Sunday, March 21, 2010
Their Church has apostolic roots, meaning that there has never been a time since the day of Pentecost when it did not exist and meaning that it was not founded by any human. In the older terminology of the Church, it is said of the Faith that it is Orthodox, which is a Greek word meaning “of right opinion” or “giving right glory.” That is, correct opinion is revealed in worship. Thus, it was not originally called the Orthodox Church. It was only called the Universal Church (“Catholic” in Greek). The Rum Orthodox Church was called Orthodox Catholic in later eras. The two terms are in fact synonymous. So Orthodoxy is the equivalent of Catholicity, and is not dependant on anything linguistically. The Muslim Arabs called what is now the Church of the Rum Melkite, or royal, because they considered them at the time to be of the religious opinion of the Byzantine emperors. This was not always true since we differed with the Byzantine patriarchs for a short time during the reign of Heraclius, who was a supporter of monothelitism, and we differed with the patriarchs who fought against icons, ending in 843.
It remains that the dominant Arabic name was true, because the Rum mentioned in the Quran were the Eastern Romans, that is the Byzantine Empire, which is the Western name for the Romans of the East who considered themselves to be of the Roman Empire, which in their view was still undivided. This is a mistake that Europeans fell into when they translated the term “al-Rum al-Orthodox” as “grec orthodoxe” in French and similarly in English. We are not tiny remnants of Alexander’s Greek army who settled these coasts. Panteleimon al-Jawzi, compiler of the Russian-Arabic dictionary, affirmed that at the coming of Christ’s apostles to Syria or the Fertile Crescent we were Arameans. The expression “Rum Orthodox” thus does not mean that we are of Greek descent.
Liturgical language is a different matter. It was Greek in the cities, the result of Alexander’s occupation, and Syriac in the countryside. This has nothing to do with sectarian differences. All the Christians used Greek or Syriac, according to their region. Our language gradually became Arabized and we have written in Arabic since the ninth Christian century and we have been eloquent in it since the eleventh century, when we debated the Muslims in the court of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, and their language was no more beautiful than ours. Syriac remained beside Arabic in Church services and priests would use this language according to what their flock knew. That is, the Byzantine liturgy was performed in Syriac for a long time and the Gospel was read in it in our churches until the sixteenth century.
To say that this Church is Arab by blood or by heritage or language would be incorrect. However, it is true that during the time of the Arab Revolution during the First World War she felt her own Arabness. We in Syria and Lebanon supported prince Faysal. This means that we rejected French colonialism and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire that resulted from it.
Once, with Ghassan Tueni, I tried to describe the Orthodox politically, and I said to him:
Nous sommes d’empire. It is not easy to translate this expression into Arabic. I explained to Ghassan that at the beginning of Christianity that we felt that we were within the Roman Empire (which is the same as the Byzantine Empire). After the Islamic conquest, we entered into the Dar al-Islam, in terms of governance but not religion. This is what we explained to the Umayyads when we arranged their finances and when we built a fleet for them in the port of Tripoli even while they forbade our belief and our worship.
However, we did not feel that we belonged to the Crusader principalities that persecuted us to the point of bloodshed. In the Islamic era the system of dhimmitude was not applied at all times. It is not historically true that our mentality was a dhimmi mentality while others did not have this mentality. All the Christian subjects of the Ottoman sultan paid the jizya when there was a jizya. However, it was legally abolished in the middle of the 19th century in the empire when it adopted civil law. I humbly say that I hope that Christians do not compete in denying dhimmitude. Those who implement it abandoned it one hundred and fifty years ago.
The Orthodox do not mix their religious affiliation with their civil governance. During the events of 1958, when fractiousness overtook the country, the Orthodox were one with the Lebanese government against what it considered territorial interference. During the last civil war, they did not have a militia and their Church neither blessed nor condemned any of her sons if they joined one political party or another. It is possible to say, even today, that the entire Orthodox people is Lebanese in Lebanon and there is no crisis in this. One should add that since 1975 the Church has taken explicit positions against Israel all of which appear in the record of the Synod of metropolitans headed by the patriarch and this was done entirely freely. This position was taken out of love for the Holy Places and to sanctify the rights of the Palestinian people. Not once did we talk about the Christians of Palestine, but rather about all Palestinians.
In domestic politics, the Orthodox do not have a single position, because deep down they do not feel themselves to be one sect among others. They know themselves as a Church. For this reason it is ontologically impossible for them to march behind Orthodox political leaders. They never once had a political leader, not because they are divided, but because they have forbidden political benefits for any one believer because they consider these benefits to have nothing to do with eternal life.
Today it is said that they have started to feel themselves cheated in matters relating to government positions. The newspaper al-Liwa recently made this clear with a rather academic list of names and positions. Twenty or more years ago I was talking to an Orthodox minister about this and he said to me that we can’t begin to do anything without taking a census. Perhaps the distribution of government positions took place without regard for the sect of the position-holder. But, a man has the right to wonder why high positions escape the most qualified Orthodox and they are left to be content with crumbs. I think that we in this country have sufficient understanding. But, before we abolish political sectarianism (and important people tell us that this would take two or three further agreements) we are still under the rule of political sectarianism. There are psychological minorities. Do not force this upon the fourth-largest group in the country, which, even if it is humble in its own self-estimation, is inferior to none in love of country and inferior to none in sacrifice for it. The Ottoman governates in greater Syria knew the gifts the Orthodox had for management and finance.
I am not asking for anything right now. And I am not giving advice on the level of spiritual guidance. But, I hope that the government, for its own benefit, will use employ good people. Ali ibn Abi Talib said, “Understanding. Understanding. I hope that we shall have a state built upon understanding.”
Friday, March 19, 2010
Antiochian Monastic Renewal in the 20th Century Part I: Hamatoura
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Metropolitan Basil (Mansour) Lays the Cornerstone for the First Monastery in Akkar
From An-Nahar. H/T Antiochians in Nice.
Metropolitan of Akkar Basil Mansur presided over the celebration of the laying of the cornerstone of the Monastery of Our Lady of Arbaya (Dormition of the Theotokos) in the village of Baynou Akkar in the presence of a large number of dignitaries, including the Abbot of the Monastery of Our Lady of Balamand, Archimandrite Isaac Barakat.
Among the metropolitans’ words were the following: “God is the one who builds, and he is the one who gives us the blessing, blessing us with what is present. He is the one who helps us and who provides builders with materials for the buildings they construct and provides those who give for its construction. The project at hand is the construction of a church with several rooms with an area of 300 square meters.” He hopes that the monastery’s large building will be completed in 2011.
Turning to the former vice prime minister of Lebanon, Issam Fares, he said, “We cannot do any good work without remembering Him and we cannot be in any place without recalling His name out loud. In the desert of this country, full of thorns and problems and labyrinths, He illumines the way and He illumines our souls with great comforting. This is why, in His presence and in your presence, I am not afraid of building the monastery which will be built through our reliance on God.”
His eminence stated that, “An archdiocese without monasticism is like a body without a soul, and without monasteries, the Church would be like a body without a head.” He wondered, “Why do monasteries and holy places spring up in mountains and valleys all over Lebanon, but there is not one such place in this region?”
Monday, March 8, 2010
The original can be found here.
Orthodoxy and Nationalisms
I do not wish to speak about the history of nationalisms or their development. Most of that would be research and information from documents, and that is not the purpose of this article. Most talk, in this age, is disconnected from reality. Hear something, and you’ll be happy, but look at it, and you’ll be sad! It’s always disappointing. Existentially, the Son of God is the Word because there is no separation between his reality and his word. The two are the same. Among people, it is different. People’s thoughts are hopes and imaginings and rationalizations, but their realities are lurking passions that are sometimes perverse. For this reason, I will limit myself to talking about the reality of nationalisms and human groups in general, in the current reality of Orthodoxy here and there.
To belong to a single cultural heritage, in every aspect—intellectually, historically, geographically, linguistically—to have a sense of rootedness, comes automatically to groups of people. It is not harmful in itself for people to feel sympathy for each other in this way. People have families, large and small, and they all have, despite it all, their values and customs. There is no escaping the reality of the tribe or the group. No man is an island, and whenever people join together, even if it is for an idea or a single vision, then a tribe or a group forms, even if it is liable to break apart after a time. But in a tribe there are things that enrich and things that damage, noble things and shameful things. Experience at all places and times has shown that groups will bury their head in their own collective selfishness, and then psychologically cut themselves off from others and then restrict relations with other groups to alliances with them, in order to seek their mutual interests, or enmity towards them, in order to protect their own interests. This is an experience—no, a reality—that all have surrendered to. Outside of this framework, doubtless, there have always been practiced on a personal level and are deviations from the rule for groups. This state of mind has ruled and dominated mankind and continues to rule and dominate mankind to a large degree. This is the inheritance of the Fall. Mankind rarely speaks the language of a single heart. What attracts them oscillates between individual egoism and group egoism. In this view, there is no place for expressing love. There are only interests. And groups grow or shrink or are eliminated, constantly to absorbing each other or melting in the crucible of their interests.
