“What pleasure in this life remains unmixed with sorrow? What glory stands unchanged on earth? All are more feeble than a shadow, all more deceptive than dreams. But a moment and death supplants them all.”Saint John of Damascus (Funeral Idiomela – Tone 1)
Sometimes referred to as “streaming with gold,” Saint John of Damascus (or John Damascene, St. Damaskinos) achieved such heights of honor, respect and love in the Church not only through his writings but chiefly by the seeds of virtue which he cultivated in prayer. It was his father who implanted those seeds; under the yoke of Islam in Damascus, he sought to educate his son in Christian virtue rather than “worldly learning,” and piously prayed that God would bless John with a sagacious teacher in Godly virtues. By God’s Grace, John’s father came upon a captive monk set to be killed, Elder Cosmas, whose humility and virtue oozed like honey. Being the chief counselor of the caliph, he implored for the release of the holy monk, which he obliged, and elder Cosmas was freed to instruct John and his brother Cosmas in virtue and knowledge. Elder Cosmas being a man of humility and discernment, reared the brothers in such a way that they became erudite but not prideful. John, especially, found great fruit in his studies with elder Cosmas and in addition to his studies of the Created (arithmetic, philosophy, grammar), he excelled in his study of the Divine!
Following the repose of his father, John was called upon by force to become the successor to his father as chief counselor to the caliph. Contemporaneously, the Isaurian Dynasty reigned in Byzantium bringing with it Emperor Leo’s reformist zeal and nearly a century of imposed Iconoclasm. Learning what was occurring in eastern Christendom, John surged with zeal and began writing and disseminating epistles against the iconoclastic heresy, defending the holy images and icons citing the Tradition of the Holy Fathers. Hearing of this, Leo forged a letter from John which implored Leo to send his army to liberate Damascus from the Muslims and forwarded it to the caliph. Receiving the forgery, the caliph demanded John’s right hand be amputated and hung in the market as retribution for this alleged betrayal. Divinely-inspired, John pleads the caliph to return his right hand, which he agrees to. That night, he prayed fervently before his icon of the most-holy Theotokos asking her to hasten and heal his hand. Our most-holy Mother does not abandon those who contritely implore her aid and when John awoke he found his hand miraculously reattached! Seeing this, the caliph begged John’s forgiveness and asked him to return to his position within the caliphate, however, John successfully beseeches the caliph to release him from duty so that he may embrace the hesychastic life. In his monastic struggle at Saint Sava’s Monastery near Jerusalem, he continued to excel in virtue, cultivating obedience and patience.
Having strived zealously in the Faith and proving himself as an obedient monastic, the Mother of God once again interceded for our Holy Father, John, appearing in a vision to his elder, saying: “Do not hinder the flow of this spring that will water the whole world, drowning heresies and their bitterness! Let the thirsty hasten to this water, and let those who do not possess the pure silver of an unsullied life sell their passions and gain it by emulating John, a man radiant with purity and good deeds, and most learned in the dogmas of the Church.”
Recognizing his holy obedience, the Mother of God intercedes for her son and blesses him to freely write while wholly in obedience! Saint John began composing many of the beautiful hymns we enjoy today and wrote zealously in defense of the True Faith.
His Mode of Writing
Before diving into the theological elements of his writings, it may be worthwhile to understand the context in which Saint John’s mode of writing was established. Philosophical thought was not foreign to the Holy Fathers of True Orthodoxy, for example, Saint Athanasius, while initially reluctant about using the philosophical terminology “homoousios,” accepts it, understanding the importance of making connections with Greek philosophy. It was this theological and philosophical foundation upon which Saint John forms his writing. Prefacing his great treatise “The Fount of Knowledge: An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” Saint John shows great humility and faith in the Patristic Tradition, saying, “I shall add nothing of my own, but shall gather together into one those things which have been worked out by the most eminent of teachers.” Not only did John utilize the Tradition of the Fathers, he effortlessly articulated the theological positions of the Church with a brevity which escaped those early theologians. The context of iconoclasm allowed John to deliver similar or identical arguments to the Fathers regarding Tradition, however, with a means for the reader to understand the practical implications. It was the virtue of discernment, which Saint John cultivated in Grace and prayer, that allows him to demonstrate not only a reading, but a firm understanding of the Theology expressed patristically. Utilizing this great discerning spirit, Saint John of Damascus offers the Church a repository of grace-filled systematic theological writings by which She will combat heresy for the next millennium and beyond.
