17 December 2009

'Originality Means to Remain Faithful to the Originals'—St John of Damascus


Today, 3 December on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St John of Damascus, or ‘Damascene’ (يوحنا الدمشقي, c. 675-749). Fr Asterios Gerostergios calls him ‘a great theologian, philosopher, poet, and oecumenical teacher of the Church’ (Introduction, The Precious Pearl: The Lives of Saints Barlaam & Ioasaph, by St John of Damascus, trans. Fr Asterios Gerostergios, et al. [Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1997], p. 11), and Constantine Cavarnos says that he ‘made very important contributions to the Orthodox Church in the fields of theology and hymnography’ (Orthodoxy & Philosophy: Lectures Delivered at St Tikhon’s Theological Seminary [Belmont, MA: IBMG, 2003], p. 76). According to Jaroslav Pelikan, ‘Divine tradition found its characteristic expression in the writings of John of Damascus. . . . His writings became the classic exposition of Eastern dogmatics, destined to influence most major theologians of both East and West until the Reformation . . .’ (The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), Vol. 2 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine [Chicago: U of Chicago, 1977], pp. 136). Here is the account of his life in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 4, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 283):

He was first a minister [Logothete] of Caliph Abdul-Malek, and then became a monk in the monastery of St Sava the Sanctified. For his ardent advocacy of the veneration of icons while still a courtier during the reign of the iconoclast Emperor Leo the Isaurian, he was slandered by the Emperor to the Caliph, who had his right hand cut off. John fell down in prayer before the icon of the most holy Mother of God, and his hand was re-joined to his arm and miraculously healed. When he beheld this wonder, the Caliph repented, but John no longer desired to remain at court as a nobleman, but to withdraw to a monastery. There, he was from the beginning a model of humility and obedience, and of all the words of asceticism prescribed for monks. He wrote the hymns for the Parting of the Soul from the Body, put together the Octoechos, the Irmologion, the Menologion and the Easter Canon, and wrote many theological works of an inspired profundity. A great monk, hymnographer and theologian, and a great warrior for the truth of Christ, Damascene is counted among the great Fathers of the Church. He entered peacefully into rest in about 790, being seventy-five years old.

Fr Florovsky speaks of St John’s ‘strict, reclusive life in humility and obedience’ being ‘vividly and touchingly described in a well-known biographical tale’ (The Byzantine Fathers of the Sixth to Eighth Century, trans. Raymond Miller, et al., Vol. 9 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky [Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987], p. 254). Here is that tale as told by St Nicholas in the ‘For Consideration’ from today’s Prologue:

Obedience, coupled with humility, is the basis of the spiritual life and the foundation of salvation—and the foundation also of the whole edifice of the Church of God. The great John Damascene, great in every virtue, left as a monk a deep impression on the history of the Church by his extraordinary example of obedience and humility. His elder and spiritual father, wishing to test him, one day handed him some woven baskets and told him to take them into Damascus and sell them there. The elder laid down a very high price for the baskets, thinking that they would not sell at such a price and would have to be brought back. John had, then, firstly to undertake a very long journey; secondly, to enter as a poor monk the city where he had earlier been the man next to the Caliph; thirdly, to ask an absurdly high price for the baskets; and, fourthly, should the baskets not be sold, he had to endure the long journey there and back for nothing. The elder wished, in this way, to test the obedience, the humility and the patience of his famous disciple. John silently prostrated before the elder and, without a word, took up the baskets and set out. When he came to Damascus, he stood in the market-place and waited for customers. When he told interested passers-by the price of his goods, they began to laugh and mock him as a lunatic. He stood there the whole day, exposed to mockery and ridicule, but God, who sees all things, did not abandon His patient servant. A passing citizen happened to glance at John, and, although John was wearing a monk’s poor habit and his face was shrunken and pale from fasting, the man recognized him as the former nobleman and first minister of the Caliph, in whose service he also had been. John also recognized him, but they began to deal as strangers. Even though John told him the ridiculously high price of the baskets, the man bought them and paid the price without comment, mindful of the good deeds that Damascene had once done for him. Then holy John returned singing triumphantly to the monastery, and brought joy to his elder. (p. 284)
Concerning St John’s theological legacy, the great Fr Andrew Louth has made some important comments in the Preface to his remarkable study, St John Damascene: Tradition & Originality in Byzantine Theology (Oxford: Oxford U, 2002):

John has generally been dismissed, either explicitly or implicitly, as an unoriginal thinker, a mere compiler of patristic florilegia. Even if it is argued that there is nothing ‘mere’ about compiling florilegia, there soon comes the realization that John was often not even doing this much, but was using an already existing tradition of such compilation. This was not due to laziness, or carelessness. It was intentional: twice, towards the beginning of his great Fountain Head of Knowledge, John asserts that ‘I shall say nothing of my own’. If we are to think through what is meant by ‘tradition’ and ‘originality’ in relation to John, we shall be forced to revise what we mean by these terms. The epigraph to this book, from the Greek writer and critic, Zissimos Lorenzatos, points towards a possible way of understanding John. The whole sentence, from an essay on the great writer Alexandros Papadiamandis, too little known outside his native Greece, runs as follows:

Originality means to remain faithful to the originals, to the eternal prototypes, to extinguish ‘a wisdom of [your] own’ before the ‘common Word’, as Heraclitus says (Fr. 2)—in other words, to lose your soul if you wish to find it, and not to parade your originality or to do what pleases you.