Christ the Lord alone confronted, in the deepest sense, this unhealthy natural reality in man and in groups. His sympathy for the Samaritan woman, the Canaanite woman, the centurion—all foreigners to Israel—and likewise for the tax collector and the adulteress in the face of those with personal righteousness was a clear blow against Jewish nationalism and the partisanship of the Pharisees and other parties of the ancient Hebrew mosaic of Jewish groups. Then, when the Apostles went out into the world preaching the Word of God, the Church became the perfect family of the Heavenly Father and of the Heavenly Father only. All mankind came to it, after having been dispersed since the beginning of history. Jesus announced that he came to separate son from father and daughter from mother, and daughter-in-law from mother-in-law, and that a person’s enemies are his own family (Matthew 10:35-36). Additionally, Jesus pointed out that the heavenly Father of all is one, and that the teacher is one, Christ, and that all are brothers (Matthew 23:8-10). In this way, the Lord Jesus made himself a foreigner in Israel- foreign to its egoism, to its vainglory, to its nationalism—and also foreign to all the tribalisms of the people of the world in general. In this way he also made himself close to all the peoples and drew them in to himself. A new concept of kinship took root: I make my kin by the mercy of God! The Church became the replacement [to earlier ideas of kinship]. In the Church, all nationalisms and tribalisms and individual or collective egos were extinguished. By the Spirit of love, mankind became a heavenly nation facing the kingdom of heaven. It is a mistake to imagine, after this, that tribes and nationalities, with their selfish divisiveness, are still acceptable. Christ has overthrown their spirit! Their existence outside the Church is a constant threat to the Church and their existence within the bounds of the Church is an even greater threat! Any taint of nationalism, wherever it is allowed in the Church, pierces the spirit of the Church at its core. It is not true that there is a Greek or Russian or Ukrainian or Arab or Romanian or Bulgarian church. There is One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in a single location, regardless whether that location is in Greece or Russia or Ukraine or the Arab countries or Romania or Bulgaria or elsewhere. This single location refers to the place where those who follow the single faith in Jesus gather, not to the dependence of the Church on a particular nationality, whatever that nationality may be. The Church is not a vehicle for nationalisms and tribalisms! When the Church is dominated by the spirit of nationalism it dies, no matter how fine it’s cultural heritage! There is no spirit left in her! She becomes a temple of bones! It is given to us to lead every thought towards obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) and not to lead Christ into the service of the egoisms and nationalisms of the sons of this age! For this reason, nationalisms are to this day the greatest threat to the stability of the Church, to her purity and continuation. We must renounce them and combat them with all our might so that the truth of the Gospel remains our only frame of reference and Jesus our only teacher and the Father our only master and all of us brothers in the Spirit of the Lord.
In light of the above, it shames us that the Church of Jerusalem is today a battlefield between Greek nationalism and Arab nationalism! Do we not see the crimes committed in God’s name, during the course of this, there? Those with Greek nationality terrorize and oppress the Arabs and suffocate them, while those with Arab nationality despair and murmur and bear a grudge?! Souls are filled with doubt and uncertainty, rage and indignation, antipathy and enmity. Through our opinions and behaviors we have made the Church of Jerusalem into a den of noetic thieves where we sell the words of God and the services, the canons and the holy places and the charities in order to feed our individual and collective egos?! Is this the Church of Christ?! Is this the Church for which Christ gave himself?! Is this the bride?! No. Never. This is not the Church of Christ in Jerusalem, in the strict sense of the word. Unfortunately, it is only some isolated parts and aspects, here and there, that preserve the faith of the Church of the Apostles and Saints. The majority of people, including those in charge, sold their souls to their passions and to this age and have made themselves, without knowing it, servants of the antichrist.
Likewise it shames us that the Church in America becomes a group of branches for the national churches in the Old World. The national Orthodox churches have become in some American cities something closer to ecclesial or even political embassies for their mother churches or for the countries that they are in! Do you not see that it is not true Orthodoxy that gathers us together in America, but rather egoistic nationalisms within pagan tribes?! We understand that in some churches services are held in national languages for recent immigrants, but what about those who have been in America for fifty or more years?! Do we not see that hearts are not united and hands are not joined together in the service of God and that goals are not coordinated in order to witness to Orthodoxy and that no one pays attention to proper Orthodox churchliness? Every man for himself! Do we not see the churches being exploited for tribal or political or economic ends?! Why is there one church for the Antiochians (that is, Lebanese and Syrians and Palestinians), and another for the Greeks and another for the Russians and another for the Romanians, all only a few minutes away from each other?! Why can we not join together in worship and love and frequent teaching, since we are all within one Orthodoxy and one earth and one language?! Why can we not cooperate to preach Orthodoxy within a milieu that is hungry for it?! Why this fragmentation? Why this distance between hearts?! Is it too much to ask for Orthodoxy to be our sole umbrella, rather than nationalisms and tribalisms?! Vain, ingrained nationalisms in the American churches are not from God—they are against God! They are the causes of schism and weakness and despair and scandal for the Church of Christ, especially for the youth, the newly-illumined, and those being guided to Orthodoxy! Nationalisms, in all their forms, must be combated in every possible way in America so that the Church remains the bride of Christ alone! Orthodoxy of Spirit and Truth never aligns itself with nationalism! Either we lead every thought towards obedience to Christ or Orthodox nationalisms will entrench the worldly church in this world and we will cease to exist as a Universal Church!
What is said about America and Jerusalem can be said of other nationalistic, tribalistic Orthodox churches- the Russian and Ukranian and Greek and Romanian and Serbian and others. Its entrance into the members wounds right to the core! Most Orthodox Lebanese in Kuwait go to the Maronite church because most of the people at the Orthodox church there are Syrians, including the priest!!! Enough of this vanity! The normalization of nationalisms in the Orthodox Church is a manipulation of Orthodoxy for worldly purposes! And we wonder: is there a way out of this dark tunnel? There is-- by the grace of God and fasting, prayer, wisdom, purity, a sincere united striving and a voice crying out, even if it sometimes is in the wilderness, we can do all things believing in the truth of the Gospel. Our enemy, at this evil time, is still mostly from within, not from without! Thus the call to us is always, “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them (Ephesians 5:11).” To stay silent about clear sin, in this evil time, is to be a mute devil!
Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan the Athonite- Douma
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Go look at it here.
And, if you haven't already, go look at my index of NOCTOC's posts on Orthodoxy in Lebanon here.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
About Saint Gregory Palamas
The second Sunday of Lent is the commemoration of Saint Gregory Palamas. He also has a feast on the 14th of November, which is the commemoration of his repose in 1359. In the year 1368 the synod of Constantinople announced his sainthood and described him as “the greatest among the Fathers of the Church.” Who is he and what is his importance?
He was from a noble family of Anatolia that had immigrated to Constantinople and his parents were spiritually luminous. He had two brothers and two sisters, all of whom, along with the servants of the family, became monastics. Until the age of twenty, he was immersed in secular learning, studying the natural sciences, rhetoric, and logic, diligently studying philosophical thought. He mastered secular learning to the point that he became able to knowledgably disdain it. He found it empty and useless from the perspective of knowledge of God and of salvation, being one in whom the seeds of piety and sensitivity to things divine had been sewn from his childhood, so he renounced it and became a monk. Later on, in his First Triad, he advises that one should receive a small amount of training in the sciences of the world because they cause the eye of the soul to develop keen vision, but that he should put it aside and focus his efforts on what is more heavenly, more sure, and more useful by far, since God “generously recompenses the setting aside of [secular] literature.” (The First Triad, p. 32 of the Arabic edition).
He went out to Mount Athos first. He became a disciple of the elder Nicodemus near Vatopedi and would warmly pray to the Theotokos. He spent three years in firm prayer and fasting and vigil. He would constantly pray “Give light, O Lord, to my darkness! Give light to my darkness!” Saint John the Theologian appeared to him and informed him that the Theotokos had made him his helper in all things in this life and the next.
He moved to the Great Lavra for three more years. Through the grace of God and fierce asceticism he mastered his passions and even the natural necessities such as sleep. He would spend three months sleeping only a small amount. He went out to the wilderness, to a skete called Glusia and there he became the disciple of the famous ascetic Gregory of Byzantium and from him he learned mental prayer. He acquired profound humility and indescribable love for God and for his neighbor. Tears started to stream from his eyes like a constantly flowing spring of water.
