Friday, March 27, 2020

Saint John Damascene, Confessor and Doctor of the Church

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The faithful have not forgotten that on the first Sunday of Lent the Greeks keep one of their greatest solemnities, that of Orthodoxy. History proves that the Church of Constantinople, the new Rome, did not share the indefectibility of that of the old Rome, for it passed through a cycle of heresies on the dogma of the Incarnation. It rejected successively the consubstantiality of the Word, the unity of Person in Jesus Christ, and the integrity of His two natures. It seemed as though were were nothing left for heretical emperors and patriarchs to deny. Yet there was one more error to proclaim before the measure of false teaching was filled up.

Christ enthroned in heaven could not be belittled, but His images might be proscribed on earth. Heresy was powerless to touch the King even in these pictorial representations, but schism could at lest shake off the yoke of His Vicar, and this last denial rolled the stone to the door of a tomb which the Crescent was one day to seal.

The heresy of the Iconoclasts or Image-breakers represents the last phase of Oriental error with regard to the Incarnation of the Son of God. It was right that the feast which commemorates the restoration of the holy Images should receive the glorious name of the Feast of Orthodoxy. It celebrates the last blow struck at Byzantine dogma, and recalls all those delivered by the councils of the Church between the first and second of Nicæa. A peculiar solemnity was given to this feast by the fact that all the anathemas formulated in previous times against the adversaries of revealed truth were renewed in the Church of St. Sophia while the Cross and the holy Images were exalted in triumph and the emperor stood at his throne.

Satan, the sword foe of the Word, showed clearly that he looked upon the doctrine of the Iconoclasts as his last resource. There is no heresy which has causes more martyrdoms or more destruction. Nero and Diocletian seemed to be reincarnate in the baptized Cæsars who defended it: Leo the Isaurian, Costantine Copronymus, Leo the Armenian, Michael the Stammerer and his son Theophilus. The edicts of persecution, published in defense of the idols of former times, were renewed for the destruction of the idolatry which was said to defile the Church.

In the early days of the heresy, St. Germanus of Constantinople reminded the crowned theologian of Isauria that Christians do not adore images but give them a relative honor, which is due to the persons of the saints whom they represent. The imperial pontiff replied by sending the patriarch into exile. The soldiers, whom the emperor charged to carry out his will, gave themselves up to the pillage of churches and private houses. On all sides venerates statues fall under the hammer of the destroyer. Mural paintings were covered with chalk, vestments and sacred vessels mutilated and destroyed on account of images in embroidery or enamel. Masterpieces of art, which had nourished the devotion of the people, were publicly burned, and the artist who dared to represent Christ, Our Lady, or the saints, was himself subjected to fire and torture together with those of the faithful who had not been able to restrain their sorrow at the sight of such destruction. The shepherds bowed beneath the storm and yielded to regrettable compromises, and the reign of terror was soon supreme over the deserted flock.

But the noble family of St. Basil, both monks and consecrated virgins, rose en masse to withstand the tyrant. They passed through exile, imprisonment, starvation, scourging, death by drowning and the sword, but they saved the tradition of ancient art and the faith of their ancestors. The whole Order seems personified in the holy monk and painter Lazarus, who was first tempted by flattery and threats, then tortured and put in chains. It was impossible to repress him. His hands were burned with red-hot plates, but he still continued to exercise his art for the love of the saints, for the sake of his brethren, and for God, and he outlived his persecutors.

The heresy of the Iconoclasts helped, moreover to establish the temporal independence of the Roman pontiffs, for when the Isaurian threatened to enter Rome to destroy the statue of St. Peter, all Italy rose to repeal the invasion of these new barbarians, defend the treasures of her basilicas and withdraw the Vicar of Christ from the yoke of Byzantium.

It was a glorious period, a hundred and twenty years, comprising the reigns of great opes, from St. Gregory II to St. Paschal I. In the history of the Eastern Church, it begins with John Damascene, who saw the opening of the conflict, and ends with Theodore the Studite, whose indomitable firmness secured the final triumph. For many centuries this period, which gave so many saints to the Greek Kalendar, was unrepresented in the Latin Liturgy. The feast of today was added by Pope Leo XIII in 1892, and now John Damascene, the quondam vizier, the protégé of Our Lady, the monk whose excellent doctrine won for him the name of “Golden stream,” commemorates in the Western cycle the heroic struggle in which the East rendered with such glorious services to the Church and to the world.

The account given by the Liturgy of the life of this holy Doctor is so complete that we need add nothing further. But it will be well to give a short summary of the definitions by which in the eighth and sixteenth centuries the Church has avenged the holy Images from the attacks made on them by hell. The second Council of Nicæa declares that: “It is lawful to place in churches, in frescoes, in pictures, on vestments and the sacred vessels, on the walls of houses and in public streets, images, whether painted or mosaic or of other suitable material, representing Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, our most pure Lady, the holy Mother of God, the angels and the saints; it is equally lawful to burn incense before them and surround them with lights.” “Not that we must believe that these images have any divinity or virtue of their own,” says the Council of Trent against the Protestants, “or that we must put our confidence in them as the pagans did in their idols. But the honor which is given to the images is referred to Christ the prototype, to whom through them all our adoration is addressed, and to the saints whom we venerate in their portraits.”

