Feast Day: December 05
John was born in Damascus to a wealthy family five years after the death of Mohammed, by which time Islam had spread rapidly and Damascus had become a Muslim city. His father, a Christian, enjoyed high rank in judicial offices serving the Muslim caliph. When John was 22, his father searched for a suitable philosophy and theology tutor for him. He happened upon a learned monk named Cosmas, who had been captured by Saracen pirates and was being sold as a slave. John’s father either bought Cosmas or begged his life, and gave him his freedom and set him up as John’s tutor. John devoured everything he could read and showed an almost unprecedented intellectual capacity. He applied his learning to defending the faith, especially against the heretical iconoclasts.
John became involved in the Iconoclast heresy over the veneration of religious images, a well-established practice in the Eastern Church. In 726, Emperor Leo III prohibited the veneration of religious images. Around 730, John wrote his famous defense of the use of icons, “On Holy Images.” The fact that he lived in Muslim territory gave him a freedom of expression that he might not have had otherwise. Legend has it that the irate emperor forged a letter purportedly from John to him, offering to betray the city of Damascus, and had it sent to the caliph. The caliph ordered John’s hand to be cut off in punishment. John prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary that his hand might be restored. He fell asleep by her image, and when he awoke, his hand had been miraculously restored. The caliph sought to reinstate him, but John went to the monastery of St. Sabas instead.
At the monastery, John spent his time writing and in prayer. He wrote more than 150 works on philosophy, religious education, theology, and hagiographies. His friends called him Chrysoorhoas (“golden stream”) for his oratorical gifts. He is considered the last Church Father, chronologically speaking. His legacy is noted not so much for original theology as for his ability to compile the works of others in encyclopedic fashion. He wrote numerous sermons and treatises, including a defense of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s title as “Theotokos (“God-bearer”).
His most famous work is “The Fountain of Wisdom,” which is the first summary of connected theological opinions and basic truths of the faith, drawing on such eminent theologians as Saints Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, and Epiphanius. It became a standard work for the Scholastics, among them the great Saint Thomas Aquinas.
John died at the monastery Mar Saba. His works were translated into Arabic, Armenian, and Georgian long before they were translated into Latin.
“Nothing is greater than the peace of the Church. The law and the prophets came to make it possible. For this, God was made man. This is what Christ came to announce; this he gave to his disciples before his passion and after his resurrection… he left his peace to his disciples and through them to the Church. This peace is to live according to what is good.
—St. John Damascene, “De fide orthodoxa”
Burns, Paul. “Butler’s Saint for the Day.” Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2007.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. “The Encyclopedia of Saints.” New York, NY: Checkmark Books, 2001.
Trigilio, Rev. John, Ph.D, Th.D, and Rev. Kenneth Brighenti, Ph.D. “Saints for Dummies.” Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 2010.