At the age of thirty, he went to the region of Pharia, between Macedonia and Thrace. He practiced asceticism and self-denial in a cave there, and nearby there were monks and ascetics who looked upon him as a model of virtuous life. According to his biographer, his life was angelic: “It would surprise and enrapture all.” After five years he returned to Mount Athos. He had reached the vision of God in the light of the Holy Spirit and theosis. He became certain in his vision that the time had come for him to embark directly on writing that would benefit those whose hearts God moved. He wrote what he had experienced. He said: through seclusion and prayer and simplicity of heart, man may perform the supreme work for which he was created, which is to enter into the circle of light that shone atop Tabor.
Gregory nearly constantly saw being as being charged with the power of the divine incarnation and the beauty of the Theotokos Mary. The earth, as was clear to his eyes in the Spirit, was a divine place whose beauty was almost unbearable. The light of the transfiguration did not stop shining after the Son of God came in the flesh. He said: “In the holy name there is divine power that pierces the heart of man and transforms him once it permeates his body.” The Spirit of God moves and fills the material body. For this reason, he concluded, the body has the grace of making the human being more heavenly than the angels. Man becomes a god when he sees in the heart the light of the divine transfiguration aglow. God is the same as this light! God is seen in his person as the uncreated light, even if he cannot be seen in his essence. For him, “The light of Tabor is the Kingdom of God!” And he said, “It is not for us to participate in the divine nature, however, in a certain sense it is possible for us to participate readily in God’s nature because we enter into participation with him, insofar as God remains perfect, and at the same time unaffected by us. For this reason we affirm two mutually to be together opposed things at the same time, which causes us joy and which we both consider to be the standard of truth.” If we were to ask, how does man attain this light? The reply is, by repentance and calling upon the name of Jesus and asking mercy of the Holy Name.
Saint Gregory Palamas is the primary Orthodox spiritual theologian of the universal Church. What the Apostle Paul experienced before the divine light on the road to Damascus, and what Elijah knew in the flaming chariot before that, and likewise what Moses beheld in the burning bush, and what the Fathers in the wilderness experienced generation after generation, and what has been given to the Church of Christ, this is that in which Gregory participated and what he expressed in the clearest manner at a critical moment the Church went through in the 14th century. At that time, Orthodox spirituality was faced with a harsh challenge from within and without the sphere of Orthodoxy. After being swept over by currents of thought such as Greek and ancient pagan philosophical thought, the West, because the traditional spirituality of the Church had been toppled there, turned toward us in order to absorb us, attempting to replace our outstanding spirituality with rationalistic currents and humanistic movements which, at their base, glorify human thought and make man independent of God and establish worship of the self, ultimately arriving at contemporary worldliness and passing into the thought that “God is dead,” causing human things to take the place of divine things and moralism to take the place of spirituality. The 14th century was a turning point for us. Orthodoxy could be absorbed, and along with her the traditional spirituality, among what spread in the western consciousness. But, through the care of the Most High, and the watchfulness of the Orthodox Church, this spirituality is given a firm place and the experience of the monks and believers in general overcame in those days the dangers and fierce assaults which threatened her. Saint Gregory Palamas is the summation of the traditional spirit par excellence and the decisive word of the Church from the beginning of her history until that time. For the Church said, in two councils which took place in Constantinople in June and August of 1341 and July of 1351: what Gregory and the monks experienced, what they said and wrote about it, in the matter of seeing the divine is what the universal Church experiences and proclaims since the beginning and it is the undisputed teaching of the Fathers from generation to generation.
Thus the importance of Saint Gregory Palamas and his glorification by the Church!
Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite- Douma
February 28, 2010
Monday, March 1, 2010
An Appeal for Lebanon
Is it not yet a very little while, and Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be esteemed as a forest? And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness. The meek also shall increase their joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 29:17-19). This is a hope that we have in learning that a small monastic project, a skete, is germinating near Aley in Mount Lebanon.
Aley was formerly a small village that transformed, starting in 1892-1895, into a more and more populous city. It’s in a beautiful mountain region of around ten hills, the highest being Ras el-Jabal (Head of the Mountain), 20km from Beirut at an average altitude of 850m. In wintertime, the number of its inhabitants is around 50,000 and in the summertime, more than 100,000. The city is located on the Beirut-Damascus road. During political events in the county, residents have suffered much destruction, as elsewhere in Lebanon. The human toll of the civil war was very heavy: around 150,000 killed, 350,000 wounded, and several thousand people captured and disappeared in a population of about three million.
Since 1990, Aley is a great construction site of renovation. Yes, Lebanon was a paradise of forests and gardens, fabulous springs and a land where milk and honey flowed, where we find olive trees and a carpet of pines covering the mountains and the valleys, bananas, orange-trees, grapevines, apple fig and almond trees…. and above all the giant cedars who, ceaselessly sing psalms and chant hymns to the resurrection of Christ, our Lord and Savior; Ezekiel speaks of them: “To what should we compare you in your grandeur? To a cypress, to a cedar of Lebanon with its magnificent branches, its thick foliage, and great size…” And in Deuteronomy we hear Moses speak to the Lord and say, “Could I not go there, and see that happy country beyond the Jordan, that happy mountain and the Lebanon?”
Aley was formerly a region where a large community of Orthodox Christians lived. Today, the region is populated by people of various beliefs. It should be known that Lebanon is distinguished by the presence of eighteen religions and Christian confessions (Roman Catholics, Maronites, Orthodox Church of Antioch, Greek Catholics, Orthodox and Catholic Armenians, Syriac Orthodox and Catholic) recognized by parliament, in addition to non-recognized sects. The Christian confessions- Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, live in close quarters… this confessional reality characterizes the world of Orthodox Christians in Lebanon who encounter heterodox people in their daily lives.
Today, as in many countries of the world, many sects and unrecognized movements are gaining strength. It is clear that this is not without influence on weak believers. There is also a Muslim presence, with Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, a Druze population, as well as small number of Jews. In Lebanon, the Christians do not find themselves openly persecuted, like the Copts in Egypt and the Christian communities of Iraq, but they still are in a subtle way, by the media, by the heterodox and their false doctrines, by the sects, all with the desire to kill the Christian faith! But we always see the desire of Orthodox Christians to live in peace, with close relations with all, and especially in the love of Christ. Metropolitan Georges Khodr, very well known in the Orthodox world, takes up this theme in his various writings: “This commandment of Jesus of Nazareth in fact comes from the Old Testament, which however limits its application to the members of the same people: You shall not take vengeance and you will not hold rancor against the children of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The New Testament has enlarged its application, making each human being the subject of love. The way in which this commandment is expressed in the imperative: Love, you shall love, makes it clear that love is a divine order and not just an affective movement. In effect, in loving, the heart can feel such a sentiment or it can also be absent. Love is thus the object of a law whose meaning is summarized in that we must love our neighbors as ourselves.”
And so the construction of a small skete is being planned by the monk Seraphim, attached to the Orthodox Church of Antioch, whose current patriarch is Ignatius IV. After having lived six years at the Monastery of St. George at Dayr el-Harf, in Mount Lebanon, and having received a blessing, he travelled to Europe. Father Seraphim is known by a number of people in Western Europe, from when he visited our countries four years ago. In his last stay in Europe, he recently lived intensely in Romania, receiving much spiritual comfort. There, he was fully introduced to the monastic life at the skete of St. Anthony the Great in the region of Neamţ in Moldavia. He mostly stayed with hermits like the elder Proclus who lives in a wilderness near Neamţ and also among monks and faithful whose Orthodox faith is very much alive. Returning to Lebanon, he received the blessing of elders and abbots great and humble to build a skete where he can develop monastic life in connection with his brothers in Romania.
Today, Father Seraphim lives in Bkheshtey, a small town situated about a kilometer from the city of Aley. Bkheshtey means ‘place of hermits, solitaries, isolated people…’ which is also the meaning of monasticism, an extraordinary coincidence! In this neighborhood, there is a church called ‘of the Monastery of the Holy Savior’, even though there is no monastery. The patronal feast of the church is the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the church where Father Seraphim follows the liturgical services, since his temporary home is not far away. He lives very simply as a monk. Before the war, this small town had a population of two thirds Orthodox Christians and one third Druze. Today, the situation is reversed and the village is populated by one third Protestant Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and some Orthodox in the area. The other two thirds are Druze. The Orthodox populations have a tendency to leave and their properties are bought by Druze and Muslim families. Why do they leave? We can find an answer in the desire to emigrate abroad and also in economic reasons.