Second Nocturn

Joannes a patrio loco Damascenus dictus, nobili genere natus, humanis divinisque litteris a Cosma monacho Constantinopoli guit excultus; cumque ea tempestate imperator Leo Isauricus nefario bello sacrarum Imaginum cultum insectaretur, Joannes hortatu Gregorii Tertii Romani Pontificis, et sermone et scriptis sanctitatem illius cultus sedulo propugnavit. Quo facto tantum Leonis adversum se invidiam concitavit, ut hic confictis litteris ipsum tanquam proditorem accusarit apud Damasci Calipham, qui Joanne consiliario et administro utebatur. Credulus fraudi princeps Joanni nequidquam calumniam ajuranti præcidi dexteram jussit. Verum innocentiæ vindex adfuit clienti suo sanctissima Virgo, cujus opem precibus enixe imploraverat, ejusque beneficio trunca manus restituta ita brachio coaluit, ac si divisa nunquam fuisset. Quo maxime miraculo permotus Joannes, quod pridem animo conceperat, exsequi statuit. Itaque ægre a calipha impetrato accessu, suas omnes facultates in egenos distribuit, et servos libertate donavit; tum sacra Palæstinæ loca peregrinus lustravit, ac demum una cum Cosma institutore suo in lauram sancti Sabbæ prope Hierosolymam concessit, ibique presbyter initiatus est.

John, who received the name of Damascene from his native place, was of noble birth, and studied sacred and profane letters at Constantinople under the monk Cosmas. When the Emperor Leo the Isaurian made a wicked attack upon the cult of the holy Images, John, at the desire of Pope Gregory III, earnestly defended the holiness of this cult both by words and writings. By this he enkindled so great a hatred in the heart of Leo that the Emperor accused him, by means of forged letters, of treachery to the Caliph of Damascus, whom he was serving as a councillor and minister. John denied the charge, but the Caliph was deceived by it and ordered his right hand to be cut off. John implored most earnestly the help of the blessed Virgin, and she manifested the innocence of her servant by reuniting his hand and arm as though they had never been severed. This miracle moved John to carry out a design which he had long had in mind. He obtained, though not without difficulty, the Caliph’s permission to leave him, distributed all his goods to the poor and freed all his slaves. He then made a pilgrimage to the holy places in Palestine, and at length withdrew with his teacher Cosmas to the monastery of St. Sabbas near Jerusalem, where he was ordained priest.

In religiosæ vitæ palæstra præclariora virtutum exempla monachis præbuit, demissionis potissimum et obedientiæ. Abjectissima quæque cœnobii munia veluti sibi propria deposcebat ac sedulo obibat. Contextas a se sportulas venditare Damasci jussus, in ea nimirum civitate ubi olim summis honoribus perfunctus fuerat, irrisiones se ludibria vulgi avide captabat. Obedientiam adeo coluit, ut non modo ad quemlibet præsidum nutum præsto esset, sed ne causam quidem eorum quæ præcipiebantur, quamvis ardua essent et insolita, quærendam sibi unquam putarit. Inter has virtutum exercitationes, catholicum dogma de sanctarum Imaginum cultu impense tueri nunquam destitit. Quare ut ante Leonis Isaurici, ita postmodum Constantini Copronymi adversum se odia vexationesque provocavit; eo vel magis quod libere arrogantiam imperatorum retunderet, qui fidei negotia pertractare, deque his sententiam arbitratu suo ferre audebant.

In the religious life he was an example of virtue to all the monks, especially in his humility and obedience. He sought for the lowest offices in the community as though they were peculiarly his own, and fulfilled them with the greatest care. When he was sent to Damascus to sell baskets made by himself, he welcomed the mockery and jests of the lowest classes in that city where he had once held the most honorable offices. He was so devoted to obedience, that not only was he ready to obey the nod of his superiors, but he never thought it right to ask the reason of any command, however strange or difficult. While practicing these virtues, he never ceased earnestly to defend the Catholic doctrine as to the honoring of holy Images. Thus he drew upon himself the hatred and persecution of the Emperor Constantine Copronymus, as he had once done that of Leo the Isaurian, and this all the more because he freely rebuked the arrogance of these Emperors, who meddled with matters concerning the faith, and pronounced sentence on them according to their own judgment.

