Lives of the Saints
RIGHTEOUS JOHN OF DAMASCUS
He was raised in Damascus, Syria, the capital of the Moslem world. When he was ten
years of age, his father found a learned monk in the secular studies as well as music
and theology. He instructed John and his adopted brother, Cosmas, and John made
great progress in theology. At last, the monk departed saying to their father, Sergius,
that his sons had become remarkably wise. Sergius soon died, and John was chosen
for his office of counselor to the caliph.
During this time, John wrote convincingly against the
iconoclasts and Leo the Armenian, as well as the Moslems. He effectively used
deductive arguments, history, and parables of the saints. Against the iconoclasts, he
argued that since the shadows and handkerchiefs of the apostles healed the sick,
why was it not appropriate to venerate their icons. His letters were circulated to
strengthen and prepare the people to answer the attacks of the heretics. Seeing this,
the emperor wrote a letter in John's hand that had him condemned to the caliph for
whom he worked. The caliph had his right hand cut off and hung in the market place.
That night, John recovered his hand and prayed before an icon of the Theotokos,
called of the three hands, promising that he would write hymns for Orthodoxy if he
were healed. He slept, and she told him that he was healed and to write. The caliph
freed him, and he became a humble monk. He wrote canons, troparia, idiomela, festal
homilies for feast days of Jesus and the Theotokos, the saints and prophets. He
established the Typikon, the order of services. He became the mouth piece of all the
bishops of the east and also became a  bishop himself. He died peacefully at 104
years of age.  
A longer Account of his Life
The renowned writer and Church poet, Saint John Damascene,   served at the court of
the caliph in his youth and was the ruler of the city of Damascus. A native of Syria,
he lived in the middle of the 8th century, when the iconoclastic heresy was raging in
the Byzantine Empire: icons were being destroyed, and their venerators were being
severely persecuted. Being a highly education man and a gifted writer, John very
convincingly wrote in defense of the Orthodox veneration of icons. The Greek Emperor
Leo the Isaurian, a convinced iconoclast, became enraged at John for his
compositions. He ordered his scribe to learn Saint John's handwriting and to write a
letter, as if in his name, addressed to the Byzantine Emperor, in which John
supposedly offers his services to the Isaurian in  overthrowing the caliph. The
Isaurian Emperor sent this forged letter off to the caliph as proof of his friendship
towards the caliph and the treason of John Damascene. The eastern despot, without
investigating the matter and not accepting John's explanation, ordered that he be
confined in prison and that his  right hand, which had supposedly written the
treasonous letter, be cut off. Having a icon of the Mother of God with him in the
prison, Saint John placed his cut­off right hand before it and prayed long before the
icon, pouring out his woe. The Immaculate Virgin appeared to the sufferer in his
sleep, and gazing mercifully at him said: "Thy hand is now whole; sorrow no more".
John awoke and with joyful astonishment saw that the cut­off hand had adhered to
its place and become whole, just as before. Only a narrow scar remained that
reminded of the punishment. In an excess of joy and gratitude to the merciful
Intercessor, John composed in his soul the hymn: "In thee, O Full of Grace, all
creation rejoiceth". This hymn is sung in Church till now at the Liturgy of Saint Basil
the Great. News of the miracle reached the caliph, and he, on summoning John,
patiently investigated his case and became convinced of his innocence. Realizing that
he was guilty before John, the caliph, in order to make amends for his unjustness,
offered him a huge recompense and high honors. But John, having come to
understand how fragile earthly goods and worldly glory are, refused everything. In
gratitude to the Mother of God, he ordered a representation of his hand in silver and
fastened it to the icon before which the miracle was performed. This icon received the
name, "Three­handed".
Having distributed his possessions, he retired in the attire of the common people to
the monastery of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified, which is located twenty­five kilometers
southeast of Jerusalem. Since John was a very renown man, none of the monks of the
Lavra of Saint Sabbas could bring himself to take him as a novice. Finally, one elder
agreed to direct him on the condition that for the sake of humility John would no
longer write anything. John agreed and began to live and labor in the monastery as
an ordinary monk.  In a few years, the father of a monk who had become friends with
John died, and he asked John to write some kind of requiem prayer for him. In a surge
of inspiration, Saint John wrote the prayers­hymns which till now are sung in church
at funerals. One of this hymns begins with the words "What sweetness in life does
not partake of sadness…" In the versification of the poet, Alexei Tolstoi, it sounds
thus:
What sweetness in this life
Does not partake of earthly sadness?