But now the Lord calls for the construction of a small monastic place in order to testify to the Orthodox faith and to the Love of Christ, to announce that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; apart from Christ, there is no live, there is no truth.
How will this be done?
The monk Seraphim possesses nothing and puts himself with complete confidence in dependence on the Holy Spirit. His heart weeps and suffers in order to announce the Truth. He needs firm faith to testify to the canons of the Holy Apostles, of the Holy Fathers, and of the martyrs of our Church. He is asked many questions and there are answers for them. Like in the desert, in order to produce fruit, the Gospel says, there is no lack of work! But we all know that the desert in the Bible is the place of all beginnings. “And I am the Eternal One, your God since you were in the Land of Egypt; You will know no other god; there is no savior besides Me; I knew you in the desert, in the land of thirst….’ We also all know St. John the Baptist, the forerunner who in the desert fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, ‘From the desert a voice cries: prepare the way of the Lord.’
Father Seraphim at the Skete of St. Anthony the Great in Romania
What questions challenge Father Seraphim?
How can one proclaim the Orthodox faith in a region swept with multiple currents of non-Christian thought and many ideologies? How to re-evangelize cradle Orthodox? How to protect an Orthodox Christian population that is so often weak, ignorant, and oppressed? The presence and companionship of Christians is of primary importance, according to Metropolitan Georges Khodr, “Remind him of a the fact that he is a child of God. That the Lord greets him as a son, unless he’s a complete atheist. But I do not think that this type of atheism exists in the East. Climb once more with him starting at the level he is at… The most important thing is that from his recognition of the existence of God he makes an act of worship of love for God. It requires a bit of understanding, of progressive understanding so that this brother will arrive at praying. In prayer, by its warmth, that his understanding will deepen. (…) As far as one who was baptized in water but who has not acquired a Christian understanding, you must give birth to him anew through an evangelizing that proceeds from the discovery that his heart is stripped of faith. (…) We cannot let them simply be baptized with water. Without faith, they will not be saved.”
How can one bear witness of the monastic life and of the Good News in a land where many have lost consciousness of the existence of Christ and of the Orthodox faith that animated the lives of their ancestors? It is clear that the monk does not only bear witness to the ways and means borrowed for his personal salvation, but also to a “koinonia – communion – spiritual brotherhood.” He is invited to share with the greatest number the fruits of lived hesychasm (being in peace, keeping silence), of his peace, and to thus show the other brothers and sisters in Christ the steps of spiritual struggle and its requirements, for the monk is called to give others faith and light in this monastic path immersed in the city. Doubtless, in order to keep the flame, he must remember the word of the Lord regarding the prophet Jonah’s hardness of heart! The Savior, full of mercy towards the people of Nineveh, proclaims his love for them and says to Jonah: “Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:10-11).
How should one respond to the hunger for God that men and women of our times suffer? Hunger that today is really existential and that is manifested by so many deviancies and irrational behaviors in this world! Yes, man hungers for what is loftier than himself, but he does not know or does not want to recognize it! But this hunger can help put him on the right path; hunger is the principle of the walk that leads us to the Lord. “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me…” “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall never hunger; he who believes in me shall never thirst.”
Would this not be the way to unveil the presence of God among us? Is this not an invitation to a life in grace? “He has humbled you, he has made you to hunger, he has given you to eat the manna that neither you nor your fathers had known, to show that man does not live from bread alone, but that man lives from everything that comes from the mouth of God.” Such are the questions and the profound spiritual motivation that push Father Seraphim to desire to plant, with God’s help, a new spiritual garden, a new vineyard in Mount Lebanon. Yes, it is good to respond to respond to the hunger of today’s man in a specific spot: a tiny village of Mount Lebanon.
Fr. Seraphim is in need of financial support. His contact information is below (yes, most Lebanese addresses have general descriptions rather than street numbers).
Father Seraphim (KARAM)
- Near Holy Savior Church -
- Tel: 00961 5 558 513 / Cell +961 71 115 236
Bank Account : BYBLOS BANK SAL /
BEIRUT-LEBANON ALEY BRANCH
SWIFT CODE: BYBALBBX IBAN:
N° compte: 5753215266002
BENEFICIARY NAME: JACQUES MAURICE KARAM
القديس يوحنا الدمشقي دفـّاق الذهب
The present historical work is an analysis prepared by the official historian of the Apostolic Church of Antioch, Dr. Asad Rustum (1879-1965) of blessed memory. The analysis presented—to whom all credit is due—is entirely the work and copyright of Dr. Rustum, published in Lebanon in Arabic over half a century ago. Due to its rare existence, the need for presenting it in English for Western readers cannot be undermined, especially to students of history and theology who may find it beneficial. Since there are several extant Vitae/Synaxaria concerning our Saint, consequently, some of these disagree among themselves on certain historical facts. A vita belongs to the field of hagiology which can be influenced by local customs and traditions, hence the probable cause of some variations among the different Vitae. Our Saint lived during a tumultuous period in Church history, a period which experienced the early rise of Islam, and, Iconoclasm. Only a solid historical presentation of our Saint, such as the one rendered by Dr. Rustum, can vilify the errors and speak plainly to us, especially today, when these two issues are again confronting Christianity. The defense of Orthodoxy, as rendered by Saint John of Damascus, was valid in the Eighth Century, and due to the current circumstances, it should be valid today as well. Any errors in translation are strictly mine, and I beg the reader’s forgiveness. It is to God that we owe our knowledge and our existence.
The Suffering of the Melkites (الملكيّين) under the Umayyads (الأمويين)
This is a difficult epoch during which the Jacobites (اليعاقبة) took advantage of the ongoing wars between the Byzantines and the Umayyads (Muslims, as they were called at the time), in that they pointed to Muslims that the Byzantine Christians of the Middle East were indeed Melkites—King=Melek in Semitic, hence, Melekites/Melkites=Subjects of the Emperor—and they charged them with spying on behalf of the Byzantine Empire. As a result, the Umayyads persecuted the so-called Byzantine Melkites and prevented them from appointing Patriarchs in the Apostolic Thrones of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Previously, it was stated that the following Patriarchs of Antioch (Macedonius, Georgios I, and Makarios) ruled the Apostolic Throne of Antioch from as far as Constantinople. This preventive measure which was imposed by the Umayyads affected four Patriarchs of Antioch, namely: Theophanes I (681-687), Stephanos III (687-690), Georgios II (690-695), and Alexandros II (695-702). It is probable, although not concretely evident, that the last two of these Patriarchs returned to Antioch (1). Ironically, during this period as well, the Jacobite Patriarchs also ruled their throne while they were placed far from Antioch, in places like Diar Bekir and Malatia. Interestingly, one of the Jacobite Patriarchs, namely, Elias, won the favor of the Umayyads and was granted their permission to build a church in Antioch, yet nonetheless he was prevented from dwelling in that city.
The Umayyads and Christians
In A.D. 683, the Umayad Khalif Yazid Ibn Mouawiya (يزيد ابن معاوية) died, and his immediate successors were weak. Meanwhile, due to the military victories of the Byzantines under Emperor Constantine IV, the Byzantines eventually succeeded in imposing annual monetary dues/taxation on the Umayyads. On 7 July 685, Abd El-Melek Ibn Marwan, the third successor of Yazid, agreed to this system in a treaty (5). On 1 September 685, Emperor Constantine IV died, and was succeeded by Justinian II who later objected to this treaty, due to the following development of events:
A disagreement arose between Abd El-Melek and Justinian II regarding a certain imprint on paper money. At the time, the Byzantines imported paper from Egypt which was later processed as currency. The Copts had a custom of imprinting either the name of Christ or a symbol of the Trinity on any paper originating from Egypt. During this period, still, the currency exchanged in Muslim territories was either Byzantine Dinarii or Persian coins. That being the case, this custom upset Abd El-Melek who demanded to replace the Coptic Christian symbols with the following Islamic quote: “Say there is but one God” (قل هو الله الأحد). Further, he flagrantly entitled every correspondence with the Byzantines by adding this quote, and finally, he demanded from the Byzantines to include the name of the Prophet (Mohammed) to be imprinted on the currency that was used. The response of Justinian II to Abd El-Melek’s demands was reflective of the Emperor’s young age [he was only sixteen when crowned emperor], who said: “You have committed countless abominations, and yet, you expect us to acquiesce? It would be more expedient to keep the current imprints on money unchanged, or else, should we mention your Prophet, we will not spare you from any humiliation.” The response of Justinian II angered Abd El-Melek who saw it as a threat against Muslims. Acting upon the recommendation of one of his advisors, Abd El-Melek printed Islamic money which made its debut in A.D. 692. In order to further aggravate the Byzantines, he sent his annual dues in the newly printed Islamic money. Having noticed that this money was void of the usual depictions of Byzantine Emperors, Justinian II was angered exceedingly, especially when he noticed Islamic statements imprinted on the money, such as: “He [i.e. God] sent him [i.e. Mohammed] with deliverance and the true religion in order to manifest him to all religions” (أرسله بالهدى ودين الحق ليظهره على الدين كله). Justinian II saw this act as a challenge by the Muslims, and naturally, he rejected this currency, and in A.D. 693 he sent his armies to the borders of Muslim territories (6). Thus, Abd El-Melek brought down the crosses (7) and Patriarch Alexandros II of Antioch was circumstantially martyred along with a company of the faithful. This atrocity resulted in the vacancy of the Throne of Antioch for forty years (8).
