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.

Get to Know the Church Fathers: St. John Chrysostom

Get to Know the Church Fathers: St. John Chrysostom

Today, we’re spending time with the Fathers’ Father: St. John Chrysostom.

St. Paul whispering in the ear of St. John Chrysostom as the future fathers of the Church gather to drink from St. John's wisdom. CC image from Ted on Flickr.

St. Paul whispering in the ear of St. John Chrysostom as the future fathers of the Church gather to drink from St. John’s wisdom.
CC image from Ted on Flickr.

There is no way I can possibly do proper homage to this saint in one short blog post–the Church can’t even do it in one feast day! We celebrate St. John three times every year: November 13 for his own commemoration, January 27 for the translation of his relics, and January 30 along with St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian on the the Synaxis of the Three Hierarchs. And that’s not counting the hundreds of times a year the Church commemorates him in the services as part of the dismissal prayers. I mean, he’s kind of a big deal.

St. John was raised by his Christian mother who was a widow and received a high-class “secular” education from the greatest scholars of his day (who were, by the way, pagans). Although it seemed that John would have a career in rhetoric ahead of him, he decided instead to dedicate himself to God as a monk. Extreme asceticism was not the path God had in store for him, however, and due to illnesses brought on by his ascetic lifestyle, he returned home to Antioch where he was ordained a deacon and later a presbyter in Antioch. It was as a priest in Antioch that he became chrysostom or “golden-mouthed,” known for his convicting sermons and thorough commentaries. Today we still have 1,447 of St. John’s sermons and 240 of his letters! I get a writer’s cramp just thinking about it.

Eventually, St. John was made the Patriarch of Constantinople, but it was not to be an easy road for him. Preaching against the moral laxity of the Empress Eudoxia, St. John got himself exiled twice, ultimately dying in exile. His famous last words were, “Glory to God for all things.”

The lasting impact St. John has had on our faith and our Church can hardly be measured. In addition to his homilies and letters, we have from this giant of a man a number of treatises on everything from heresy to monasticism to the priesthood. Oh, and then there’s that little service we do just about every day somewhere in the Orthodox world–the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

Countless later Church Fathers, bishops, priests, preachers, and scholars have looked to St. John for advice on Scripture, ethics, marriage, ordination, raising children, guiding parishes, writing sermons…the list just keeps going. If you ever have a question about our Faith or are confused when reading the Bible, there’s a pretty good chance St. John can help you out, too.

Check out his complete works, or, if that’s just a little too much all at once, you can try these volumes which are collections by topic:

On Living Simply

On Wealth and Poverty

On the Priesthood

On Marriage and Family Life

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.  -St. John’s Paschal Homily, read at every Paschal service



Get to Know the Church Fathers: St. Dionysios the Areopagite

Get to Know the Church Fathers: St. Dionysios the Areopagite

Meet St. Dionysios the Areopagite.

CC image from Wikimedia Commons

CC image from Wikimedia Commons

St. Dionysios (commemorated October 3) is said to be the same Dionysios who was converted to Christianity by the preaching of St. Paul in Athens. St. Paul gave his famous sermon on the Unknown God of the Athenians on a place called the Areopagus, the place where the court of appeals (also called the Areopagus) met. It was thus among lawyers and educated men that St. Paul proclaimed that God “does not dwell in temples made by hands.” While most of the hearers that day in Athens rejected and mocked St. Paul’s teaching, a few were converted and two are listed by name: a woman named Damaris and one Dionysios the Areopagite.

Now, not to go too far down a historical rabbit hole, but I should probably mention that many scholars dispute whether or not the writings attributed to St. Dionysios, known collectively as the Corpus Dionysiacum, were, in fact, written by the same Dionysios mentioned in Acts or by anyone in the first century for that matter. It is claimed that the language in his writings and some of the liturgical allusions he makes could not possibly have been historically appropriate until the fifth or sixth century after Christ. Thus, in spite of his commemoration by the Church as both the Pauline convert and the author of an elegant body of theological writing, you may hear the Athenian lawyer referred to as “Dionysios the Areopagite” and the theological writer as “Pseudo-Dionysios.”

Whew. Let’s crawl back out of that one. St. Maximos the Confessor, who relied heavily on the writings of St. Dionysios for his own theological thought, accepted the Church’s defense that there was only one Dionysios and that he was the convert of St. Paul in Athens and the author. That’s good enough for me.

What’s really important about St. Dionysios is not the century in which he lived, but what he shared with us through his complex, but beautiful writings. St. Dionysios thought a lot about words and images and meaning. He wondered at what the relationship between the words and images of Scripture and the reality they described could be. Was God actually a pillar of fire in Exodus? In what way are the angels actually winged men and wheels of fire and six-winged, many-eyed creatures? Why do we call God Wisdom and Love and Truth? How is that we could ever be called wise or loving or truthful if these are the names or attributes of God? How can we know God if He is of a different nature than any created thing?