Mirum sane est quam multa tum ad fidem tutandam, tum ad pietatem fovendam, et soluta et adstricta numeris oratione, Joannes elucubraverit, dignus sane qui ab altera Nicæna synodo amplissimis laudibus celebraretur, et ob aureum orationis flumen Chrysorrhoas appellaretur. Neque solum contra Iconomachos orthodoxam fidem defendit; sed omnes ferme hereticos, præsertim Acephalos, Monothelitas, Theopaschitas strenue impugnavit: Ecclesiæ jura potestatemque egregiæ vindicavit: primatum Principis Apostolorum disertissimis verbis asseruit; ipsumque ecclesiarum columen, infractam petram, orbis terrarum magistrum et moderatorem sæpius nominat. Universa autem ejus scripta non modo eruditione et doctrina præstant, sed etiam quameam ingenuæ pietatis sensum præferunt, præcipue cum Genetricis Dei laudes prædicat, quam singulari cultu et amore prosequebatur. Illud vero maxime in laudem Joannis cedit, quod primus universam theologiam recto ordine comprehenderit et sancti Thomæ viam complanaverit ad sacram doctrinam tam præclara methodo tractandam. Tandam vir sanctissimus meritis plenus devexaque ætate, in pace Christi quievit anno circiter septingentesimo quinquagesimo quarto. Ejus officium et missam Leo decimus tertius Pontifex Maximus, addito Doctoris titulo, universæ Ecclesiæ concessit.

It is a marvel how much John wrote both in prose and verse for the protection fo the faith and the encouragement of devotion. He was worthy of the high praise which was given him by the second Council of Nicæa. He was surnamed Chrysorrhoas on account of the golden streams of his eloquence. It was not only against the enemies of the holy Images that he defended the orthodox faith, for he also stoutly opposed the Acephali, the Monothelites and the Theopascites. He maintained the laws and the power of the Church. He asserted the primacy of the Prince of the Apostles in eloquent words, and often called him the pillar of the Churches, the unbroken rock and the teacher and ruler of the world. His writings are not only distinguished for doctrine and learning, but have a savor of simple piety, especially when he praises the Mother of God whom he honored with a singular love and devotion. But the greatest praise of John is that he was the first to arrange in order a complete course of theology, thus preparing the way in which St. Thomas Aquinas has so clearly dealt with the whole body of sacred doctrine. This holy man, full of days and good works, fell asleep in the peace of Christ about the year 754. Pope Leo XIII declared him to be a Doctor of the Church, and ordered his office and mass to be said throughout the world.

O champion of the holy Images, obtain for us as the Church asks of thee, that we may imitate the virtues and experience the aid of those whom we see thus represented. The image directs our veneration and our prayers to those to whom they are due, to Christ the King and to the saints, who are the princes of His army and the most valiant of His soldiers, for it is right that the King should share with His army the honors of His triumph. The iamge is the book of those who cannot read, and even the learned may gain more from an instant’s gazing at an eloquent picture than from the prolonged study of many volumes. The work of the Christian artist is not only an act of religion but also an apostolate; thus it is easy to understand the opposition raised by hell in all times of disturbance against Christian art. We unite ourselves with thee, O glorious saint, in why welfare against the devil, and cry: “Get thee behind us, Satan, with that envy which will not suffer us to look upon the image of Our Lord and thus be sanctified. Thou wilt not permit us to contemplate those sufferings which were the source of our salvation, to admire the gracious condescension of our God, to recognize and praise the power displayed in His miracles. Thou art envious of the saints and of the glory they have received from God, and wilt not have us contemplate this glory, lest the sight inspire us to imitate their courage and their faith. Thou canst not endure the thought that our confidence in them will profit us both in soul and in body. We will not follow thee, O jealous demon, thou enemy of mankind.”

Be thou rather our guide, dear saint, whom sacred science salutes as one of her earliest Doctors. “Knowledge is the most precious of all treasures,” as thou didst once tell us in your Dialectica, and it was thy desire to lead men to the only master who cannot lie, Christ the power and the wisdom of God. If they hear His voice in Holy Scripture, they will gain a true knowledge of all things. If they dispel all darkness of heart and mind, they will not stay on the threshold of the truth, but will pass into the secret of the nuptial chamber.

Our Blessed Lady herself foretold the teaching and the works of John. She appeared to the master, whose voice he obeyed as that of God, and said to him: “Suffer the waters to flow, the clear sweet waters whose abundance will spread throughout the whole world, whose virtue will refresh souls athirst for knowledge and purity, whose power will stay the floods of heresy and transform them into a marvelous sweetness.”

The queen of the heavenly minstrels declared that thou, dear John, hadst received the prophetic harp and psaltery to sing the new canticle of the Lord our God in rivalry with the Cherubim. The daughters of Jerusalem, who are the Churches, sing the death and resurrection of Christ, and thou art one of the chief cantors. Lead from the feasts of our exile—the Pasch of time—through the Red Sea and the desert to the eternal feast where all images of earth will vanish before the realities of heaven, where all knowledge will pass into vision, where reigns in glory the queen who inspired thy song, Mary, the mother of us all.

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