St. John Damascene, Doctor of the Church

St. John Damascene

Doctor of the Church

Icon of St. John Damascene, holding an icon of Jesus (from VirtualMuseum.com)

Icon of St. John Damascene, holding an icon of Jesus (from VirtualMuseum.com)

This post continues our series on the Doctors of the Church.
 
Today is the Feast of St. John Damascene, who is also known as St. John of Damascus.  He lived between about 680 and 770 AD, and he is considered to be the last of the Greek Fathers of the Church.  He was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1883 by Pope Leo XIII.  He is also venerated in the Orthodox Church.
 
There are several reasons that St. John Damascene is worthy of the title Doctor of the Church. 
  • This great saint is sometimes called the Doctor of the Assumption, because of his defense of that doctrine about the Blessed Mother.
  • He is also called the Iconic Doctor because of his defense of the use of icons in religous worship.
  • He is sometimes considered the precursor to St. Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics, with his voluminous book, The Fountain of Wisdom, on various elements of the faith, including a concise explanation, or catechism, of the orthodox faith in the 8th Century.
    • Among the writings was a treatise on heresies is one that especially should interest us today: he dealt specifically – and forcefully – with Islam.
  • He left behind many sermons, and his eloquence earned him the name Chrysorrhoas, which means “streaming with gold” or “golden speaker”.
  • His hymns have influenced the Church for ages.  In fact, his intercession is sought for help in the study of church singing.

I would like to focus on St. John Damascene’s vigorous defense of icons.  Without him, the use of images in Christian religous worship may have been lost centuries ago due to the heresy of iconoclasm.

 

But first, a little background and context:

  • St. John Damascene was born in Damascus in Syria near the end of the 7th Century.  At this time, most of the Near East (including the Holy Land and Syria) and North Africa were under the control of the expanding Muslim Umayyad Caliphate.  The caliph had his capital in Damascus.
  • The Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire was just to the north of Syria.  In fact, the Muslims had conquered the land from the Christian Roman Empire.  (Reclaiming that land is a whole-nother post about the Crusades.)
  • Map from around 700 AD, from www.damascus-online.com.  Yellow = Catholic; Blue = Muslim; Green = Pagan

    Map from around 700 AD, from http://www.damascus-online.com. Yellow = Catholic; Blue = Muslim; Green = Pagan

     

  • St. John’s father, Mansur, was a Christian, but he was so skilled that the caliph employed him as the chief financial officer of the caliphate.  Mansur frequently searched out the Christian captives who streamed into Damascus, and he ransomed their freedom.  One of these was a certain Cosmas, a Sicilian monk, whom Mansur chose to become the tutor for St. John.
  • St. John was a brilliant student (in fact, a polymath, according to Wikipedia).  On his father’s death, he entered the service of the caliph as the chief financial officer, too.

The Iconoclastic Controversy

  • According to the teachings of Islam, human representation in images for religious worship is strictly forbidden.  This led to some tension with the Byzantine emperors, who variously sought to reconquer their territory and to placate the Muslim caliphs.
  • Around 730 AD, Byzantine Emperor Leo III (the Isaurian) ordered the destruction of icons in the Byzantine Empire.  (Isaurian means Syrian; Leo III was from Syria).  For an in-depth discussion of Leo’s motives, read the article on iconoclasm in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
  • Popes Gregory II and Gregory III (in Rome) and the Patriarch of Constantinople both firmly rejected the iconoclasm as heretical. 
  • Meanwhile, Leo III and his son, Constantine v, continued with his persecutions.  Monasteries in his territory was destroyed, monks were killed and jailed, and icons and relics were smashed, painted over, removed, destroyed.

Enter John Damascene into the Debate; God grants a miracle

  • Being a good, orthodox Catholic, St. John Damascene set about responding to the emperor and the iconoclasts, writing three treatsies “Against Those Who Revile The Holy Icons”.
  • Obviously, Leo III wasn’t too happy with John’s brilliant defense of iconodulism. However, because John lived in Syria, under the rule of the caliph, Leo III couldn’t touch John.
  • So, Leo III resorted to lying treachery to try to hurt St. John Damascene.  Leo III had a forgery made of a letter.  This letter was skillfully done to match the handwriting exactly of St. John Damascene.  The letter purported to be an offer by John to help Leo III conquer Damascus.  Leo III then sent the letter to the caliph.
  • The caliph had St. John arrested and had his right hand amputated at the wrist.
  • St. John was given his had back, and that night, he prayed fervently before an icon of the Theotokos (Mother of God).  He fell asleep, and when he awoke his hand was miraculously healed!  Only a small red mark around his wrist remained.
  • St. John Damascene was so thankful, that he had a small hand fashioned out of silver, and he had it affixed to the icon of the Theotokos.  Consequently, the icon is called the Icon of the Three Hands.
  •  

    Icon of the Three Hands, taken from www.holytrinityorthodox.com.

    Icon of the Three Hands, taken from http://www.holytrinityorthodox.com.

St. John Becomes a Monk and a Priest

  • The miracle obviously demonstrated his innocence, and the caliph wanted to restore St. John to his position.  However, St. John Damascene refused.  Instead, he entered the monastery of St. Sabas the Sanctified, today one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world (and breath-takingly beautiful).
  • Aerial view of St. Sabas Monastery, taken from Wikipedia.

    Aerial view of St. Sabas Monastery, taken from Wikipedia.

  • From this point, St. John Damascene went on to influence not only the people of his time, but down through the ages, too.
  • He did much, much more that I don’t have space here to describe.
  • For more information on St. John Damascene, Doctor of the Church, check out the following links:

Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!

Holy Mary, Theotokos, pray for us!

St. John Damascene, pray for us!

Icon of St. John Damascene, taken from Wikipedia.

Icon of St. John Damascene, taken from Wikipedia.

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This entry was posted in Doctors of the Church, Elements of Faith, Feasts and Solemnities, Great Art, Saints. Bookmark the permalink.

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