Our Righteous Father John of Damascus
Whom the Holy Church Celebrates on December 4/17.
Saint John of was born in Damascus about the year 675, the son of wealthy and pious parents, of the family of Mansur. He was reared together with Saint Cosmas (see October 14), who had been adopted by John’s father Sergius, a man of high rank in the service of the Caliph of Damascus. Both of these young men were instructed by a certain monk, also named Cosmas, who had been taken captive in Italy by the Arabs and later ransomed by John’s father. Saint John became a great philosopher and enlightener of the age on which he lived, and was honored by the Caliph with the dignity of counsellor.
When the Emperor Leo the Isaurian (reigned 717-741) began his war on the holy icons, John wrote epistles defending their veneration. Since the Saint, being under the Caliph of Damascus, was beyond Leo’s power, the Iconoclast Emperor had a letter forged in John’s handwriting which invited Leo to attach Damascus, saying that the city guard was then weak; Leo sent this letter to the Caliph, who in his fury punished John’s supposed treason with the severing of his right hand.
The Saint obtained the Caliph’s permission to have his severed hand again, and that night prayed fervently to the most holy Theotokos before her icon. She appeared to him in a dream and healed his hand, which, when he awoke, he found to be healed in truth. This miracle convinced the Caliph of his innocence, and he restored John to his office as counsellor. The Saint, however, with many pleadings obtained his permission to withdraw from the world to become a monk. He assumed the monastic habit in the Monastery of Saint Sabbas. There he had as an elder a very simple and austere monk who commanded him neither to write to anyone nor to speak of the worldly knowledge he had acquired, and John faithfully obeyed. A monk grieving over his brother’s death, however, after insisting vehemently, prevailed upon John to write a funeral hymn to console him for his brother’s death. When John’s elder learned of his transgression of the rule he had given him, he cast him out of his cell, and would only accept him back after John had humbly, with much self-condemnation and without murmuring, consented to clean all the latrines in the lavra. After his elder had received him back, our Lady appeared to the elder and sternly charged him not to hinder John any longer from his writings and composition of hymns.
In his writings he fought courageously against the Iconoclasts Leo the Isaurian and his son Constantine Copronymus. He was the first to write a refutation of Islam. The time he had spent in the courts of the Moslems of Damascus had given him the opportunity to learn their teachings at first hand, and he wrote against their errors with a sound understanding of their essence. Saint John was names Chrysorroas (“Golden-stream”) because of the eloquence of his rhetorical style and the great abundance of his writings; this name—Chrysorroas—was also the name of the river that flows by Damascus. In his writings he set forth the Orthodox Faith with exactness and order. In his old age, after his foster-brother Cosmas had been made bishop of Maïuma, John was also ordained presbyter by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Having lived eighty-four years, he reposed in peace in 760. In addition to his theological writings, he adorned the Church of Christ with metrical and prose hymns and composed many of the prosomia used as models for the melodies of the Church’s liturgical chant; he also composed many of the sacred hymns for the feasts of the Lord Saviour and the Theotokos. The life of Saint John of Damascus was written by John, Patriarch of Jerusalem (PG 94:429-490).
Text: The Great Horologion © 1997 The Holy Transfiguration Monastery Brookline, Massachusetts 02445
Dismissal Hymn of the Righteous One
GUIDE of Orthodoxy, teacher of piety and holiness, luminary of the world, God-inspired adornment of monastics, O wise John, by thy teachings thou hast enlightened all, O harp of the Spirit. Intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.
From the Prologue of Saint Nikolai
Obedience, coupled with humility, is the foundation of the spiritual life, the foundation of salvation and the foundation of the overall structure of the Church of God. The great John Damascene -great in every good thing- as a monk left a deep impression on the history of the Church by his exceptional example of
obedience and humility.
Testing him one day, his elder and spiritual father handed him woven baskets and ordered him to take them to Damascus and sell them there. The elder established a very high price for the baskets, thinking that John would not be able to sell them at that price but would have to return with them. John, therefore, firstly had to go on a long journey; secondly, he had to go as a poor monk to the city where he, at one time, had been the most powerful man after the Caliph; thirdly, he had to seek a ridiculously high price for the baskets; and fourthly, should he not sell the baskets, he would have made this enormous journey, there and back, for nothing. In this way, the elder wished to test the obedience, humility and patience of his famous disciple. John silently prostrated before the elder and, without a word, took the baskets and started on his journey.
Arriving in Damascus, he stood in the market place and awaited a buyer. When he told the interested passers-by the price of his goods, they laughed at and mocked him as a lunatic. He stood there the whole day, and the whole day he was exposed to derision and ridicule. But God, Who sees all things, did not abandon His patient servant. A certain citizen passed by and looked at John. Even though John was clad in a poor monk’s habit and his face was withered and pale from fasting, this citizen recognized in him the one-time lord and first minister of the Caliph, in whose service he had also been. John also recognized him, but they both began to deal as strangers. Even though John named the all-too-high price of the baskets, the citizen purchased and paid for them without a word, recalling the good that John Damascene had once done for him.
As a victor, holy John returned to the monastery rejoicing, and brought joy to his elder.