In A.D. 705 Abd El-Melek died and was succeeded by his son Al-Waleed (705-715), a cunning and ruthless leader, who followed in the violent footsteps of his father and killed all of the Byzantine war prisoners. Further, and unlike his father, he pressured the Christians to convert to Islam. His personal ambition reached the Damascus Cathedral: “He gathered the Christians and offered them money for the Cathedral, and when they objected, he converted it into a mosque” (9). Whereas Al-Waleed’s brother and successor, Suleiman (715-717), continued in the footsteps of his predecessor and brother, yet Suleiman’s successor, Umar ibn Abd El-Aziz (717-720) sought to establish what was right. Instead, he offered promises and assurances to Christians to return the Cathedral to them. The Muslims of Damascus hated this motive, and remarked: “Ought we to turn back our mosque after we had worshipped and prayed in it?” And so, they approached the Christians and asked them to surrender all of the churches of Al-Ghouta (الغوطة) [a large fertile region surrounding the city of Damascus] if the Christians desired to have the Cathedral of Saint John [the Forerunner] returned to them, but the Christians rejected (10). Finally, Umar resorted to enforce the treaty of his mother’s grandfather, Khalif Umar Ibn Al-Khattab (الخليفة عمر ابن الخطاب).
The Family of Saint John of Damascus
Regarding the background of our Saint’s family, not a whole lot is solidly known or well-documented. According to primary sources, the notion that the family was Byzantine [i.e. Greek, ethnically], as stated by the German scholar Von Kremer, cannot be fully supported (11). Furthermore, while we may partially conclude with Father Isaac Al-Armali that the family was probably Arab or Aramaic, living in their country, yet, we cannot agree that the family shared much of the culture of the Jacobites, for Saint John distanced himself from the Jacobite monasteries and chose to be a monk, along with some of his relatives, in the Orthodox Monastery of Saint Sabba in Palestine. The argument postulated by Ibn Al-Batriq Eutychius (ابن البطريق أفتيخيوس) through John’s father’s request to Khaled to grant safety “to him, to his family, to those with them, and, to the people of Damascus except the Byzantines” cannot establish as grounds that Mansour (John’s grandfather) was a Jacobite Syriac based on this request (12). It is more likely that the term “Byzantines” in this quote more referred to race and not religion (13). Finally, according to Al-Talamhari (التلمحري), who died in 845, Sergius the son of Mansour the famous Damascene scribe, was Chalcedonian and not Jacobite (14)—Clarification: John’s secular name was Mansour, and his grandfather was also named Mansour, thus, our Saint’s secular name in Arabic was Mansour, the son of Sergius, the son of Mansour.
Mansour’s family lived in Damascus, it was a highly regarded family at the time, and it busied itself with administrative positions during the reign of Mauricius (582-602). According to Eutychius (previously mentioned), Mansour held an important and high position in the treasury administration of Mauricius, and he may have been Mauricius’ minister in this task over the province of Lebanon’s Phoenicia, knowing that at the time Damascus was the most important city of the region. Emperor Heraclius kept Mansour in this position even after the Persians’ conquest of Syria (15). It was Mansour (John’s grandfather) who negotiated with the Muslims, on behalf of the Christians of Damascus, who assumed the rule of the city after the Byzantines had deserted it, and the Muslims agreed to his request. Thus, Mansour succeeded in keeping his administrative position under the Muslims, the same position he had had under the Byzantines. The claim that “Sergius son of Mansour” converted to Islam, as postulated by Ibn Asaker and Ibn Shaker (ابن عساكر وابن شاكر) is false, because their statements are unsubstantiated, and their theories are concocted (16). According to Theophanes the Monk, who wrote between 810 and 814, Sergius’ attachment to the Christian faith was unshaken, and he described him as “a Perfect Christian” (17).
In 644, as Uthman Ben Affan (عثمان بن عفان) became Khalif, Mouawiya (معاوية) entered the scene of history as a powerful leader, and desired to take over the entire of Syria. Once Mouawiya became an Umayyad Khalif in Damascus, he sought the assistance of Christians in times of peace and war in order to accomplish his goal. Thus, he maintained the important political and administrative position of the Mansour family in Damascus (18). He probably had done so due to the services already rendered by Mansour (John’s grandfather) during the early days of Islamic conquests and the successive need of the conquerors for trustworthy administrators, and probably also, due to the fact that Mouawiya feared the possible greed on the part of new Muslim administrators and their lack of honesty when it came to fulfilling their tax obligations (19). In all cases, Sergius proved trustworthy with Mouawiya, in that he was a loyal and diligent financial advisor, and he excelled in his services. When Mouawiya was on his deathbed, he beseeched Sergius to carry on his duties until the former’s son, Yazid, had returned from his military conquest in Asia Minor (20). The historical record shows that Yazid maintained Sergius’ post, and so did Mouawiya II (21). Later on, as Abd El-Melek wanted to do away with the Greek financial record system, and exchange them with a new Arabic system of records, Sergius objected. Thus, Abd El-Melek appointed Abd El-Melek Suleiman Ibn Saad (عبد الملك سليمان ابن سعد) to undertake this responsibility who eventually became “the first Muslim charged with the financial records” (22).
Sergius had two sons, one of them was John the Gold-Streaming, who is also known as Mansour by Muslim historians, and another son unknown by name who was the father of Stephen the Seba’ite. Stephen was also a monk in the Monastery of Saint Sabba. Stephen also had a cousin, Gregorios, who also became a monk in the same monastery and was known as a hymnologist. In the ninth century, two Patriarchs of Jerusalem ascended the Throne from this family, namely, Sergius (842-858) and Elia III (879-907) (23).
The Birth and Development of Saint John of Damascus
Our Saint was born in the city of Damascus, and to this city he was traced in belonging, hence his name. Whereas his title of Gold-Streaming is from the Greek Χρυσορρόας, yet this title was first applied to the Damascus River which watered Al-Ghouta region surrounding the city. It was Theophanes who was first in calling our Saint the Gold-Streaming (24). Historically, John was known by different names among different sources in cultures: In Greek sources, he is known as John; in Coptic sources, he is known as John the son of Mansour; in the history of Ibn Al-Ibri (ابن العبري) he is called Quraini son Mansour (قوريني ابن منصور); and in the Arabic “Book of Songs” (كتاب الأغاني) he is called Son of Sargon (ابن سرجون) (25). As far as the date of his birth is concerned, its accuracy is highly debated. According to the composers of the different Vitae, two general dates are assumed, and they are A.D. 670 and 680. Father Nasrallah dates our Saint’s birth at 655, and probably his is the most accurate (26).
John had the luxury of growing up in a house well-known for its wealth, nobility, and education. Damascus, like any other city in the region of the time, enjoyed the privilege of having elite schools. Yet Sergius, instead of placing his sons in an elite school, preferred entrusting them to a private mentor for education. He thus searched for a worthy mentor who would instruct his sons, John and Cosmas his half-brother—Cosmas was adopted by Sergius. It happened that there was a certain Sicilian monk who was previously captured by Muslim pirates and arrived in Damascus. When Sergius observed that other monks, also captives from the same ship as this Cosmas, venerated him and asked for his blessing, Sergius had compassion on him. As Sergius approached him and conversed with him, he saw in Cosmas the mentor candidate he had been searching for. Thus, Sergius took Cosmas to the Khalif and beseeched the latter to have him released, and his wish was granted. Then Sergius took Cosmas the monk to be the mentor of his two sons. Cosmas the Monk was intelligent in the fields of science, literature, and the arts. He educated Sergius’ two sons in the Greek language and literature, as well as in science, philosophy, and music. Upon observing in his protégés a zeal for theology, he took upon himself instructing them in the field. Once the two sons of Sergius completed their instruction, the monk left them and headed for Saint Sabba Monastery. He was later elevated and consecrated the Bishop of Maiuma on the coast of Gaza (27). There is one modern source (28) which disputes the validity of this story; yet, Dr. Rustum sees in this objection nothing but a devious smear tactic. The author concurs, instead, with the findings of Father Nasrallah since the manner of the events depicted are very familiar with some of the recorded histories of the seventh and eighth centuries (29).