Big questions, right? Here’s a little of what I take away from the exposition St. Dionysios gives of his own experience of God.

CC Image from Wikimedia Commons

God goes outside of Himself to create, and so all Creation is outside of and apart from God, and yet, in creating, God imbues all things with Himself in a manner proper to their purpose, their logos or ordering principle. All things–from blades of grass to words on a page to the angels in heaven to you and me– are intended to reveal God while never encompassing or defining him. Thus, when the sun gives light, it symbolizes the Illumination which Christ brings; when a dog is living, it symbolizes the Life which God alone gives; when a man is good, it symbolizes the only One who is good. Dionysios is quick to remind us, though, that while God is the source of illumination, of life, of goodness, he is actually beyond all those things. You can’t get stuck in the image. As soon as you think you’ve found God in a reflection in the world, you realize that He is not there. Dionysios sees this not as a flaw in the Creation, but as its divine purpose–that everything created can point to the Creator without itself becoming an idol in His place. Our very being is found in our ability to be icons of God, in our reflecting the One Who Is. The entire created order reveals God in its very existence, and yet nothing in the world is anything like God.

That’s a lot to take in and really just a little of what St. Dionysios has to say. Here are a few more of his contributions:

Up for a challenging, but beautiful and enlightening read? Check out the full works of St. Dionysios.

God is all things in all things and nothing in any. -On the Divine Names VII.3

Get to Know the Church Fathers: St. Athanasios the Great

Get to Know the Church Fathers: St. Athanasios the Great

Public Domain image from Wikipedia

Public Domain image from Wikipedia

According to the Fathers…

It’s not uncommon in our Orthodox circles to start out a conversation with that line. But what do we really mean when we invoke “the Fathers?” It sometimes sounds as if we are relying on a sacred club of automatons who all thought, spoke, and acted in the same way. As if when we say, “the Fathers,” complete and singular authority rests in whatever follows that line.

In one sense, of course, this is true. The Fathers of the Church “are above all those human beings in whose texts we find the witness to orthodoxy and whose authority could secure the orthodox faith in all its aspects.”1  There is a harmony amongst their writings that emerges as one becomes familiar with their writings, their lives, and the contexts in which they wrote. And in this harmony, the authority of the Fathers is expressed.

But harmony is not the same as monotony. Each Church Father (and Mother) is as unique as you and I are, and their surrounding cultures, personal experiences, lifestyles, talents, and even preferences influenced what they said and did and how they said and did it. As children and inheritors of these great minds, it is good for us to take the time to get to know our ancestors as individuals so that when we invoke their authority, we do so having established an intimacy with them, respecting the individual notes they play in the beautiful harmony of the Orthodox Church.

For the next few weeks, we’ll try to do just that: get to know a few of the Fathers whose lives and words have shaped our Orthodox faith. Of course, a few hundred words will never do any of our great Fathers justice, but my hope is that the little of their stories that I share with you will inspire you to get to know them more deeply by asking for their prayers, reading their lives, and exploring their works.

Today, let me introduce St. Athanasios the Great.

CC image from Wikimedia Commons

CC image from Wikimedia Commons

St. Athanasios (commemorated May 2) was born around 298 in Alexandria, Egypt. A Copt by birth, he received a classical Greek education in addition to a Christian education. He was influenced by the ascetic life of St. Antony the Great and visited him and other desert monks throughout his life. As a teenager, he wrote two of his most famous books: Against the Heathen and On the IncarnationIn the first, he refutes the arguments of the pagans and in the second and more famous work, he lays out the Christian story simply, describing man’s creation and fall and God’s response in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Later, as an archdeacon, St. Athanasios became the foremost name at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea among the defenders of the christological position that Jesus Christ was homoousios or “of one essence” with God the Father. He held this claim in opposition to the Alexandrian presbyter Arius who emphasized the divinity of the Father over the Son, claiming that there was a time before the Son was begotten, thus, the Son must have been created and was of a different essence than his Father and Creator. The Council of Nicaea, to affirm the divinity of Christ, produced the Nicene Creed, the first official version of the creed we recite today in every Liturgy.

After the Council, the controversy of Arianism did not die quickly, and during his time as Bishop of Alexandria, St. Athanasios was exiled from his see five times for his theological position. During these times, St. Athanasios continued to defend the Orthodox understanding of Christ, and finally, in the last few years of his life, he was allowed to peacefully oversee the Alexandrian flock until his death in 373.

A few of St. Athanasios’ other contributions:

If you’d like to read more, but would prefer a version of English that is from this century, check out On the Incarnation from SVS and The Life of St. Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus from Paulist Press.

Let me leave you with some of this Church Father’s own words on Christ’s trampling down death by death:

The body of the Word, then, being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.2 

St. Athanasios, intercede for us.

1. Chrestou, Panagiotes K., Greek Orthodox Patrology: An Introduction to the Study of the Church Fathers (Rollinsford: Orthodox Research Institute, 2005), 14.
2. St. Athanasios, On the Incarnation (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1993), 49.