What expectation is not in vain,
And where amongst men is the happy man?
All is changeful, all is paltry
That with difficulty we have gained ­
What glory on earth
Stands firm and unchanging?
All is ashes, a phantom, shadow and smoke,
All vanishes like a whirlwind of dust,
And before death we stand
Unarmed and powerless.
The arm of the mighty man is weak,
Null are the commands of kings ­
Receive thy servant now fallen asleep,
O Lord, into the dwellings of the blessed."

On learning that John had violated the obedience that had been placed upon him and
had written a prayer, the elder became angry at him and wanted to expel him from
the monastery. Then all the brethren of the monastery began to  intercede for John.
The elder agreed to forgive the disobedient one on the condition that he clean out all
the filthy places in the monastery with his own hands. Saint John humbly fulfilled this
severe demand of his elder. After this, the Mother of God appeared to the elder in his
sleep and said: "Do not stop up my well­spring any longer. Grant it to flow unto the
glory of God". On awakening, the elder understood that it was pleasing to God that
John Damascene dedicate himself to the labor of writing.
From that time on, no one hindered John any longer from writing theological
compositions and composing liturgical prayers. In the course of several years of
uninterrupted labors, he enriched the Church with many compositions, prayers and
liturgical canons, which till now adorn the Orthodox divine  services. Many hymns of
the Paschal, Nativity and other festal divine services belong to his pen. The
Octoechos (Book of the Eight Tones), which is used at the Sunday divine services,
was compiled by him. Being a penetrating theologian, Saint John wrote the renown
book, "An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith", in which he summed up the basic
truths of the Christian faith. Saint John Damascene died in the year 777.



St. John Damascene[1]
Father of the Church
A.D. 780

MAHOMET, the great impostor, subdued a considerable part of Arabia before his
death, which happened in 632. His successor, Abubeker, extended his conquests into
Chaldea and Persia. Omar, the second caliph of the Saracens, subdued Palestine,
Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, before the death of the emperor Heraclius, in 641.
Othman, the third caliph died in 655, and Ali the fourth, in 660. This last founded the
sect of Mahometanism which the Persians follow, and which the Turks and others who
adhere to the interpretations of his predecessors, Omar and Othman detest above all
other religions. Such was the posture of affairs in the East, when St. John was born,
in the declension of the seventh century, at Damascus, from which city he received
his surname; by the Saracens he was called Mansur. He was of a noble and ancient
family, and his father, though always a zealous and pious Christian, was held in great
esteem by the Saracen caliphs for his high birth, probity, and abilities, was advanced
by them to the first employment of the state, and made their chief secretary or
counselor. The pious statesman was the more watchful and fervent in all duties of
religion, the greater the dangers were to which he saw his faith exposed. Being
chiefly solicitous for the education of his son in innocence and piety, amidst the
dangers of such a court, he purchased the liberty of a learned and devout Grecian
monk, named Cosmas, who, having been taken prisoner by the Saracens, was brought
to Damascus for sale. Him he appointed tutor to his son, and to another youth called
Cosmas, the charge of whose education he had taken upon himself. The preceptor
entered into the views of the zealous parent and bent his whole attention to defend
the tender plants from the rude winds of trials and temptations. The caliph was much
taken with the capacity and virtue of John and, after the death of his father, made
him governor of Damascus, his capital city. After Ali, the dignity of caliph had passed
into another family, called the Ommiads. The name of the first of these was Moavia.
This prince and his immediate successors treated the Christians with courtesy and
mildness; and so great were the abilities and such the transcendent virtue of John
that he enjoyed his prince's favor without envy. But he always trembled at the sight
of those spiritual dangers with which he saw himself surrounded. He was sensible
that, in a flow of plenty and prosperity, the heart is apt to warp towards vice and the
world, and he dreaded the contagion of the air he breathed. He therefore, at length,
came to a resolution to resign his honors, and soon after disposed of his estates in
favor of the church and the poor, and with Cosmas, a companion, withdrew secretly to
the great Laura of St. Sabas, near Jerusalem. Cosmas was afterwards chosen bishop
of Majuma, in Palestine.