John of Damascus and the Umayyad Dynasty
As was previously mentioned, the Muslim authorities commenced in translating the financial records into Arabic, in Damascus as well as in many of the surrounding states. Yet while doing this, they maintained the positions of some the Christian scribes and administrators as previously stated (30). Hence, the famous saying of Suleiman Ibn Abd El-Melek, which hints at some peaceful exchange of cultures: “At every hour we were in need of them, and not for even an hour they needed us for their political necessities” (31). Thus, John succeeded his ancestors in administration, and “became a scribe well-respected in the sight of the prince of the land, to the point that he was the prince’s most essential secretary” (32). But, as far as our Patriarch John’s statement, that, Saint John was “the first Counsel of the Khalif” (33), this statement cannot be verified beyond a reasonable doubt and may be an exaggeration after all. Yet, in all, our Saint excelled in his role in his task with utmost diligence, thus putting to work his talents, his education, and his noble Christian principles. Finally, when it was time for him to decide between maintaining his important secular position and preserving his faith, our Saint did not hesitate for one moment to leave the world without having any regrets (34).
The epoch of Iconoclasm I (i.e. the war within the Church caused by people resisting Icons, the First Phase) took place during the life of our Saint. Michael the Monk records that as our Saint observed the dangerous level to which this controversy had evolved, that is, to the point of warfare and persecution, and Saint John exerted all his efforts to defend the Orthodox faith. He adopted the method of dogmatic affirmation and refutation: By substantiating his argument with theological and logical reasoning, having done so with a solid Greek language. Emperor Leo, who was an Iconoclast, was terrified by John’s solid argumentation, and he resorted to rid the empire of John through treachery and deceit. He devised a devious tactic whereby he would have a forged letter, claiming that it was written by our Saint, sent to the Emperor (i.e. to him), in which John would describe the lamenting condition of Christians living under the Umayyads, thereby detailing the daily scorn of Christians and ridiculing the protective status the Umayyads had promised them. Then, in a deceitful and false pretense, Emperor Leo approached Khalif Umar Ibn Abd El-Aziz with a friendly gesture, and wrote to him warning the sedition of John. Not surprisingly, the Khalif fell into this trap, and was agitated. Thus, in an effort to forbid our Saint from writing, the Khalif ordered the cutting of John’s hand and his subsequent expulsion from civil service.
Michael the Monk adds that Saint John went home, with blood flowing from his cut and pure hand, and dragging from the shame with which he was falsely accused. Then, falling in front of the Icon of the All-Holy Theotokos, our Saint wept sorely, prayed, beseeched, and slept. The All-Holy Virgin appeared to him in a dream that night, and she approached him and restored to him his hand, after he had already received his cut hand in order to bury it—the tradition of the three-hands Icon of Saint Sabba Monastery, in Palestine, and much later in Serbia due to the pilgrimage of Saint Savva, has its origins in this story. As John woke up from sleep, and noticed both of his hands complete, he immediately went to Umar and showed him his restored hand. The Khalif was amazed, and he offered John his old civil service occupation by compromise. But instead, John sold his possessions, distributed it to the poor, the monasteries, and the churches, and headed for Saint Sabba Monastery. He pleaded with the Fathers of the monastery to welcome him among the young novices (35). It is important to mention here that the Seventh Ecumenical Council failed to mention the cutting of John’s hand and its miraculous restoration; likewise, certain historians were also silent in discussing these two events (i.e. Cedrenus, Ephraemus, Zonoras, and Nicephoros) (36).
John the Monk
Our Saint departed from his people and deserted the secular world along with its falsehood, and transported himself from the palaces and gardens to the desert and wilderness. While yet a young man, his fame had already spread abroad, and the monks of Saint Sabba worried if his zeal for the monastic life was artificial, and they feared that he would hastily return to the world and his former life. In order to examine him rigorously, they appointed a strict Elder who was both, austere towards others and himself, to be his monastic mentor. The Elder commanded John never to do anything without his permission, and in addition, he directed John to undertake a strict penitential posture exhibited with daily lament over his former life, so as to prevent him from being elated by his knowledge and education. He explicitly charged John, “never to undertake any task without the elder’s permission, and never to write letters to anyone” (37). John was fully obedient to the Elder’s directives, and never disobeyed him. Thus, John the Monk exhibited perfect loyalty and great humility, to the extent that he had fulfilled the same during his previous and secular life. Yet, on one occasion, as John discovered that one of his monastic friends lost his father, John consoled his friend and lamented the death of his father by quoting a famous Greek poem. Having discovered it, the Elder rebuked him for displaying his knowledge in literature, and ordered him to be confined to his cell. John obeyed and carried out that order without hesitation (38).
In time, the elders of the monastery decided to elevate John, but his mentor the Elder rejected, contending that John must be put to another rigorous test in order to prove his virtue. He commanded John to go to Damascus, and take along with him some baskets woven by the monks, and sell them there. The Elder set a higher price for the baskets and commanded John not to return unless all of the baskets were sold! So John mounted a large number of baskets on a donkey, and set his way to Damascus. Having arrived at his birthplace, he traveled among the capital of the Umayyads only to find that no one would purchase his expensive baskets, and soon enough, the people recognized him. They gazed upon their son, and saw that giant personality reduced to a lowly monk selling baskets. They asked him questions, mocked him, and humiliated him, yet John’s candor was calm and responded with silence. Then one of his former servants met him and purchased all the baskets from him, and John returned to the monastery having conquered the demon of vainglory (39), and meditating on these words, which later became one of the Clergy Prayers of the Church:
“I stood at of the gates of Thy Temple, and yet I refrained not from my evil thoughts. But do Thou, O Christ God, who didst justify the Publican and, show mercy upon the Canaanite woman, and open the gates of Paradise to the Thief, open unto me the compassions of Thy mercy toward mankind, and accept me as I draw near, and vouchsafe unto me to touch Thee, as Thou didst accept the woman with issue of blood and the harlot.”
John the Priest and Preacher
Our Saint, having withstood the final test of the Elder, resumed his studies and submerged himself in theology under John IV, Patriarch of Jerusalem (706-764) [This probably refers to John V. According to the Orthodox Research Institute and the Jerusalem Patriarchate, John IV served from 575 – 594 while John V is identified as serving 706 - 735 - David Schneider]. He was ordained a Priest and was appointed as Preacher, whereby he would ascend from the monastery to the Holy City in order to teach and preach in the Church of the Resurrection and elsewhere (40). During this period of his life his skills manifested their highest level, when his sermons and lectures were rich in expression, gentle in style, and strong in apology. It was during this period that the Umayyad Khalif Yazid II ordered the destruction of all icons in Christian Churches in A.D. 723 (41), and this order was likewise commenced by his counterpart, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III. Our Saint committed himself to defending the Orthodox faith, whereby he lectured and composed, and he also threatened with excommunication (726-730). As Germanos ceased to be Patriarch of Constantinople (730), John took part in the Jerusalem Synod and warned the Bishops not to uphold the heresy of the Emperor, and he also called for his excommunication (42). Some sources add that John even went out throughout the cities of Palestine and Syria, and even reached as far as Constantinople, debating and defending his principles (43). Yet, these sources in specific are weak in substantiation, and most specialists do no concur with them, since it is more likely for John to have spent his life commuting between Saint Sabba Monastery and the Holy City (44), having never left that locale except once in 734 when he visited Damascus in order to deal with a controversy mounted by the Umayyad Khalif Hisham against John’s unnamed brother, the father of Stephen the Seba’ite (45).
John the Gold-Streaming
Saint John of Damascus was by all standards a prolific writer, having composed a host of works in theology, philosophy, argumentative essays, monastic instruction, biblical exegesis, and liturgical hymns. Be it as it may, our Saint remains a Theologian par excellence, for all “what he wrote, what he composed, and all what he argued for were but to affirm the truth of the inspired and holy writ, to introduce it, to make an apology for it, and, to reveal its inherent mystical element” (46). He is most known for the following works: The Fountain of Knowledge (47); An Introduction to Dogmas (48); The True Faith (49); The Holy Trinity (50); and, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (51). Foremost among these is The Fountain of Knowledge, which is composed in three volumes: “The Philosophical Chapters”, the “Book against Heretics”, and, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”. In his Introduction to this title, Saint John writes: “First, I will relate the best that the wise can offer, for that is a gift from God, then, I will discuss the madness of heretics, so that we may clinch to the Truth, and then, with God’s help, I will discuss the Truth which corrects errors and drives away madness.”