John would have understood that; indeed, he would have been astonished that it needed saying. But it does need saying in our day, and if we are to make anything of John and the tradition to which he belonged (which continues to the present day), we need to try and understand it. (p. viii)

Of St John’s many writings, one can find several examples online. At the Orthodox Christian Information Center, that fine man Reader Patrick Barnes has posted Book 1 of the Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith here (also, the entire thing can be read here, at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library), and St John’s timely critique of Islam here. A lengthy passage from his treatises in defense of icons is available here, at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. I myself shall offer two examples of St John’s writing—one from his theological works and one from his hymnography (of which my favourite is surely the Paschal canon, but I have posted something more appropriate to the season here). First, from the Fount of Knowledge, Philosophical Chapters 1 (St John of Damascus, Writings, trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr. [Washington, DC: The Catholic U of America, 1999], pp. 7-9):

Nothing is more estimable than knowledge, for knowledge is the light of the rational soul. The opposite, which is ignorance, is darkness. Just as the absence of light is darkness, so is the absence of knowledge a darkness of the reason. Now, ignorance is proper to irrational beasts, while knowledge is proper to those who are rational. Consequently, one who by nature has the faculty of knowing and understanding, yet does not have knowledge, such a one, although by nature rational, is by neglect and indifference inferior to rational beings. By knowledge I mean the true knowledge of things which are, because things which have being are the object of knowledge. False knowledge, in so far as it I as knowledge of that which is not, is ignorance rather than knowledge. For falsehood is nothing else but that which is not. Now, since we do not live with our soul stripped bare, but, on the contrary, have it clothed over, as it were, with the veil of the flesh, our soul has the mind as a sort of eye which sees and has the faculty of knowing and which is capable of receiving knowledge and having understanding of things which are. It does not, however, have knowledge and understanding of itself, but has need of one to teach it; so, let us approach that Teacher in whom there is no falsehood and who is the truth. Christ is the subsistent wisdom and truth and in Him are all the hidden treasures of knowledge. In sacred Scripture let us hear the voice of Him who is the wisdom and power of God the Father, and let us learn the true knowledge of all things that are. Let us approach with attention and in all sincerity and proceed without letting the spiritual eye of our soul be dulled by the passions, for even the clearest and most limpid eye will hardly enable one to gain a clear view of the truth. ‘If then the light that is in us (that is to say, the mind [nous] be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be!’ With our whole soul and our whole understanding let us approach. And since it is impossible for the eye that is constantly shifting and turning about clearly to perceive the visible object, because for clear vision the eye must be steadily focused upon the object observed, let us put aside every anxiety of the mind and approach the truth unhampered by material considerations. And let us not be satisfied with arriving speedily at the gate, but rather let us knock hard, so that the door of the bridal chamber may be opened to us and we may behold the beauties within. Now, the gate is the letter, but the bridal chamber within the gate is the beauty of the thoughts hidden behind the letter, which is to say, the Spirit of truth. Let us know hard, let us read once, twice, many times. By thus digging through we shall find the treasure of knowledge and take delight in the wealth of it. Let us seek, let us search, let us examine, let us inquire. ‘For every one that asketh, receiveth: and he that seeketh, findeth: and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened; and ‘Ask thy father, and he will declare to thee: thy elders in knowledge and they will tell thee.’ If, then, we are lovers of learning, we shall learn much, for it is of the nature of all things that they may be apprehended through industry and toil, and before all and after all by the grace of God, the Giver of grace.

Here now, also by the Holy Damascene, is the 4th Ode of the second Canon (written originally in iambic verse) from Matins for the Feast of the Nativity (The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary & Archim. [now Metropolitan] Kallistos [Ware] [South Canaan, PA: STS, 1998], p. 274):

Of old Habbakkuk the Prophet was counted worthy
To behold ineffably the figure and symbol of Christ’s birth,
And he foretold in song the renewal of mankind.
For a young babe, even the Word, has now come forth from the Mountain that is the Virgin,
Unto the renewal of the peoples.

Of Thine own will, O Most High, Thou hast come forth equal to mortal men,
Taking flesh from the Virgin,
To purge the poison of the serpent’s head.
God by nature, Thou leadest all
From the gates that know no sun to the life-giving light.

