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SAINT JOHN DAMASCENE

Confessor and Doctor of the Church, c.676-749

Although John Damascene's life ends conventionally enough for a saint-he died in the monastery of which he was a member-it begins like a tale from the Arabian Nights. His family was an old Syrian one that lived in the ancient city of Damascus, where the members managed both to retain their Christian faith and to find favor with the caliphs. Some office in the caliphate was held by John's father, and to this office John succeeded at his father's death.

Although he lived amidst the luxury of the fabulous court, John kept his Christian faith and furthermore became one of its greatest champions. Besides his live and active piety, he had a keen mind that had been well trained in his youth by a learned Italian monk. This monk had been captured in Sicily by Arab pirates and carried off to Damascus, where he remained as a teacher.

His learning and devotion finally drew John away from the court life; its meaningless splendor and luxury could not help but pall for a man of his spiritual maturity, and eventually he left Damascus to become a monk in the monastery of Mar Saba at Jerusalem. There he spent most of his free time in study and writing.

Soon after John was ordained, the first wave of the iconoclastic heresy swept over the Near East. This erroneous belief held that veneration of sacred images was sinful and John attacked it in a series of brilliant works directed at the iconoclast emperor, Leo the Isaurian. The attacks were most effective, helping to squelch the heresy (which broke out again after John's death) and earning John the lasting hatred of the iconoclasts.

Besides these works, he composed many liturgical hymns and poetry and produced a great amount of theological writing, the most famous of his works being Fountain Of Wisdom. The most important section of this work is entitled "Of the Orthodox Faith," and in it John presents Christian dogma with the help of Aristotelian philosophy in much the same way that Saint Thomas Aquinas did five hundred years later. Both John's hymns and his theology are still used by Eastern Christians, who regard his works as highly as Western Christians do those of Saint Thomas.

The year 749 is sometimes given for John's death but this is simply a scholarly guess. One tradition has it that he lived to be over a hundred years old, which would have him dying much later than that year. He is known as the last of the Greek Fathers (those theologians who belonged to the Eastern Church and wrote in Greek) and was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1890.

 

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