Today is the Feast of St. John Damascene. Also known as St. John of Damascus, St. John Damascene was a Syrian monk and priest who died in Mar Saba, near Jerusalem. On feastdays in Lent, more usually the Mass of the Lenten feria is said with only a commemoration of the feast - unlike the other seasons in the Church's liturgical year.
St. John Damascene - also known as St. John of Damascus - was born in 645 AD and lived until 749 AD. The Roman Martyrology on this date proclaims: "St. John Damascene, priest, confessor, and doctor of the Church, whose birthday is commemorated on the 6th of May."
Butler's Lives of the Saints fittingly summarizes his life and example:
ST JOHN OF DAMASCUS, the last of the Greek fathers and the first of the long line of Christian Aristotelians, was also one of the two greatest poets of the Eastern church, the other being St Romanus the Melodist. The whole of the life of St John was spent under the government of a Mohammedan khalif, and it exhibits the strange spectacle of a Christian father of the Church protected from a Christian emperor, whose heresy he was able to attack with impunity because he lived under Moslem rule. He and St Theodore Studites were the principal and the ablest defenders of the cultus of sacred images in the bitterest period of the Iconoclastic controversy. As a theological and philosophical writer he made no attempt at originality, for his work was rather to compile and arrange what his predecessors had written. Still, in theological questions he remains the ultimate court of appeal among the Greeks, and his treatise Of the Orthodox Faith is still to the Eastern schools what the Summa of St Thomas Aquinas became to the West.
The Moslem rulers of Damascus, where St John was born, were not unjust to their Christian subjects, although they required them to pay a poll tax and to submit to other humiliating conditions. They allowed both Christians and Jews to occupy important posts, and in many cases to acquire great fortunes. The khalif J s doctor was nearly always a Jew, whilst Christians were employed as scribes, administrators and architects. Amongst the officials at his court in 675 was a Christian called John, who held the post of chief of the revenue department — an office which seems to have become hereditary in his family. He was the father of our saint, and the surname of al-Mansur which the Arabs gave him was afterwards transferred to the son. The younger John was born about the year 690 and was baptized in infancy.
With regard to his early education, if we may credit his biographer, " His father took care to teach him, not how to ride a horse, not how to wield a spear, not to hunt wild beasts and change his natural kindness into brutal cruelty, as happens to many. John, his father, a second Chiron, did not teach him all this, but he sought a tutor learned in all science, skilful in every form of knowledge, who would produce good words from his heart ; and he handed over his son to him to be nourished with this kind of food ".
Afterwards he was able to provide another teacher, a monk called Cosmas, " beautiful in appearance and still more beautiful in soul ", whom the Arabs had brought back from Sicily amongst other captives. John the elder had to pay a great price for him, and well he might for, if we are to believe our chronicler, " he knew grammar and logic, as much arithmetic as Pythagoras and as much geometry as Euclid ". He taught all the sciences, but especially theology, to the younger John and also to a boy whom the elder John seems to have adopted, who also was called Cosmas, and who became a poet and a singer, sub- sequently accompanying his adopted brother to the monastery in which they both became monks.
In spite of his theological training St John does not seem at first to have con- templated any career except that of his father, to whose office he succeeded. Even at court he was able freely to live a Christian life, and he became remarkable there for his virtues and especially for his humility. Nevertheless, after filling his responsible post for some years, St John resigned office, and went to be a monk in the laura of St Sabas (Mar Saba) near Jerusalem. It is still a moot point whether his earlier works against the iconoclasts were written while he was still at Damascus, but the best authorities since the days of the Dominican Le Quien, who edited his works in 17 12, incline to the opinion that he had become a monk before the outbreak of the persecution, and that all three treatises were composed at St Sabas. In any case John and Cosmas settled down amongst the brethren and occupied their spare time in writing books and composing hymns.
It might have been thought that the other monks would appreciate the presence amongst them of so doughty a champion of the faith as John, but this was far from being the case. They said the new-comers were introducing disturbing elements. It was bad enough to write books, but it was even worse to compose and sing hymns, and the brethren were scandalized. The climax came when, at the request of a monk whose brother had died, John wrote a hymn on death and sang it to a sweet tune of his own composition. His master, an old monk whose cell he shared, rounded upon him in fury and ejected him from the cell. " Is this the way you forget your vows ? " he exclaimed. "In- stead of mourning and weeping, you sit in joy and delight yourself by singing." He would only permit him to return at the end of several days, on condition that he should go round the laura and clear up all the filth with his own hands. St John obeyed unquestioningly, but in the visions of the night our Lady appeared to the old monk and told him to allow his disciple to write as many books and as much poetry as he liked. From that time onwards St John was able to devote his time to study and to his literary work.
The legend adds that he was sometimes sent, perhaps for the good of his soul, to sell baskets in the streets of Damascus where he had once occupied so high a post. It must, however, be confessed that these details, written by his biographer more than a century after the saint's death, are of very questionable authority.
If the monks at St Sabas did not value the two friends, there were others outside who did. The patriarch of Jerusalem, John V, knew them well by reputation and wished to have them amongst his clergy. First he took Cosmas and made him bishop of Majuma, and afterwards he ordained John priest and brought him to Jerusalem. St Cosmas, we are told, ruled his flock admirably until his death, but St John soon returned to his monastery. He revised his writings carefully, " and wherever they flourished with blossoms of rhetoric, or seemed superfluous in style, he prudently reduced them to a sterner gravity, lest they should have any display of levity or want of dignity ". His works in defence of eikons had become known and read everywhere, and had earned him the hatred of the persecuting emperors.Collect:
Almighty and Eternal God, You endowed blessed John with divine learning and wondrous fortitude of soul in order that he might defend the veneration of sacred images. May the example and prayers of blessed John help us to imitate the virtues and enjoy the protection of the saints whose images we venerate. Through our Lord . . .