Saint John also strove to establish a link between philosophy and faith, such as when he said: “Since the Apostle charges us to ‘examine all things; and, hold to what is good,’ let us therefore examine the teachings of the wise among pagans, in hope that we may find in them something fruitful for the soul. Every craftsman needs his tools in order to accomplish his task, and likewise, every queen is in need for her maidens. Let us therefore gather those teachings which serve the Truth, after pruning from them the errors of falsehood blasphemy; let us not fail to be good, and likewise, let us not make use of the science of argumentation to mislead the simple ones. Even though the Truth has no need for different proofs, let us nonetheless make use of reason to expel madness and bring down the enemies of faith. In the end, it should suffice us to uphold what God has provided us, through His Son, His Prophets, and His Apostles, and we must be established in these, without changing or abandoning their eternal limitations” (52).
According to the Gold-Streaming John, the foundation of faith lies in the divine inspiration and not in human intelligence, for the soul is always in need of a teacher, and the Only Teacher who is free from error is Christ. Let us hear Him in the Scriptures. The soul which diligently knocks on the door on the garden of the Scriptures is like the singing of the Tree planted by the waters (53). John of Damascus was strict in upholding the Apostolic Tradition, since the Holy Scriptures affirm the same (54).
The heretics, on the other hand, attempted to uphold their false opinions through the philosophy of Aristotle, which caused John to shout at them: “Are you making a saint, or worse yet a thirteenth apostle, out of Aristotle? Do you dare consider the heathen one more important than the inspired writers?” (55). Then our Saint utilized the same method which the heretics adopted but instead reformed it with a Christian ethos, that is, he argued with them through the same philosophy of Aristotle. This task was not easy for John, in that the Aristotelian philosophy regarding supernatural powers stands at odds with the Church’s inspired doctrines, in matters such as the Mysteries of the Holy Trinity and the Divine Incarnation. This led the Damascene to reform certain Aristotelian ideas such as those pertaining to natural theology, ethics, and the immortality of the soul. He drew a lot from Aristotelian definitions, and went farther by adding to them “distinctions” among nature, essence, and hypostasis. This reform by our Saint laid the foundation of theological definitions as distinct from philosophical doctrines, and at once delineated the field of theology from philosophy, which ultimately set theology free from previous episodes of arguments, factions, and schisms. Having succeeded in his reformation, our Saint, while cognizant of the might of Aristotle’s philosophy, yet at the same time, he was capable of snatching it from the heretics, thereby subduing it and baptizing it to be of service for later theologians, in the examples of Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas. Thus, Saint John of Damascus became worthy of the title of founder of Scholastic Theology (56).
Within the History of Christian Thought, Saint John of Damascus is essentially considered a Theologian of the Mystery of the Divine Incarnation. We see this topic recurring constantly in most of his theological treatises. He succeeded in finalizing the doctrine of the Hypostatic Union and laying the foundation of all successive theological thought. He also substantiated his treatises with solid Scriptural references and previous Patristic teachings, thereby leaving no room for doubt in his writings.
Within the field of Apologetics, from an argumentative literary standpoint, our Saint wrote a host of letters which were solid in content to the point that contemporary heretics were left powerless. Most outstanding in this field were his composition of the Three Letters in defense of Icons (57). It is very likely that he composed these letters between the years 726 and 730. To date, these letters stand out as authoritative in the Church’s teaching regarding the Veneration of the Saints and of their Icons.
The decrees of the Fifth Ecumenical Council under Emperor Justinian I ultimately failed in silencing those who insisted in speaking and believing in “One Nature” of Christ (i.e. Miaphysites &/or Monophysites). Here, our Saint undertook a new task by resuming the former works of Evlogius of Antioch, Timotheos of Constantinople, Anastasios of Antioch, and Anastasios of Sinai. Saint John composed a famous letter, On the Trisagion, which he directed to Archimandrite Jordaus, in which he maintained that traditionally the Trisagion (i.e. the Thrice Holy) hymn is directed to the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, and not exclusively to the Son. This position of the Damascene was a refutation of the one held by Peter the Fuller, the Non-Chalcedonian Patriarch of Antioch (471-488), who inserted the formula “Thou who wast crucified for us” in the Trisagion Hymn (58). The Damascene wrote a letter, on behalf of Peter the Metropolitan of Damascus, addressed to the Jacobite Bishop of Dara, in which he disputed the same position held by the Jacobitesm doing so by upholding the teachings of the Fathers (59).
The Damascene was a contemporary of the Jacobite Patriarch Elia I (+723). Elia was formerly Orthodox, but when he studied the works of Severus of Antioch, he soon started confessing the One Nature, at which cause the Jacobites consecrated him as Bishop over Ophemia and later elevated him as their Patriarch. When Leo, the Orthodox Bishop of Harran, directed a letter to Elia condemning him of his abandonment of sound Orthodox doctrine, Elia responded with an apology regarding his new position in which he pointed to two communiqués with the Damascene which cannot be traced (60).
As far as the Nestorians are concerned, our Saint composed two letters in which he affirmed the Divinity of the Savior and the Unity of His Hypostasis (61). The Damascene, also, followed in the footsteps of Saints Sophronios and Maximos (62), such as when he refuted those who confessed in monothelitism (i.e. One Will of the Savior).
The heresy of Mani revived in the seventh century, under the disguise of Paulinism, and it affected the regions of Armenia and Syria. The followers of this new heresy armed themselves with the following verse: “The true worshippers are those who worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth,” whereby in it they saw a justification in bringing down the Icons and forbidding the veneration of the True Cross, and they also forbade the veneration of the Theotokos and the Saints (63). Here again, our Saint reached for his pen and wrote extensively in the true doctrine, specifically in the field of Christology, and he composed two letters refuting this new heresy (64).
The Muslims poised a theological threat to the Church, by forcibly upholding the Quran and Al-Hadith (the tradition), and here also our Saint defended the Mysteries, one by one. His One Hundredth and First Chapter of the Fountain of Knowledge is a direct response, an apology, against the Muslim doctrine (65). The Damascene confirmed his disciples in the method of question-and-response, and thus appeared his First and Second Dialogue with the Muslims (66). In fact, his greatest title, the Fountain of Knowledge, is loaded with refutations to Muslims, in his discussions on the “Oneness of the One,” the “Holy Trinity,” and the “Divine Incarnation” which are considered by many as his apologies against the Argumentative Party (أهل الجدل) of Islam (67).
Our Saint is known to have composed literary works in the field of monasticism. His greatest composition was the Book of Parallelism (Parallyla). The book is comprised of three sections: Section I deals with the Holy Trinity and the Unity [of God]; Section II deals with the Damascene’s view of the human person; and, Section III deals with the Virtues and Vices, in which our Saint “paralleled” every vice with a specific virtue, hence the title of the book.
According to Church Tradition, our Saint is credited with composing the Paraklitiki the Greek Oktoechos, and it is highly likely that he organized, compiled, and added to previous extant portions of it. Tradition also ascribes to the Damascene the composition of many Canons/Katavasiae, and that he also contributed generously to the Typikon of Saint Sabba Monastery. The Damascene composed the music of a great number of hymns of the Church, and modified the melody of most of the extant Byzantine hymns of his day (68). Finally, Tradition also deems the Damascene the first who composed the Byzantine Synaxarion.
The Damascene and Arabic Literature
We cannot establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that our Saint truly composed anything material in the Arabic language, due to the lack of evidence of the same. Yet, the style which the Damascene utilized in his writing did indeed influence later Muslim writers, especially among those who used Oratory (علم الكلام) and the Style of Argumentation (فن الجدل). The plot that the Damascene laid down in his Fountain of Knowledge is the same plot which was later adopted by Muslim orators. Like the Damascene, they begin with a philosophical introduction, then, they embark on a lengthy discussion before arriving at the main topic. Like the Damascene, who preceded them, when they discuss a doctrine, they begin by describing the qualities of God, then, they discuss what was said of God formerly, and finally, instead of proving Christ—which would be the final destination of the Damascene—they dwell instead on the teachings of their Prophet (69).