O ye people that before were sunk in corruption,
But now have escaped wholly from the perdition of the adversary,
Lift up your hands and clap them in songs of praise,
Honouring Christ alone, our Benefactor,
Who in His compassion is come into our midst.

O Virgin, sprung from the root of Jesse,
Thou hast passed beyond the boundaries of human nature,
For Thou hast borne the pre-eternal Word of the Father.
According to His good pleasure, by a strange self-emptying,
He passed through thy womb, yet kept it sealed.

In conclusion, here is the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St John from the Prologue:

O wondrous trumpet of the Orthodox Faith,
O glorious monk of a glorious cenobium,
John the poet, champion of the Faith,
Holy sufferer for the holy icons,
Having glorified God you are now glorified;
Immortal trumpeter of eternal life,
You left the world for the sake of the Living Christ.
Having humbled yourself, you are glorified the more.
You took upon yourself the path of asceticism;
Through tears you beheld the heavenly mysteries;
By prayer and faith you performed miracles;
You conversed with the Mother of God.
The Faith-who could better expound it?
Who could glorify God with a sweeter hymn?
O harp of eternal truth, there is none like you,
No one like you, glorious Father Damascene.
Oh, raise even now your pure mouth,
And implore the Life-giving Christ for us,
That His mercy accompany us until death,
That we with you may glorify Him.

11 comments:

Matthew said...

There is also a wonderful story about the humility and obedience of St. John from St. Nikolai's Reflection on December 16 (I copied it from here: http://www.westsrbdio.org/prolog/prolog.htm)

The saints exerted great effort to subdue pride and selfishness in themselves and to accustom themselves to complete obedience and devotion, be it to their superiors when they had them, or to God Himself. The Monastery of St. Sava the Sanctified was distinguished by exceptional discipline, order and unmurmuring obedience. When St. John Damascene entered this monastery, not one of the eminent spiritual fathers would venture to take such a famous nobleman and writer as his novice. Then the abbot handed him over to a simple but strict elder. The elder ordered John not to do anything without his knowledge or approval. In the meantime it happened that a monk died who had a brother in this same monastery. The monk was in unspeakable grief over the death of his brother. For the sake of comforting the inconsolable brother, John wrote stichera for the departed monk-famous hymns that the Church uses even today at the funeral service. After composing them, John began to chant the hymns. When the elder heard the chanting, he became enraged and drove John away. Some of the brethren, hearing of John's banishment, dared to go to the elder to beg him to forgive John and receive him back, but the elder remained unwavering. John wept bitterly and lamented because he had transgressed his elder's command. Once again the brethren, on John's behalf, begged the elder to impose a penance on him and after that forgive him. The elder then imposed the following penance upon his disciple: to clean and wash all the lavatories of every cell in the monastery with his own hands if he desired forgiveness. The sorrowful brethren reported this to John, thinking that he would leave the monastery rather than do this. But when John heard the elder's message, he rejoiced greatly and with much joy carried out the elder's command. Upon seeing this, the elder wept, embraced John and said through his tears: "Oh, what a sufferer for Christ have I given birth to! Oh, what a true son of holy obedience this man is!"

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks, Matthew! I had a vague memory of that story, but I wouldn't have known where to find it!

Matthew the Curmudgeon said...

Funny how words get turned upside down, huh? Most people who use 'original' mean 'new' , 'never done or expressed', not return to the 'origins' of a thing. How far we have fallen from Grace.

The Tartski said...

Really? I hadn't noticed. I usually use the word "innovative" to describe what "most people" call "original." As you say, the word refers to origins, and whether this interest in the "source" be due to its antiquity or its uniqueness is an entirely contextual matter.

aaronandbrighid said...

Wow, Ivan, you Canadians are really out of the loop! Americans &, I'm sure, Brits both use 'original' in the origins sense too (cf. 'OG'), but it is also extremely common for Americans, and based on Fr Louth's perception of the necessity to address the issue, Brits as well, to use it in the sense of 'innovative'. Do you guys up there not get cc'd on the Anglophone memos?

Well, anyway, you'll feel quite at home for the next couple of weeks, I suppose!

Anonymous said...

Have any suggestions on where I could find some of Florovsky's Collected Works (not a url), the books themselves!

aaronandbrighid said...

Anonymous> Sorry, my friend, that would be a job for a serious book detective working for a client for whom price was no object. You might as well ask me where one could locate a Gutenberg Bible for sale. E-mail me privately and we'll have a little conversation about the only options known to me.

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

‘I shall say nothing of my own.'

words to ponder in holy silence.

JLB said...

Mr. Taylor, you seem to have forgotten the link to St. John's timely critique of Islam!

aaronandbrighid said...

Many apologies, my friend. Thank you for bringing this to my attention!

Anonymous said...

Ironically, today I happened to find a volume of the collected works at Powell's for $19. I have checked all the online outlets everyweek for over a year, with little success. Today was a fortuitous day!