Saint John, in his solitude, rejoiced to see himself delivered from the slavery of the
world and placed in a happy state of uninterrupted tranquillity, where his years
passed away without one heavy minute, and where he had no other occupation but
that of employing, without distraction, all his thoughts and endeavors on the end of
the creation, the securing the salvation of his soul. He considered the important work
which he had upon his hands and set himself in earnest to learn perfectly to subdue
his passions and walk in the paths of true virtue. With this view, he addressed
himself to the superior of the Laura, who gave him for director an experienced old
monk. This great master in a spiritual life, conducting the novice to his cell, gave him
the following short lessons: First, that he should never do his own will, but study in
all things to die to himself, in order to divest himself of all inordinate self-love or
attachment to creatures; secondly, that he should frequently offer to God all his
actions, difficulties, and prayers; thirdly, that he should take no pride in his learning
or any other advantage, but ground himself in a sincere and thorough conviction that
he had nothing of his own stock but ignorance and weakness; fourthly, that he should
renounce all vanity, should always mistrust himself and his own lights, and never
desire visions or the like extraordinary favors; fifthly, that he should banish from his
mind all thoughts of the world, nor ever disclose to strangers the instructions given
him in the monastery, that he should keep strict silence, and remember that there
may be harm even in saying good things without necessity.

By the punctual observance of these rules, the fervent novice made great progress in
an interior life and Christian perfection. His director, to promote his spiritual
advancement, often put his virtue to severe trials. He once sent him to Damascus to
sell some baskets, and having set an exorbitant price on them, forbade him to take
less. The saint obeyed his director without the least demur and appeared poor and ill-
clad in that great city, in which he had formerly lived in splendor. On being asked the
price of his ware, he was abused and insulted for the unreasonableness of his
demands. At length, one that had been formerly his servant, out of compassion,
purchased his whole stock, at the price he asked, and the saint returned to his
superior, victorious over vanity and pride. It happened that a certain monk, being
inconsolable for the death of his brother, the saint, by way of comforting him, recited
to him a Greek verse, importing that all is vanity which time destroyeth. His director,
for his greater security against the temptation of vanity or ostentation, on account of
learning, called this a disobedience in speaking without necessity and, by way of
chastisement, turned him out of his cell. The humble saint wept bitterly to heal this
wound of disobedience in his soul, as he confessed it to be, and without endeavoring
to extenuate the fault, though in itself so excusable, begged the monks to intercede
for him to his director for pardon. This was at length obtained, but only on condition
that with his own hand he should cleanse out and carry away all the filth that lay
about the monastery -- which condition the saint, to whom humiliations were always
welcome, most cheerfully complied with.
So accomplished a virtue made his superiors judge him worthy to be promoted to the
priesthood, which was then much more rare in monasteries than at present. This
dignity served only to increase his humility and terror. His director at length thought
him sufficiently grounded in habits of profound humility and self-denial to be
permitted to employ his talents in writing for the edification of others and the service
of the church, without falling into the dangerous temptations of self-conceit and
pride. For a secret vanity or self-complacency often robs even the Christian writer of
the fruit of his labors before God; and an eminent author calls this base weakness of
vanity the last foible of great geniuses. John had given proof, long and severe trials,
that an entire contempt of himself and a feeling sense of his own weakness and
absolute insufficiency were deeply rooted in his heart, when his superiors thought him
sufficiently armed against this snare to be employed in teaching their theological
schools. Soon after, they ordered him to take up his pen in defense of our holy faith
attacked by the Iconoclast heretics. The emperor Leo, the Isaurian, had published his
edicts against holy images, in 726, and had found many followers, when St. John
entered the lists against that heresy. He begins his first discourse, or oration, on this
religious subject as follows: "Conscious to myself of my own baseness and
unworthiness, I ought rather to condemn myself to an eternal silence, weeping, and
confessing my sins before God. But seeing the church, which is founded on a rock,
assailed by a furious storm, I think I ought no longer to remain silent, because I feel
God more than an emperor of the earth." He lays down for the foundation of the
dispute that the church cannot err: consequently it could never fall into idolatry. He
explains what is meant by the adoration due to God alone -- which, with St. Austin
and other fathers, he calls Latria -- and that inferior veneration which is paid to the
friends and servants of God, which is entirely different and infinitely beneath the
former, and no more inconsistent with it than the civil honor which the law of nature
and the holy scriptures command us to pay to princes and superiors.             