While neoplatonic thought was not alien to the theological expression of the Fathers, it was often the source and defense of many heretical ideas. Iconoclasm was no stranger to this, according to Charles Lock, many of the iconoclasts utilizing a dualistic interpretation of Christology in their arguments against the holy images. The Incarnation event is of paramount importance to Saint John as this is where he will combat the dualism, Lock explains: “[the incarnation] answers those iconoclasts who would attribute to Christ the wishes of Plotinus, that, being only accidentally and contingently in the flesh, the true person cannot be represented by an image of the flesh. Such an argument leads straight to docetism, the gnostic heresy that Christ only appeared to be in a body, but actually remained purely and solely ‘in the spirit’”
John considers iconoclasm as an attack on the Incarnation and the Christological Tradition established by the Fathers in Chalcedon, spending a great deal of his quill establishing theology of the Incarnation. The Damascene’s rebuke against the dualist iconoclasts begins with his defense of icons (and thus the Incarnation) in his treatise, “Against those who decry Holy Images.”
Finding it necessary to distinguish between the depiction and the depicted, Saint John focuses on the Orthodox understanding of the deification of matter by the Incarnation, professing: “Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter..”
Although impious, the iconoclasts still reverenced the bread and wine as Body and
Blood of Christ; with knowledge of this he retorts, “is not the body and blood of our Lord matter?” Saint John makes clear, in a practical sense, his understanding of matter and its deification, imploring, “Either do away with the veneration and worship due to all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the worship of images, honouring God.” The Holy Fathers of Nicea in 787 confirmed this understanding of the deification of matter and adopted it, saying, “For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented.”
In Defense of Grace
Having defended the Incarnation and its implications for deifying matter, Saint John further develops his theology of deification by moving to defend the icons of saints and their veneration. Since, unlike Christ, the saints are not God by nature, some iconoclasts argued against the depictions of saints in icons. On the “worship” of creatures, that holy Damascene exhorts: “I cherish them … not on their own account but because they show forth the divine [energies] … I venerate and worship angels and men, and all matter participating in divine [energies] and ministering to our salvation through it.”
John’s appreciation for created matter stems primarily from his understanding of the Energies and their operation through the Spirit, for he says, “the Son is the natural image of the Father…and the Holy Spirit is the image of the Son.” In this way, the Holy Spirit appears to be mystified since there is none to be revealed to, however, Vladimir Lossky offers some insight into the Damascene’s understanding of this revelatory hierarchy: “The divine persons do not assert themselves, but one bears witness to another … The Holy Spirit, as person, remains unmanifested, hidden, concealing himself in his very appearing… The Holy Spirit is the sovereign unction upon the Christ and upon all the Christians called to reign with him in the Age to come. It is then that this divine person, now unknown, not having his image in another member of the Trinity, will manifest himself in deified persons: for the multitude of the saints will be his image.”
Lossky clarifies that the Holy Spirit does not remain “unknown,” or imageless, but that the deified Christians will receive the image of the Holy Spirit! This life in the Spirit, in the Energy of Grace, is true deification, according to Saint John. Knowing that God’s Energies bring us into the dwelling of the Holy Spirit, John concludes that matter which has been deified in grace is worthy of veneration: “[matter] by itself is of no account, but if the one presented in an image be full of grace, men become partakers of his grace according to their faith.” Saint John’s interpretation of the icons of saints ultimately culminates in their ability to exist as tools of learning. Through the holy icons, we are inspired in prayer towards the saints to lead lives akin to theirs, recognizing the Grace of God which dwells within them and seeking it through their holy example.
Saint Athanasius of Alexandria boldly proclaimed, “The Word was made flesh, that we might be made God.” It could be said that Saint John’s primary theological goal was to defend Athanasius (who needed no such defense) in his claims about divination, formulating a theology of Theosis from the iconographic context. In fact, even in the conclusion of Chapter IV of his great work, the Exact Exposition, he mentions Theosis, saying: “The divine apostle [Philip]… says, For our conversation is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus, Who shall change our vile body that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body: not meaning change into another [bodily] form (God forbid!), but rather the change from corruption into incorruption.“
Therefore, we are to understand that our divination comes not by a release from the body but from a transformation of our intellect towards the Spirit. Loosely quoting Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, he says: “as the divine Dionysius the Areopagite said, God is the cause and beginning of all: … the intellect of all intelligent beings: the recalling and restoring of those who fall away from Him: the renovation and transformation of those that corrupt that which is natural the holy foundation of those who are tossed in un-holiness.”
Furthermore, not only is there potential for matter to be fully defied in its human form, but that God is the “cause and beginning” of all these actions. We derive our divinity from Him alone and in Him do we begin our journey towards Theosis, which Fr. David Hester defines as “the gradual process by which a person is renewed and unified so completely with God that he becomes by grace what God is by nature,” This language hearkens back to Saint John on moving “from corruption to incorruption.”
This is what the Damascene speaks of when he says, “that He might elevate our nature and make us partakers of His divine nature.” Christ took up human nature so that our nature may experience divinity and we may have the opportunity to bring ourselves into the divine nature. Saint Gregory Pallamas later confirms this in his Pallamite theology, citing the fragrance associated with the holy relics of the saints. As established earlier, John greatly chastised the dualists and emphasized the necessity of deification to make matter complete again. Theosis, for Saint John, does not end in our earthly form: “in the age to come, he is changed and—to complete the mystery —becomes deified by merely inclining himself towards God; becoming deified, in the way of participating in the divine glory and not in that of a change into the divine being.”
