Feast Day : December 4
Also known as: John of Damascus; the Doctor of Christian Art
Only one account of the life of John Damascene exists. It was written by John of Jerusalem about 200 years after the death of the saint, and contains both fact and legend. John was born about 676 in Damascus to a wealthy family. His father, a Christian, enjoyed high rank in judicial offices serving the Muslim caliph. When John was 22, his father searched for a suitable tutor for him. He happened upon a learned monk named Cosmas, who had been captured by Saracen pirates and was being sold as a slave. The father either bought Cosmas or begged his life, and gave him his freedom and set him up as tutor. When the schooling was finished, Cosmas retired to the monastery of St. Sabas and then became the bishop of Majuma. When John’s father died, he reluctantly took his position. He resigned in 719 and became a monk at the monastery of St. Sabas near Jerusalem. John became involved in the Iconoclast heresy over the veneration of religious images, a well-established practice in the Eastern Church. In 726 Emperor Leo III prohibited the veneration of religious images. Around 730, John wrote his famous defense of the use of icons, On Holy Images. The fact that he lived in Muslim territory gave him a freedom of expression that he might not have had otherwise. Legend has it that the irate emperor forged a letter, purportedly from John to him, offering to betray the city of Damascus, and had it sent to the caliph. The caliph ordered John’s hand to be cut off in punishment. John prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary that his hand might be restored. He fell asleep by her image, and when he awoke his hand had been miraculously restored. The caliph sought to reinstate him, but John went to the monastery of St. Sabas instead. The story, however, is indeed legend, for John was already at the monastery, and not in the service of the caliph, at the time he wrote the treatise. At the monastery, John spent his time writing and in prayer. He wrote more than 150 works on philosophy, religious education, theology and hagiographies. His friends called him Chrysoorhoas (“golden stream”) for his oratorical gifts. His legacy is noted not so much for original theology as for his ability to compile the works of others in encyclopedic fashion. His most famous work is The Fountain of Wisdom, which is divided into three parts: “Philosophical Chapters,” “Concerning Heresy” and “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith.” The book was the first summary of connected theological opinions and basic truths of the faith, drawing on such eminent theologians as SS. Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, Athanasius, John Chrysostom and Epiphanius. It became a standard work for the Scholastics, among them the great St. Thomas Aquinas. John also wrote numerous sermons and treatises, including a defense of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s title as Theotokos (“God-bearer”), and three great hymns or canons on Easter, the Ascension and St. Thomas’s Sunday. John’s defense of icons earned him the undying hatred of the Iconoclasts, who anathematized him posthumously at a pseudo-synod of Constantinople in 754. This was rectified in 787 by the Seventh General Council of Nicaea. The Iconoclastic controversy finally ended in 843 when Empress Theodora restored the use of icons. An Arabic romance, Barlaam and Josaphat, popular in the Middle Ages, is sometimes attributed to John, but it is doubtful that he authored it.