He shows that the veneration which we pay to the things which belong to God, as
altars, &c., is not less distinct from the supreme honor we give to God. He says the
precept in the old law, which forbade images (if it be not to be restrained to idols)
was merely ceremonial and only regarded the Jews -- which law, if we restore, we
must equally admit circumcision and the Sabbath. He testifies that the Iconoclasts
allowed a religious honor to be due to the holy place on Mount Calvary, to the stone
of the sepulcher, to the book of the gospels, to crosses and sacred vessels. Lastly,
he proves the veneration of holy images by the testimony of the fathers. In his
second discourse he teaches at large that the emperor is entrusted with the
government of the state, but has no authority to make decisions in points of
ecclesiastical doctrine. In the third, he demonstrates the use of holy images from the
tradition of the fathers.
The dogmatic writings of this great doctor show the extent of his genius still more
than his controversial; and in them the strength and clearness of his reasoning can
be equaled only by the depth of his penetration and the soundness of his judgment.
* His most important and celebrated work is The Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,
divided into four books, in which he reduces all the branches of theology which the
ancients explained in several scattered works into one regular body, which gives this
sublime study the advantage of excellent method, connects all its parts in a short
system, and sets them all together in one clear point of view.  
This work was the first plan of the scholastic method of teaching divinity, which St.
Anselm introduced much later among the Latins. St. John composed many holy
canticles, and to his fellow pupil, Cosmas, is the Greek Church indebted for the
greater part of the sacred hymns which it uses in the divine office.
St. John traveled into Palestine and also to Constantinople, to encourage the faithful
and to defend the use of holy images in the very seat of the persecutor, Constantine
Copronymus. But he returned again to the Laura of St. Sabas, in Palestine, where,
being in the dominions of the Saracen caliph, he continued to defend the church by
his pen. We have the unexceptionable testimony of Dr. Cave, that no man can have a
sound judgment who, reading his works, doth not admire his extraordinary erudition,
the justness and precision of his ideas and conceptions, and the strength of his
reasoning, especially in theological matters. But Baronius observes that he was
sometimes led into mistakes with regard to historical facts by faulty memoirs. John
IV, patriarch of Jerusalem, extols his great skill in mathematics. Amidst his studies
he was careful to nourish in his heart a spirit of devotion by constant recollection and
daily contemplation. For it is the reflection of a great man and an eminent scholar,
writing to contemplative persons, "that without assiduous prayer, reasoning is a great
dissipation of the mind, and learning often extinguishes the humble interior spirit of
prayer as wind does a candle." In another place he calls too close application to
mathematics the death of the spirit of prayer, and adds: "Suffer not yourself to be
bewitched with the enchantment of geometry. Nothing will sooner dry up in you the
interior spirit of recollection and devotion." St. John, to shun this rock, was careful
that his studies should never degenerate into a passion; he never suffered them to
dissipate his mind or encroach on his exercises of devotion or any other duties, and in
his inquiries shunned all idle curiosity. Having by retirement prepared himself for his
last passage, he died in his cell about the year 780. His tomb was discovered near
the church of this Laura, in the twelfth century, as John Phocas testifies.
From the works of the saint, and the histories of those times. His life written by John
IV patriarch of Jerusalem, who lived two hundred years after him, borrows the first
part, before his monastic profession, from uncertain memoirs. See Nat. Alex. sæc. 8;
Fleury, b. 42; Papebroke May 6; Ceillier, t. 18, p 110.
[1] Butler’s Lives of the Saints – March 27.
St John of Damascus