Saint of the Week: John of Damascus

Photo by A Whistling Train on Flickr
Photo by A Whistling Train on Flickr

While I was house-sitting for my parents this summer, I read Princess Ileana’s Meditations on the Nicene Creed (yes, this is what I do with my spare time).  Throughout the course of this most delightful and invigorating little book, she frequently quoted from the Exposition of the Orthodox Faith by St. John of Damascus (some say “John Damascene”).  I wrote none of the quotations down, however, thinking to nab a copy from a library when I wanted to reread any.

I’ve never read Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, but the portions I encountered were quite good.  St. John of Damascus was one of those men with an unafraid mind.  He lived from 676-749, born into a Syrian Christian* family of high-ranking officials under the Byzantine Emperors and then, during his lifetime, the Arab Caliphate, for which he himself was an official.  Indeed, since most of the population of the Near East would have been Christian at this time, the Caliphate employed many Christians in the civil service.  This is also common practice of most ancient empires — so long as you get your tribute from them and they leave your soldiers alone, the conquered can do business as usual.

Business for usual for John included more than being an official for the new aristocracy, however.  He is most famous for his defense of icons, which is where I first discovered him.  He argues that in Deuteronomy, when YHWH makes the prohibition on images, the argument made by God is that no one had ever seen Him.  However, when Christ became incarnate, suddenly people were able to see the Second Person of the Trinity.  Therefore, icons are an affirmation of the Incarnation, and the Incarnation is essential to salvation.

One other thing I learned in my reading of his thoughts on icons was the incorporation of the senses into worship.  In most of contemporary Western Christianity, especially certain branches of Protestantism, the only physical sense we incorporate is the sense of hearing.  We worship with our minds.  However, John of Damascus points to the incorporation of all the senses.  We not only hear the hymns and the sermon, but we smell the incense, taste and feel the Eucharist, and behold the icons.  Through these physical media, our giving glory to the Holy Trinity becomes an act of the whole person.

St. John of Damascus wrote in defense of icons because at the time the Eastern Church was going through the Iconoclastic Controversy (726-843).  The Controversy was started by Emperor Leo III who removed all images from Constantinople and sought to impose his will in this matter over the whole Empire.  843 is called the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” by the Eastern Orthodox, and I believe that the Iconoclastic Controversy is the reason why images are more important to Eastern Orthodox worship than Roman Catholic worship — once you have fought for something, you have a greater attachment to it.

Anyway, since St. John was living in Damascus, and Damascus had been conquered by the Muslim Arabs, he was beyond the reach of the iconoclastic emperor.  Therefore, he was able to write in favour of images with impunity.  Although Muslims disapprove of images in their own worship, it seems they did not impose this prohibition upon the dhimmi, which worked in the favour of iconodules such as St. John of Damascus.  Thus he produced his treatises On Holy Images, and they have become central to the Orthodox theology of worship (you can buy modern English translations from Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press here).

St. John of Damascus is also notable because of his dealings with Islam.  To the modern Protestant, with rock-star worship styles and auditorium-like worship spaces, the worship practices of Muslims are strange and foreign.  They pray five times a day.  They bow in a certain way.  They pray specific prayers at specific times.  They go on pilgrimage.  They fast.  However, all of these things are part of the worship of Christians in the Middle East.

So when Damascus was conquered and the Arabs rode in on their horses, built a mosque, and prayed toward Mecca, John didn’t look at them and say, “Oh, a new religion.”  Instead, he said, “Oh, another heresy.”  He did not see Muslims as being something totally other from Christians but simply heretics, and Mohammed as another heresiarch like Arius, Apollonarius, or Emperor Leo III.

I haven’t read On Heresies thought I would like to.  However, one aspect of Islamic theology he found especially unsettling is the denial of the divine and most Holy Trinity.  The treatise includes this as it closes:

But, if you are curious about God, first tell me of yourself and the things that pertain to you. How does your soul have existence? How is your mind set in motion? How do you produce your mental concepts? How is it that you are both mortal and immortal? But, if you are ignorant of these things which are within you, then why do you not shudder at the thought of investigating the sublime things of heaven?

Think of the Father as a spring of life begetting the Son like a river and the Holy Ghost like a sea, for the spring and the river and sea are all one nature.

Think of the Father as a root, and of the Son as a branch, and the Spirit as a fruit, for the substance in these three is one.

The Father is a sun with the Son as rays and the Holy Ghost as heat.

The Holy Trinity transcends by far every similitude and figure. So, when you hear of an offspring of the Father, do not think of a corporeal offspring. And when you hear that there is a Word, do not suppose Him to be a corporeal word. And when you hear of the Spirit of God, do not think of wind and breath. Rather, hold you persuasion with a simple faith alone. For the concept of the Creator is arrived at by analogy from His creatures.

Be persuaded, moreover, that the incarnate dispensation of the Son of God was begotten ineffably without seed of the blessed Virgin, believing Him to be without confusion and without change both God and man, who for your sake worked all the dispensation. And to Him by good works give worship and adoration, and venerate and revere the most holy Mother of God and ever-virgin Mary as true Mother of God, and all the saints as His attendants.

Doing thus, you will be a right worshiper of the holy and undivided Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Ghost, of the one Godhead, to whom be glory and honor and adoration forever and ever. Amen (taken from this webpage)

In the above quotation he takes into account many of the Islamic problems with the Trinity and the Incarnation.  No doubt there are arguments against St. John of Damascus from the Islamic position, for no argument in theology or philosophy is completely unassailable (this also covers many in the natural sciences).  However, in those early days of Islam, we see something important between the Muslims and Christians when they encounter one another.

It is not jihad or Crusade.

It is not an attempt to ignore differences.

It is not a whitewashing of how their theologies are almost completely incompatible.

It is, rather, respectful dialogue and debate.

When someone disagrees with your theology or religion, you produce an argument against him.  You do not take him to court.  You do not fine him large sums of money.  You do not bomb his place of worship.  You do not silence him by force.

Silence him with reason and love.

This is a lesson for both Christians and Muslims today.

As a Prayerbook Anglican, I don’t dig invocations of Saints.  However, let’s at least read these words of an Orthodox hymn as we close:

Champion of Orthodoxy, teacher of purity and of true worship,
the enlightener of the universe and the adornment of hierarchs:
all-wise father John, your teachings have gleamed with light upon all things.
Intercede before Christ God to save our souls.

*Wikipedia says “Arab”, but I disagree.  They cite Peter Brown, so they may well be right; I’ll have to check The Rise of Western Christendom myself to be satisfied.  I think he was probably of local Syrian descent, Syriac and Aramaic (the local languages) being Semitic languages like Arabic, and ancient Syrian culture would have had many cultural similarities to the conquering Arabs — so a Syriac-speaking Syrian could be mistaken for an Arab, especially if Arabs give him an Arabic name that’s almost exactly the same as his Syriac one.  Most people of the Middle/Near East were not and are not ethnic Arabs, although they have similar culture and today speak the language.

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