John Damascene has the double honor of being the last but one of the fathers of the Eastern Church, and the greatest of her
poets. It is surprising, however, how little that is authentic is known of his life. The account of him by John of Jerusalem,
written some two hundred years after his death, contains an admixture of legendary matter, and it is not easy to say where
truth ends and fiction begins.
of John, according to his biographer, when Damascus fell into the hands of the Arabs, had alone remained faithful to Christianity.
They commanded the respect of the conqueror, and were employed in judicial offices of trust and dignity, to administer, no
doubt, the Christian law to the Christian subjects of the Sultan. His father, besides this honorable rank, had amassed great
wealth; all this he devoted to the redemption of Christian slaves on whom he bestowed their freedom. John was the reward of
these pious actions. John was baptized immediately on his birth, probably by Peter II, bishop of Damascus, afterwards a sufferer
for the Faith. The father was anxious to keep his son aloof from the savage habits of war and piracy, to which the youths
of Damascus were addicted, and to devote him to the pursuit of knowledge. The Saracen pirates of the seashore neighboring
to Damascus, swept the Mediterranean, and brought in Christian captives from all quarters. A monk named Cosmas had the misfortune
to fall into the hands of these freebooters. He was set apart for death, when his executioners, Christian slaves no doubt,
fell at his feet and entreated his intercession with the Redeemer. The Saracens enquired of Cosmas who he was. He replied
that he had not the dignity of a priest; he was a simple monk, and burst into tears. The father of John was standing by, and
expressed his surprise at this exhibition of timidity. Cosmas answered, "It is not for the loss of my life, but of my learning,
that I weep." Then he recounted his attainments, and the f ather of John, thinking he would make a valuable tutor for his
son, begged or bought his life of the Saracen governor; gave him his freedom, and placed his son under his tuition. The pupil
in time exhausted all the acquirements of his teacher. The monk then obtained his dismissal, and retired to the monastery
of S. Sabas, where he would have closed his days in peace, had he not been compelled to take on himself the bishopric of Majuma,
the port of Gaza.
The attainments of the young John of Damascus commanded the veneration of the Saracens; he was compelled
reluctantly to accept an office of higher trust and dignity than that held by his father. As the Iconoclastic controversy
became more violent, John of Damascus entered the field against the Emperor of the East, and wrote the first of his three
treatises on the Veneration due to Images. This was probably composed immediately after the decree of Leo the Isaurian against
images, in 730.
Before he wrote the second, he was apparently ordained priest, for he speaks as one having authority
and commission. The third treatise is a recapitulation of the arguments used in the other two. These three treatises were
disseminated with the utmost activity throughout Christianity.
The biographer of John relates a story which is disproved
not only by its exceeding improbability, but also by being opposed to the chronology of his history. It is one of those legends
of which the East is so fertile, and cannot be traced, even in allusion, to any document earlier than the biography written
two hundred years later. Leo the Isaurian, having obtained, through his emissaries, one of John's circular epistles in his
own handwriting -- so runs the tale -- caused a letter to be forged, containing a proposal from John of Damascus to betray
his native city to the Christians. The emperor, with specious magnanimity, sent this letter to the Sultan. The indignant Mahommedan
ordered the guilty hand of John to be cut off. John entreated that the hand might be restored to him, knelt before the image
of the Virgin, prayed, fell asleep, and woke with his hand as before. John, convinced by this miracle, that he was under the
special protection of our Lady, resolved to devote himself wholly to a life of prayer and praise, and retired to the monastery
of Saint Sabas.