The Life of the Righteous Saint John of Damascus
St. John was born around the year 675 AD in Damascus, Syria the capital of the Muslim world. His parents were pious Christians and his father, Sergius served as a minister in the court of the Caliph Abdul Malek. Because of his position, Sergius was able to assist a Greek monk who had been taken captive from Italy was being sold as a slave on the streets in Damascus. Sergius recognized that he was a Christian and brought him into his home to tutor his son John and his adoptive son Cosmas.
The monk's name was also Kosmas, and he trained the boys in theology, rhetoric, natural history, music and astronomy. One day Kosmas said to John's father, “My lord, your desire has been fulfilled. Your children have studied well, surpassing me in knowledge. Thanks to good memories and diligent toil, they have sounded the depths of wisdom. God has granted increase to the gifts bestowed on them, and they can learn nothing more from me. Indeed, they are ready to teach others. Therefore I pray you, my lord, grant me leave to depart for a monastery, where I may become a disciple to monks who have achieve perfection and can instruct me in higher wisdom. The external wisdom I have mastered leads me on to spiritual philosophy, a wisdom purer and more honorable than any worldly science, for it profits the soul and leads it to salvation.” So the family bade farewell to the monk and he departed to the monastery of St. Sabbas in Jerusalem.
John's father soon died and the Caliph summoned John asking to be his chief counselor. John desire to follow the path of his tutor, Kosmas, but he was forced to take the position and had a greater position than his father.
During this time, in the middle of the 8th century, the iconoclastic heresy was at its height in the Byzantine Empire. Leo the Isaurian reigned over the Greek Empire and he was a convinced iconoclast. He had holy icons burned and their venerators were severely persecuted. Although John was far away in Damascus, he was aroused with zeal to write in defense of the iconodules- those who wanted to keep icons in the churches. He argued that since the shadows and handkerchiefs of the apostles healed the sick, why was it not appropriate to venerate their icons. He wrote three articles entitle “On the Defense of Icons”, which were circulated to strengthen and prepare Christians to answer heretical attacks. These articles became the most important arguments in favor of icon veneration.
The Emperor Leo became enraged at John for his writings and their wide circulation. He ordered his scribe to forge a letter, as if in St. John's name, addressed to the Byzantine Emperor. In this letter, John supposedly offers his assistance to Emperor Leo in overthrowing the Caliph. The Isaurian Emperor sent this forged letter to the Caliph to have St. John charged with treason and for proof of the Emperor's friendship with the Caliph.
Despite John's pleas of innocence, the Caliph had his right hand cut off and hung in the market place. That night after recovering his hand, John entered his prayer-room and feel to the floor before his icon of the Mother of Our Lord, the most pure Theotokos. He prayed long before the icon, pouring out his woe and promising to defend the Orthodox faith if his hand was restored him. The Theotokos appeared to the suffering servant of our Lord in his sleep and said: “Your hand has been restored. Do not be troubled any longer, but return to your work and labor diligently, like a swiftly writing scribe, even as you promised me.”
When John awoke to find his hand had been healed he composed the hymn: “in thee, O Full of Grace, all creation rejoiceth” which is sung at Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. News of the miracle reached the Caliph who offered him huge recompense, but John refused. He returned home and distributed his possessions among the poor and freed his slaves. In gratitude to our Merciful Intercessor, the Mother of Our Lord, St. John had fashioned a likeness of his right hand in silver and attached it to the icon before which he prayed that night. This icon received the name, “Three-handed”.
Then John and his foster-brother, Cosmas retired to the monastery of St. Sabbas. The superior and brethren of the monastery knew of John because of his writings and the high position he had held. Finally a wise elder agreed to be John's guide and received him into his cell. For the sake of humility, the elder told John to no longer write anything. John agreed and lived for a long time with the divinely inspired elder.
After some time had passed, the father of a monk who had become friend with John died and asked John to write a hymn for him. At first John refused, not wishing to transgress the command of his elder, but the mourning father did not cease his entreaties. St. John, in a surge of inspiration, wrote one of the most beautiful hymns, which has become part of the Orthodox funeral service. It begins:
What earthly sweetness remains unmixed with grief? What glory stands forever on earth? All things are but feeble shadow or deluding drams - - one moment only and Death shall take their place. But in the light of Thy countenance, O Christ, and in the sweetness of Thy beauty, give rest to him whom Thou has chosen, for Thou only lovest mankind.
The mourner was very moved by the hymn and thanked John. When the elder found out the John had disobeyed the rule set for him, he cast John out of his cell. The monks pleaded for John before the elder who was amazed at John's humility in the penance given him and led him back into the cell exclaiming: “Oh, what a great sufferer for Christ have I begotten! Truly, he is a son of blessed obedience!”.
Soon after the elder had a vision. The Mother of Our Lord appeared to him in a dream saying: “ Why have you sealed the spring of fresh water for which the whole world is thirsty? Let it pour freely and comfort those in need. Let John praise God through his songs.” The elder found John the next morning and said: “O son of obedience to Christ, speak what is stored up in your heart! Let your mouth declare wisdom, announcing the things God has revealed to your mind. Open your mouth and proclaim, no legends and dark fables, but the truths of the Church and her dogmas...”
St. John devoted himself to composing canons, which he did for many feasts, including the Nativity and Baptism of Christ, Pentecost, and Pascha. The most glorious hymn of the Orthodox Church is his Paschal Canon.
First Irmos: On this day of Resurrection, be illumined O People! Pascha, the Pascha of the Lord For from death to life, and from earth to heaven Has Christ our God led us, Singing the song of victory! Refrain: Christ is risen from the dead!
St. John also worked on the Octoechos (Book of Eight Tones), which is used at Divine Liturgy. It was composed by Patriarch Severus of the Syrian Jacobite (Monophysite) church in Antioch in the 6th century. John took the hymns and adapted them for Byzantine worship. St. John also helped establish the Jerusalem Typikon throughout the Byzantine Empire. The typikon included the calendar of feasts for the year and instructions for celebrating special feasts of the Church. It had been compiled earlier by Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem (634-38), according to the practice of services celebrated at St. Sabbas and St. Theodosius monasteries.
St. John wrote the renown book, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”. It is acclaimed as a systematic presentation of basic truths of the Christian Faith. He was ordained to the priesthood sometime before his death in December 4, 749, but he continued his writing and life in the Judean desert.