Our Saint’s Death and his Veneration
The sources disagree among themselves in pinpointing the exact date of the death of Saint John of Damascus. Most of the extant sources place the year of his death between 750 and 780. Father Vailhé calculates the death of the Damascene and places it before A.D. 754, due to a certain extant phrase of the (heretic) Council of Hieria of the same year. The phrase states, that, the Holy Trinity “put to death” the following three: Germanos of Constantinople, George of Cyprus, and John of Damascus. Then Father Vailhé deduces from certain words of Leontius of Damascus concerning Stephen the Seba’ite and pinpoints the exact date as A.D. 749. He calculates it thusly:
At the age of nine, Stephen followed his uncle, John of Damascus, and became likewise monk of Saint Sabba Monastery in Palestine. Stephen remained with John for fifteen years in the same monastery, and finally, Stephen died at the age of sixty-nine in A.D. 794. Thus, if we subtract 69 from 794, we arrive at 725 which would be the year Stephen was born. If we add 9 to 725, we arrive at 734, the year Stephen became a monk in the same monastery. Finally, if we add another 15 to 734, the amount of years shared by John and Stephen at the monastery, we arrive at A.D. 749, which must have been the year Saint John of Damascus fell asleep in the Lord (70).
“What shall we call thee, O Saint? Shall we call thee John, who utters Theology, or the chanting David? A nightingale inspired by God, or a pastoral flute? Thou dost truly sweeten our ears and our minds, and thou dost gladden the assemblies of the Church; and with thy honey-flowing sayings, thou dost adorn the farthest reaches of the world! Wherefore, intercede for the salvation of our souls”
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us, and save us! Amen.
(1) Mansi, XI, Col. 988
(2) Al-Jizya (الجزية) was a personal tax paid by each non-Muslim subject living within a Muslim territory, while Al-Khirraj (الخراج) was property tax paid by the same
(3) Barhebraeus, Chron., I, 298
(4) Lammens, H., Les Chantres de Omiades, 116
(5) Brooks, E. W., Successors of Heraclius, Cam. Med. Hist. II, 400-406
(6) Cedrenus, Historium Compendium, I, 772; Zonoras, XIV, 229-231; Theophanes, Chron. a., 6186
(7) Theophanes, Chron. a., 6186
(8) Constantius, Patriarchs of Antioch, Neale, J. M., 168
(9) Arabic—Conquest of the Nations, by Balathri, p. 125فتوح البلدن للبلاذري
(10) Ibid. p. 125
(11) Kremer, A. Von, Culturgeschichte des Orientes, II, 408
(12) Arabic—The Melkites, by Father Isaac Al-Armali, p. 32الملكيون للأب إسحق الأرملي
(13) Arabic—The Family of Saint John of Damascus, by Father Joseph Nasrallah, pp. 38-39 أسرة يوحنا الدمشقي للأب يوسف نصر الله
(14) Arabic—“Greek Literature” by Father Isaac Al-Armali in Al-Masarrah Magazine, 1921, p. 409آداب اللغة اليونانية للأب إسحق أرملي في مجلة المسرة
(15) Eutychius, Annales, 26
(16) Arabic—History of Damascus by Ibn Asaker, Vol. 6, p. 71, and, Springs of History, by Ibn Shaker, pp.376-377تاريخ دمشق لابن عساكر وعيون التواريخ لابن شاكر
(17) Thephanes, Chron. a. 6182
(18) Arabic—The Book of Ministers by Jahshiari, p. 24, and The Family of John of Damascus by Father Nasrallah, p. 47كتاب الوزراء للجهشياري، وأسرة يوحنا الدمشقي للأب نصرالله
(19) Lammens, H., Etudes Sur le Règne de Moawia, 11-12
(20) Lammens, H., Le Califat de Yazid, 108
(21) Arabic—Al-Tanbeeh wal Eshraf, by Al-Mas’oudy, p. 397التنبيه والإشراف للمسعودي
(22) Arabic—History of Damascus, by Ibn Asaker, No. 21 p. 246تاريخ دمشق لابن عساكر (الظاهرية)
(23) Arabic—The Family of John of Damascus by Father Nasrallah, p. 62أسرة يوحنا الدمشقي للأب نصرالله
(24) Theophanes, Chron., a. 6221
(25) Graf, G., Gesch. der Christ. Arab. Lit., I 377, 378
(26) Nasrallah, J., Saint Jean de Damas, 58-59
(27) Arabic—The Life of Saint John of Damascus, by Michael the Monk, pp. 12-15 سيرة يوحنا الدمشقي للراهب ميخائيل (طبعة الخوري قسطنطين باشا)
(28) Echos d’orient, 1925, 140
(29) Nasrallah. J., op. cit., 61
(30) Arabic—Manaqib, by Umar Ibn Abd El-Aziz, in, The German printing of “Bakr”, p. 64 مناقب عمر ابن عبد العزيز طبعة بكر الألمانية
(31) Arabic—Al-Mouwaffaqiyyat, by Zubeir Ibn Bakkar, No. 27, and Histories, by Ibn Asaker, Vol. III, p. 27 الموفقيات لزبير ابن بكار وتاريخ ابن عساكر
(32) Arabic—The Life of Saint John of Damascus, by Michael the Monk, p. 15 سيرة يوحنا الدمشقي للراهب ميخائيل
(33) P.G., XCIV, Col. 449; Lammens, H., Califat de Yazid, 106, n 1
(34) Mansi, XIII, Col. 356
(35) Arabic—The Life of Saint John of Damascus, by Michael the Monk, pp. 15-20, and, Jean, Patr., Vita, P.G., XCIV, Col. 457-461 سيرة يوحنا الدمشقي للراهب ميخائيل
(36) Cedrenus, G., Synopsis Historion, I, 799; Ephraemus, Corp. Script. Hist. Byz., XII, 82; Zonoras, C.S.H.B., XXXI, 270; Nicephore, Brevarium, 74; Nasrallah, Jean de Damas, 75-81
(37) Arabic—The Life of Saint John of Damascus, by Michael the Monk, p. 20 سيرة يوحنا الدمشقي للراهب ميخائيل
(38) Arabic—The Synaxarion, by Met. Michael Assaf: December 4 السنكسار للمطران ميخائيل عساف
(39) Ibid. pp. 20-21
(40) Arabic—The Life of Saint John of Damascus, by Michael the Monk, p. 24, and, Nasrallah, J., Jean de Damas, 100-103 سيرة يوحنا الدمشقي للراهب ميخائيل
(41) Denis de Tell – Mahré (Chabot), II
(42) Theophanes, Chron., a. 6221
(43) Girdillo, M., Damacenica, Orient. Christ. Analecta, 1926, 64; Monologio di Basilio II, 213; Graf, G., Gesch. der Christ. Lit., I, 379
(44) Nasrallah. J., op. cit., 115-116
(45) Léonce de Damas, Acta SS., III, 184
(46) Arabic—The Damascene Theologian, by Father Chrysostomos Hallack, p. 94 الدمشقي اللاهوتي للأب خريسوستوموس حلاق (الذكرى المئوية)
(47) P.G., XCIV, Col. 525-1228
(48) P.G., XCIV, Col. 99-112
(49) P.G., XCIV, Col. 1421-1432
(50) P.G., XCIV, 8-18
(51) P.G., XCIV, Col. 417-436
(52) P.G., XCIV, Col. 532, Trad. P. Chrysostomos Hallack.
(53) P.G., XCIV, Col. 529
(54) P.G., XCIV, Col. 1173, 1256, 1301
(55) P.G., XCIV, Col. 1441
(56) Arabic—The Damascene Theologian, by Father Chrysostomos Hallack, pp. 95-105 الدمشقي اللاهوتي للأب خريسوستوموس حلاق
(57) P.G., XCIV, 1231-1420
(58) P.G., XCV, Col. 21-62
(59) P.G., XCV, Col. 111-126
(60) Arabic—Scattered Pearls, by Patriarch Ignatius Barsoum, pp. 307-358 اللؤلؤ المنثور للبطريرك إغناطيوس برصوم
(61) P.G., XCV, Col. 187-224
(62) P.G., XCV, Col. 127-186
(63) Pargoire, L., L’Eglise Byzantine, 181
(64) P.G., XCVI, Col. 1319-1336, & XCIV, Col. 1505-1584
(65) P.G., XCIV, Col. 763-773
(66) P.G., XCIV, Col. 1585-1595, & XCIV, Col. 1335-1348
(67) Becker, K., Islamstudien, 432-449
(68) Laily, A., L’Influence Liturgique et Musicale de Saint Jean de Damas (Centenaire, Harissa, 1950), 84-93; Nasrallah, J., op. cit., 150-157; Emereau, Hymnographi Byzantini, Echos d’Orient, 1923
(69) Anawati, M. M., Theologie Musulmane, 200-207
(70) Vailhé, S., Date de la Mort de Saint Jean de Damas, Echos d’Orient, 1906, 28-30; Nasrallah, J., op. cit., 127-128
(71) Nasrallah, J., op. cit., 128-129; Ebersolt, J., Sanctuaires de Byzance, 31-43