving. The infuriated khalif had John's right hand cut off, but sent him the severed member at his request. The saint bore it into his private chapel and prayed in hexameter verse before an image of the Mother of God. By our Lady's intercession it was joined again to his body and was immediately employed to write a thanksgiving.
The formal biography of the saint written in Greek by John of Jerusalem about a century and a half after his death is pretentious in style and untrustworthy in the data it supplies. It is possibly no more than a translation of an Arabic original (see the Analecta Bollandiana, vol. xxxiii, 1914, pp. 78-81). It was edited by Le Quien and is reprinted in Migne (PG., vol. xciv, cc. 429-490) with Le Quien's valuable comments. The brief notice of John Damascene in the Synax. Constant. (ed. Delehaye, cc. 279-280) is probably more reliable. There is an excellent account of St. John by J. H. Lupton in DCB., vol. iii, pp. 409-423, and by Dr. A. Fortescue in his book, The Greek Fathers, pp. 202-248. A still fuller and more up-to-date estimate of the work of this great doctor of the Church is that of M. Jugie in DTC., vol. viii, cc. 693-751, where his writings and theological teaching are discussed in detail. See also J. Nasrallah, S. Jean de Damas (1950).
Butler's Lives of The Saints, Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. and Donald Attwater
Nihil Obstat: PATRICIVS MORRIS, S.T.D., L.S.S., CENSOR DEPVTATVS.
Imprimatur: E. MORROGH BERNARD, VICARIVS GENERALIS
WESTMONASTERII: DIE XXIII FEBRVARII MCMLIII