Our holy father Tsar Lazar of Serbia is not the only counterjihad saint. St. John of Damascus (c. 676 – December 5, 749) correctly identified Islam as a heresy against Christianity.
Webmaster note: The following passage is from Saint John’s monumental work, the Fount of Knowledge, part two entitled Heresies in Epitome: How They Began and Whence They Drew Their Origin. It is usually just cited as Heresies. The translator’s introduction points out that Fount of Knowledge is one of the most “important single works produced in the Greek patristic period,…offering as it does an extensive and lucid synthesis of the Greek theological science of the whole period. It is the first great Summa of theology to appear in either the East or the West.” Saint John (+ 749) is considered one of the great Fathers of the Church, and his writings hold a place of high honor in the Church. His critique of Islam, or “the heresy of the Ishmaelites,” is especially relevant for our times.
There is also the superstition of the Ishmaelites which to this day prevails and keeps people in error, being a forerunner of the Antichrist. They are descended from Ishmael, [who] was born to Abraham of Agar, and for this reason they are called both Agarenes and Ishmaelites. They are also called Saracens, which is derived from Sarras kenoi, or destitute of Sara, because of what Agar said to the angel: ‘Sara hath sent me away destitute.’  These used to be idolaters and worshiped the morning star and Aphrodite, whom in their own language they called Khabár, which means great.  And so down to the time of Heraclius they were very great idolaters. From that time to the present a false prophet named Mohammed has appeared in their midst. This man, after having chanced upon the Old and New Testaments and likewise, it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk,  devised his own heresy. Then, having insinuated himself into the good graces of the people by a show of seeming piety, he gave out that a certain book had been sent down to him from heaven. He had set down some ridiculous compositions in this book of his and he gave it to them as an object of veneration.
He says that there is one God, creator of all things, who has neither been begotten nor has begotten.  He says that the Christ is the Word of God and His Spirit, but a creature and a servant, and that He was begotten, without seed, of Mary the sister of Moses and Aaron.  For, he says, the Word and God and the Spirit entered into Mary and she brought forth Jesus, who was a prophet and servant of God. And he says that the Jews wanted to crucify Him in violation of the law, and that they seized His shadow and crucified this. But the Christ Himself was not crucified, he says, nor did He die, for God out of His love for Him took Him to Himself into heaven.  And he says this, that when the Christ had ascended into heaven God asked Him: ‘O Jesus, didst thou say: “I am the Son of God and God”?’ And Jesus, he says, answered: ‘Be merciful to me, Lord. Thou knowest that I did not say this and that I did not scorn to be thy servant. But sinful men have written that I made this statement, and they have lied about me and have fallen into error.’ And God answered and said to Him: ‘I know that thou didst not say this word.”  There are many other extraordinary and quite ridiculous things in this book which he boasts was sent down to him from God. But when we ask: ‘And who is there to testify that God gave him the book? And which of the prophets foretold that such a prophet would rise up?’—they are at a loss. And we remark that Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai, with God appearing in the sight of all the people in cloud, and fire, and darkness, and storm. And we say that all the Prophets from Moses on down foretold the coming of Christ and how Christ God (and incarnate Son of God) was to come and to be crucified and die and rise again, and how He was to be the judge of the living and dead. Then, when we say: ‘How is it that this prophet of yours did not come in the same way, with others bearing witness to him? And how is it that God did not in your presence present this man with the book to which you refer, even as He gave the Law to Moses, with the people looking on and the mountain smoking, so that you, too, might have certainty?’—they answer that God does as He pleases. ‘This,’ we say, ‘We know, but we are asking how the book came down to your prophet.’ Then they reply that the book came down to him while he was asleep. Then we jokingly say to them that, as long as he received the book in his sleep and did not actually sense the operation, then the popular adage applies to him (which runs: You’re spinning me dreams.) 
When we ask again: ‘How is it that when he enjoined us in this book of yours not to do anything or receive anything without witnesses, you did not ask him: “First do you show us by witnesses that you are a prophet and that you have come from God, and show us just what Scriptures there are that testify about you”’—they are ashamed and remain silent. [Then we continue:] ‘Although you may not marry a wife without witnesses, or buy, or acquire property; although you neither receive an ass nor possess a beast of burden unwitnessed; and although you do possess both wives and property and asses and so on through witnesses, yet it is only your faith and your scriptures that you hold unsubstantiated by witnesses. For he who handed this down to you has no warranty from any source, nor is there anyone known who testified about him before he came. On the contrary, he received it while he was asleep.’
