Confirm our minds, O Lord, in the mysteries of the true faith, set forth with power by your servant John of Damascus; that we, with him, confessing Jesus to be true God and true Man, and singing the praises of the risen Lord, may, by the power of the resurrection, attain to eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Yanah ibn Mansur ibn Sargun, or John Mansur, was born in Damascus, Syria, in the year 676. His parents were wealthy Christians, descended from a long line of Christians. His father, Sergius, was the chief financial officer for the caliph, Abdul Malek. He was later promoted to the position of Prime Minister. He was concerned that his sons, John and Cosmos, might adopt Arab ways, so he searched for a Tutor for the boys. Standing in the market place one day not long after a raid on Italy, Sergius discovered a Sicilian monk among the captured. Sergius was able to convince the caliph to free the monk, Cosmos, whom he appointed to educate his sons. Cosmos taught the boys algebra, geometry, music, astronomy, and theology. Upon the sudden death of Sergius, the caliph appointed John to the position of protosymbulus, or chief councillor.
During John’s time in the court of the caliph, the Iconoclast controversy erupted. The Greek islands of Thera and Therasia experienced an earthquake caused by a volcanic eruption in the sea. The Emperor, Leo the Isaurian, was sure that this was the result of God’s anger at the “idolatry of the Greeks.” He issued his first edict against the veneration of images, requiring the destruction of all mosaics, paintings and statues of Jesus and the saints. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Germanus, tried to dissuade Leo from issuing the edict but was unsuccessful. John, safe under the protection of the caliph, wrote that the destruction of images was not warranted by scripture. He pointed out that images of the cherubim and seraphim adorned the Ark of the Covenant, and that it made sense for Christians to adorn their places of worship with images and paintings of the great events of salvation history. He also said that the destruction of these images “was not very intelligible to the multitude.” In the year 730, Emperor Leo issued a second edict with forbade the veneration of images and outlawed their exhibition in public places. John wrote a second letter on the subject, quoting the Fathers of the Church who were in favor of the veneration of icons. He later issued a third letter warning the Emperor of the consequences of his actions. Of course, none of this correspondence made the Emperor very happy. He decided to destroy John through strategy: he had letters forged which looked just like John’s handwriting. The forgery was a letter from John informing the Emperor that the guards surrounding Damascus were weak and that he would help hand Damascus into Leo’s hands. Leo sent the forged letters to Caliph Abdul Malek, who was shocked to learn of the betrayal of his councillor. He summoned John to his presence and asked him to explain himself. Since John knew nothing of the letters, he offered no explanation. He told the caliph that he was innocent of the charges, but the caliph didn’t buy it and had John’s right hand amputated. John took his hand, placed it back on his wrist and spent the night in prayer to the Blessed Virgin. When morning dawned, his hand had been miraculously restored! (This story is from John of Jerusalem’s biography of John of Damascus, which is not exactly a document which holds up well to historical criticism, to say the least!)
When John took his position in the court of the caliph, his tutor, Cosmos, decided to retire to the monastery of St. Saba, near Jerusalem. John wanted to follow him into a life of renunciation, and, with this career crisis if full flower, he ask the caliph to relieve him of his office (not a difficult decision on the part of the caliph, I’m sure). He sold all he had and gave the money to the poor, and went to St. Saba’s. The monks at St. Saba’s weren’t exactly thrilled to have such a distinguished person come join their ranks. They tried to reject John and then decided to ignore him and pretend he didn’t live with them. Eventually an elderly monk agreed to take charge of John’s spiritual training. It seems that the monk had decided to make life difficult for John as a means of teaching him humility (the stories remind me of the Marpa-Milirapa stories, which always sounded like spiritual abuse to me, but what do I know?). John asked his monk/guru “What is demanded of me?” “Complete silence,” answered the monk/guru. “And beyond this?” John asked. The monk answered, “The renunciation of all secular learning.” John asked again, “and beyond this?” “You shall not use the pen,” was the monk’s reply. This must have been a crushing blow for John. Not long after this incident, he was sent into the streets of Damascus to sell baskets made by the monks. This wouldn’t have been too bad, except he had to demand an exorbitant price for somewhat shoddy goods. The people of Damascus recognized the former councillor of the caliph and heaped abuse and indignities upon him. John, of course, acquitted himself very well in this task. John was forbidden to write, and I’m sure this was painful to him. One day, one of the monks who had just lost his brother, asked John to compose some poetry as a means of consolation. It was an urgent request and one which John found impossible to refuse. When his monk/guru found out, he was so angry at John that he ejected him from his cell and the monastery. The rest of the community eventually convinced him to allow John back into his cell, but as penance John was required to clean all the monastery latrines with his bare hands. John performed his penance humbly, which softened the heart of his monk/guru, who not long later had a vision of the Blessed Virgin in which Our Mother told him he was being too hard on John and should let him write. John was ordained a priest in the year 735, and served in the diocese of Jerusalem, and then retired again to St. Saba’s.
Being allowed, once again, to “use the pen” John became prolific and produced many works of poetry and theological books, among them The Fount of Knowledge and the Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, which influenced Thomas Aquinas. My favorite part of The Fount of Knowledge is On Heresies, which lists all the heresies known at that time (103!), with little descriptions of each heresy. Now, the first eighty heresies are actually lifted from the summaries of the Panarion of St. Epiphanius. John even uses Epiphanius’ short summary on the Massalians, but then suddenly takes off with pages and pages on the Massalians. There is more on the Massalians than on any other heretical group in this book, in fact, the majority of the information we have on the Massalians even nowadays is from this book. There is also a large section on the Ishmaelites, which is actually about Islam. When one reads the lists of heretics, it is easy to believe that most heretics are vegetarians; that seems to be the one aspect shared by the majority of the groups. He wrote On Dragons and On Witches, and he also wrote novels, the most famous being Barlaam and Ioasaph which is an interesting Christian rewrite of the story of the Buddha.
John of Damascus died in the year 750, and the Iconoclastic Controversy was still raging. In the year 754, the emperor Constantine of Copronymus, successor of Leo, called the Great Council of Constantinople, at which John was anathematized: Anathema to Mansur, cursed favorer of the Saracens; Anathema to Mansur, image worshiper and author of falsehoods; Anathema to Mansur who denied Christ and plotted against his Emperor; Anathema to Mansur, teacher of impiety and perverter of the Holy Scriptures. Actually, the Emperor commanded that John’s name be written “Manzer” from Manzeros, or bastard. However, the Seventh General Council of Nicea in 787 changed things and restored John’s honor, even calling him Chrysorrhoas, or “Golden Stream” in reference to his oratory. He was the last of the Church Fathers, and his writing and example is why we remember him today.