Get to Know the Church Fathers: St. John of Damascus

Get to Know the Church Fathers: St. John of Damascus

As we are all daily praying for and thinking of our brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq, today I thought we’d get to know a saint who hails from that region–St. John of Damascus.

St. John (commemorated December 4) is most commonly known as one of the champions of Orthodoxy in the iconoclasm controversy of the ninth century. While serving as an official for the Muslim caliph in Damascus, John famously wrote three treatises in defense of the icons in response to Emperor Leo III’s decree banning images in the churches of Constantinople. Angered, Emperor Leo sent a letter addressed to himself forged in the handwriting of John to the caliph in Damascus which claimed that Damascus was ripe for the conquering. Though John proclaimed in innocence before the caliph, he was sentenced to having his right hand cut off as punishment for supposedly writing the letter. His hand was hung in the courtyard, but John begged for it to be returned.

That night, he kept vigil before the icon of the Theotokos, begging her to restore his mutilated hand. She granted his prayer, healing his hand and amazing the caliph. In gratitude, St. John placed a silver hand on her icon–an icon that became known as the “Icon of Three Hands” (which now lives on Mt. Athos…read her whole story here).

Eventually, St. John became a monk and a priest at St. Savvas monastery, and it was there that he composed his great body of theological works. Of all of these, perhaps the most notable is tome The Fount of Knowledge which includes The Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, the first known comprehensive summary of the dogmatic tradition of the Orthodox Church. What does that mean? Well, basically, St. John compiles, organizes, and explains 800 years of Christian theology, everything from the Trinity to the Creation, from the Incarnation to the Resurrection, not to mention also chapters on circumcision, anger, virginity, images, faith, sacraments, fear, pleasures, the Antichrist, angels, and hymns, to name a few.

As if defeating iconoclasm and explaining all of Orthodox theology weren’t enough, St. John also:

  • compiled a chronicle of every conceivable heresy of his day (part of The Fount of Knowledge) and a number of longer treatises refuting them
  • contributed to the form and content of the Octoechos, the book of the eight tone cycle in Byzantine music
  • wrote a Christianized version of the story of the Buddha known as Barlaam and Josaphat

If you interested in getting to know St. John better or learning more about iconography in our Tradition, I suggest the Three Treatises on Divine Images. It’s a quick read (really, the first of the three is the best and could be read in one or two sittings) that would be great for a chapter discussion or two.

We do not change the boundaries marked out by our Fathers. We keep the Tradition we have received. If we begin to lay down the Law of the Church even in the smallest things, the whole edifice will fall to the ground in no short time.