It is difficult for American Christians to imagine the restrictions experienced by those living under hostile, non-Christian rulers. In our increasingly “multi-cultural” society, all religions practiced within our borders are given equal protection under the law and discrimination on religious grounds is illegal. Americans are free to worship whomever and however we please. In most times and places, this freedom has not existed, and many saints of the church led devoted Christian lives under very restricted circumstances. Such was Yanah ibn Mansur ibn Sargon, known to us as St. John of Damascus, a shining light of Orthodox Christianity living under Muslim rule at the beginning of the iconoclastic controversy.
A Christian city by the 4th century, Damascus was conquered by Arab Muslims in 636 and became important as the residence of the Caliph. The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist – which had originally been the site of a 9th century B.C. Aramaen temple and had been converted to a temple of Jupiter by the Romans before becoming a Christian church – was taken over as a mosque, but Christians were allowed to continue using the western section of the church for worship. John’s family had been prominent public officials for many generations and, although they remained faithful Christians, they were allowed to continue holding office. After John’s birth (around 675) his father, Sergius, a minister of finance, paid for the freedom of a captured Sicilian monk, Cosmas, and engaged him to provide thorough instruction in science and theology for the intelligent boy.
As a young man, John succeeded to his father’s post in government, but soon found that the somewhat tolerant attitude of the Muslim rulers was changing. In 705, Caliph Al-Walid decided to build a grand mosque to surpass all others, and he evicted the Christians from their former cathedral (construction over the next ten years resulted in the large Omayyad Mosque still in use today). Tension between Muslims and Christians increased.
The story is told of John that, through some intrigue, the Caliph was informed that his Christian official was plotting against him, so he had John’s hand cut off to make an example of him. After many prayers and petitions for the intercession of the Theotokos, the hand was restored. It may have been this miracle that prompted John to resign his position with the government in Damascus and enter the monastery of St. Saba in the desert near Jerusalem.
Mar Saba is still a living monastery, where every day for more than 1500 years, the monks have risen at 2:00 a.m. to sing the morning Office. When John and his former tutor, Cosmas, came to St. Saba around the year 716, they joined a community of scholars, theologians and poets. It was here that the restored hand of John of Damascus produced great hymns and his most famous work, The Fount of Knowledge. This work, in several sections, contains an exposition of 103 heresies, including Islam (the heresy of the “Ishmaelites”) in which he reveals a thorough knowledge of the Koran and the practices of those who had ruled his land all his life.
John also included in his list of heresies the iconoclasts (Christianocategori), Christians whose distorted view of the use of the images of Christ and the saints (possibly through Muslim influence) had been spreading in the Byzantine Empire. In 726, the iconoclastic Emperor Leo issued orders for the destruction of the Holy Images and John of Damascus became a spokesman for the Orthodox. Living in Palestine, away from the raging controversy and the persecution of the iconodules, John wrote On the Divine Images, defending the icon as a reminder of the Incarnation and condemning the secular authority for interfering in ecclesiastical matters.
St. John continued writing and, as he had been ordained to the holy Priesthood, eloquently preaching for the remainder of his long life, and he died in the peaceful refuge of his monastery in the year 749. His works were translated into many languages and disseminated throughout the world, exercising lasting influence in the Church. He is considered the greatest systematic theologian of the East. May the example and prayers of St. John the Damascene help us to preserve the Orthodox faith against heresies in our day, and may he intercede for those Christians who maintain their faith in non-Christian lands.