John Damascene (or John of Damascus) was the last of the great Eastern Fathers of the Church. Unlike most of the others, he lived not in the Eastern Roman Empire, but under the Muslim caliph of Damascus. This had its advantages, however, as we shall see.
Once the Mohammedans had conquered Palestine and its environs, they were shrewd enough to tolerate their Jewish and Christian subjects. Indeed, they even employed them in high positions. Thus, St. John’s father, John al-Mansur of Damascus, was head of the caliph’s internal revenue service.
The father saw that his son was given the best possible education, secular and religious. When the Muslims brought in as a captive Cosmas, a brilliant and congenial Sicilian monk, John Senior engaged him as John Junior’s tutor. Cosmas also taught, at the same time, another Cosmas, who seems to have been the John Senior’s adopted son. (This Cosmas would end up a bishop, and also a saint.)
Even though St. John studied theology, he did not originally intend to enter the religious life. He succeeded his father in the revenue service, and won a fine reputation for his Christian witness in the Muslim court, especially for his humility. However, around 700 A.D perhaps because the new caliph was less well-disposed to Christians, John resigned his state position and became a monk in the monastery of St. Sabas near Jerusalem. Cosmas the younger joined him there. Both monks spent their spare time writing books and composing hymns.
Now, some of the older ascetics at St. Sabas thought that book-writing and hymnody were worldly practices. John’s spiritual director told him that he should be mourning his sins, not indulging in song. He therefore punished him, whereupon the saint at once stopped his writing and composing. But Our Lady, according to the legend, came to the spiritual director in a dream that same night and told him to let the monks from Damascus pen and harmonize as they chose.
Father John went on to become one of the two best hymnodists among the Greek Fathers. He was also a brilliant preacher, winning the popular nickname “Chrysorrhoas” (“Golden Speaker”). But he would be remembered chiefly for his theological writing. His main work he called “The Source of Knowledge”. It was basically a summary of Christian faith according to the Creed of Nicaea. As a theologian he was not an innovator, nor was he acquainted with the writings of the Western Fathers, but his writing was clear, balanced, reliable.
St. John also wrote smaller works on many religious subjects (including one about the superstition of dragons and fairies!).
He was most noted, however, for three discourses against iconoclasm. Iconclasm (imagebreaking) was a contemporary error promoted for political reasons by the Eastern Roman emperors. It rejected as “idolatry” the traditional Christian use of icons and statues of Christ and the saints. John vigorously attacked the heresy as out of kilter with Christian doctrine and practice. It is permissible, he said, to make and use images of Christ and the saints, and even angels (for they, too, have sometimes appeared in human bodies). The first commandment, he said, forbids adoration of anyone but God, but it does not forbid veneration. Images instruct, remind us of God’s blessings, stimulate piety, and serve as a link and channel of grace between the holy person represented and the faithful on Earth.
Several emperors struck out hard at those who denounced their iconoclasms, even to the shedding of blood. But St. John they could not police, for he was not under the jurisdiction of Christian Constantinople but of Muslim Damascus. In 787 A.D. a more orthodox ruler convoked the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea. Here the right of Christians to venerate images was formally defined.
By that time St. John Damascene was already called to his reward. But if today we make use of icons, holy pictures and holy statues in our churches and homes, we owe our freedom largely to the learned monk at St. Sabas who valiantly defended the right of Christians to this ancient and loving practice.
–Father Robert F. McNamara