Our inclination towards God only allows us to begin our journey towards deification and true Theosis; the true transformation occurs when we depart this life and our soul is obediently released from the body, for the Lord “bestowed the gifts both of resurrection and of subsequent incorruption even on our own body.” Let us not diminish Saint John’s understanding of the divination of the earthly form, for he said, “every God-inspired man may be called Christ but yet he is not by nature God.” We do not understand that every man who achieves Theosis is “God,” but rather those in pursuit of theosis are on the path towards true divinity through earthly participation in the divine nature.
To this end, patristic scholar Brian Daley concludes that, “John Damascene brings the early Church’s hope for human divination to its final, unmistakable form as a vital part of the Christian tradition.” Truly, his valiant defense of icons did not merely help to preserve divine artwork, but rather, it brought a theology of Theosis into the iconographic controversy! According to Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, the iconoclasts, bogged-down by their own dualistic tendencies, could not bare the idea that God became man and opened the door to a deified human nature once and for all. Their impiety caused them to see the divine images and feel grave compunction rather than heart-felt contrition, thus, they shut the door of Theosis
Our holy father amongst the saints, John of Damascus shone brilliantly with divine grace and abundant love for all of creation. He struggled valiantly, in obedience to the Mother of God, to defend the Truth of our Church and to deify Her Life and She rewards him with Her most glorious crown of sainthood! Saint John destroyed the falsehoods of the iconoclasts and confirmed our understanding of matter awaiting deification; he shattered the idealogical icons of the iconoclasts and defended the Energies of God and the grace which deifies all things; finally, he tore asunder any false notion about our relationship with the all-holy Godhead, affirming God’s call for us all to seek His divine Grace and Energy! While in his great humility, he “hesitated to undertake a task exceeding my capabilities and to presume to enter into the Holy of Holies like some bold and foolhardy person,” the divine grace guided his journey in defense of the icons and Holy Orthodoxy. This same grace (that which only comes from God) directed his steps accordingly as he brought together the Energies of beauty and truth in his divinely-composed hymns and prayers for the Church.
Interestingly, although we understand the great impact Saint John of Damascus had against the iconoclasts, Fr. George Florovsky claims that, “John of Damascus does not settle the question of the painting and veneration of ikons in his writings,” rather: “the fundamental principles of the doctrine of veneration of ikons were expressed by St. John: ikons are possible only by virtue of the Incarnation, and iconography is inseparably connected with the renewal and deification of human nature which were accomplished in Christ…In other words, the doctrine of the veneration of ikons has a Christological basis and significance.”
Fr. Florovsky reminds us of the inseparable link between the Patristic Tradition and the Theology of the Church. Saint John was no stranger to this, in fact, his writings would strengthen the patristic foundation upon which his successors will defend Truth! This is the Holy Orthodox Church— a Church adorned with holy icons, steeped in the biblical-patristic understanding, and embracing of all creation. This is the Church which Saint John fought to preserve so that generations to come could be blessed with a proper understanding of our deification. Let us honor and glorify his words so that we may be made to dwell amidst the eternal-Word!
Saint John of Damascus. The Fount of Knowledge: An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. Translated by Rev. G. N. Warwick. Patristic Society. https:// gotiskakyrkan.weebly.com/uploads/1/2/9/5/12957650/ thefountofknowledge.pdf.
Saint John of Damascus. Against Those Who Decry Holy Images. Translated by Thomas Baker. London: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1898. January 18, 2001. http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0675-0749,_Ioannes _Damascenus,_Apologia_Against_Those_Who_Decry_Holy_Images,_EN.pdf.
Saint Dimitri of Rostov. “Life of Saint John of Damascus.” MYSTAGOGY RESOURCE CENTER. December 04, 2012. Accessed January 28, 2019. https:// www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/12/life-of-saint-john-damascene.html.
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Lock, Charles. “Iconic Space and the Materiality of the Sign.” Religion and the Arts 1, no. 4 (Winter 1997). Accessed February 19, 2019. https://www.academia.edu/ 20332839/Iconic_Space_and_the_Materiality_of_the_Sign.
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Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church. London: J Clarke, 2005.
Saint Athanasius of Alexandria. “On the Incarnation of the Word.” New Advent – Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed February 19, 2019. http://www.newadvent.org/ fathers/2802.htm.
Hester, David. The Jesus Prayer: A Gift from the Father. Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2001.
Daley, Brian E. The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010.
Ware, Kallistos. The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity. London: Penguin Books, 2015.
Florovsky, George. The Byzantine Fathers of the Sixth to the Eighth Century. Vaduz, Europa: Buchervertriebsanstalt, 1987.