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Barlaam And Ioasaph by St. John Of Damascus

ST. JOHN, who from the place of his birth derives his title Damascene, was born in or about the year 676, and died, it is thought, after 754 but before 787. For details of his life we depend entirely upon John, Patriarch of Constantinople and Martyr, 963–969: from whom we gather that St. John Damascene was of gentle blood, and came of Christian ancestors, whose family name was Mansur, the Arabic for victor. His father was given to good works, and made no secret of his religion, nor was this considered by the Saracen as any bar against his holding high office at the Court of Damascus, and in this respect he was not unlike Joseph in Egypt, and Daniel in Babylon before him.

The old Mansur had a son, John by name; besides him, he had an adopted son called Cosmas. When John and his foster-brother Cosmas were old enough, their education was committed to the charge of an elderly and learned Sicilian Monk and Priest, whose name also happened to be Cosmas. He had been carried away captive from Sicily, and was standing in the Market-place at Damascus, doomed to death or slavery, when the old Mansur pleaded with the Caliph for his life, ransomed and took him to his own home. There the old Monk Cosmas, fearing the judgement threatened to the slothful servant who possessed the talent but made no use of it, soon fell to work and began to instruct his two pupils in rhetoric, dialectic, philosophy, natural history, music, astronomy, and above all in theology. This done, old Cosmas withdrew from Damascus to the Monastery of St. Sabas, near Jerusalem. On the death of his father, John Mansur was summoned to court and pressed to accept the office of πρωτοσύμβουλος or chief-councillor. To this request, after some little persuasion, he consented.

At that time the Eastern Church was in the throes of the Iconoclastic heresy.3 In 726 Leo the Isaurian passed his first royal edict against the veneration of sacred images. At Damascus St. John entered the arena against him, and vigorously defended this practice as the ancient and lawful heritage of the Christian people. Moreover he stirred up the Faithful to resist and ignore the edict. In 730 there followed a second royal decree, more arbitrary than the former. To this St. John Damascene replied with greater zeal and eloquence than before. No marvel, therefore, if the Emperor resented the contradiction of this able and learned opponent, who sheltered himself, as he considered, under the wing of the Caliph of Damascus. So, being unable to overwhelm St. John Damascene by force or argument, Leo determined to compass his ruin by stratagem. For which purpose he forged letters addressed to himself, purporting to be written in the hand-writing of St. John at Damascus, privily informing the Byzantine Emperor that the guard at Damascus was weak and negligent, and promising Leo that, if he sent sufficient troops, he could easily capture the city, and might count on the writer’s co-operation. This forged letter was then despatched to the Caliph: and for a while the latter believed that his once faithful πρωτοσύμβουλος had been guilty of base treachery. Nothing short of a miracle, which the historian relates, cleared up the mystery, and finally restored the Damascene to his master’s favour and confidence.

Soon after this, being constrained to ‘forsake all and follow Christ,’ St. John begged the Caliph to relieve him of his office, and at last with difficulty obtained permission to retire from public life. Having sold all his worldly goods, and distributed to the poor, with but one coat on his back, he retired, together with the younger Cosmas, his former playmate (hereafter to be known as Cosmas the Melodist, and Bishop of Maiuma), to the monastery of St. Saba, whither his old tutor, Sicilian Cosmas, had already gone, ‘esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures’ in Syria, and accounting the dry desert better than ‘Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus.’ Here later on he was ordained Priest of the church of Jerusalem. Here he fasted and prayed. Here he composed his famous Canons, Odes, Idiomela, Stichéra, Cathismata, Troparia, Theotokia, and the like. Here he set in order the Greek service books, supplying that which was lacking for the Eastern, as did St. Gregory the great for the Western church. And lo! he, that was once dubbed by his enemies ‘Mamzer’ (Hebraicè ‘bastard’), ‘a cursed favourer of Saracens’ ‘a traitorous worshipper of images,’ ‘a wronger of Jesus Christ,’ ‘a teacher of impiety,’ and ‘a bad interpreter of the Scriptures,’ is now, from his defence of sacred images, fitly styled ‘the Doctor of Christian Art,’ is surnamed ‘Chrysorrhoas’ (the Golden-stream), and has ‘deservedly won the double honour of being the last but one of the Fathers of the Greek church and the greatest of her Poets.’

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