Moreover, they call us Hetaeriasts, or Associators, because, they say, we introduce an associate with God by declaring Christ to the Son of God and God. We say to them in rejoinder: ‘The Prophets and the Scriptures have delivered this to us, and you, as you persistently maintain, accept the Prophets. So, if we wrongly declare Christ to be the Son of God, it is they who taught this and handed it on to us.’ But some of them say that it is by misinterpretation that we have represented the Prophets as saying such things, while others say that the Hebrews hated us and deceived us by writing in the name of the Prophets so that we might be lost. And again we say to them: ‘As long as you say that Christ is the Word of God and Spirit, why do you accuse us of being Hetaeriasts? For the word, and the spirit, is inseparable from that in which it naturally has existence. Therefore, if the Word of God is in God, then it is obvious that He is God. If, however, He is outside of God, then, according to you, God is without word and without spirit. Consequently, by avoiding the introduction of an associate with God you have mutilated Him. It would be far better for you to say that He has an associate than to mutilate Him, as if you were dealing with a stone or a piece of wood or some other inanimate object. Thus, you speak untruly when you call us Hetaeriasts; we retort by calling you Mutilators of God.’
They furthermore accuse us of being idolaters, because we venerate the cross, which they abominate. And we answer them: ‘How is it, then, that you rub yourselves against a stone in your Ka’ba  and kiss and embrace it?’ Then some of them say that Abraham had relations with Agar upon it, but others say that he tied the camel to it, when he was going to sacrifice Isaac. And we answer them: ‘Since Scripture says that the mountain was wooded and had trees from which Abraham cut wood for the holocaust and laid it upon Isaac,  and then he left the asses behind with the two young men, why talk nonsense? For in that place neither is it thick with trees nor is there passage for asses.’ And they are embarrassed, but they still assert that the stone is Abraham’s. Then we say: ‘Let it be Abraham’s, as you so foolishly say. Then, just because Abraham had relations with a woman on it or tied a camel to it, you are not ashamed to kiss it, yet you blame us for venerating the cross of Christ by which the power of the demons and the deceit of the Devil was destroyed.’ This stone that they talk about is a head of that Aphrodite whom they used to worship and whom they called Khabár. Even to the present day, traces of the carving are visible on it to careful observers.
As has been related, this Mohammed wrote many ridiculous books, to each one of which he set a title. For example, there is the book On Woman,  in which he plainly makes legal provision for taking four wives and, if it be possible, a thousand concubines—as many as one can maintain, besides the four wives. He also made it legal to put away whichever wife one might wish, and, should one so wish, to take to oneself another in the same way. Mohammed had a friend named Zeid. This man had a beautiful wife with whom Mohammed fell in love. Once, when they were sitting together, Mohammed said: ‘Oh, by the way, God has commanded me to take your wife.’ The other answered: ‘You are an apostle. Do as God has told you and take my wife.’ Rather—to tell the story over from the beginning—he said to him: ‘God has given me the command that you put away your wife.’ And he put her away. Then several days later: ‘Now,’ he said, ‘God has commanded me to take her.’ Then, after he had taken her and committed adultery with her, he made this law: ‘Let him who will put away his wife. And if, after having put her away, he should return to her, let another marry her. For it is not lawful to take her unless she have been married by another. Furthermore, if a brother puts away his wife, let his brother marry her, should he so wish.’  In the same book he gives such precepts as this: ‘Work the land which God hath given thee and beautify it. And do this, and do it in such a manner” —not to repeat all the obscene things that he did.
Then there is the book of The Camel of God.  About this camel he says that there was a camel from God and that she drank the whole river and could not pass through two mountains, because there was not room enough. There were people in that place, he says, and they used to drink the water on one day, while the camel would drink it on the next. Moreover, by drinking the water she furnished them with nourishment, because she supplied them with milk instead of water. Then, because these men were evil, they rose up, he says, and killed the camel. However, she had an offspring, a little camel, which, he says, when the mother had been done away with, called upon God and God took it to Himself. Then we say to them: ‘Where did that camel come from?’ And they say that it was from God. Then we say: ‘Was there another camel coupled with this one?’ And they say: ‘No.’ ‘Then how,’ we say, ‘was it begotten? For we see that your camel is without father and without mother and without genealogy, and that the one that begot it suffered evil. Neither is it evident who bred her. And also, this little camel was taken up. So why did not your prophet, with whom, according to what you say, God spoke, find out about the camel—where it grazed, and who got milk by milking it? Or did she possibly, like her mother, meet with evil people and get destroyed? Or did she enter into paradise before you, so that you might have the river of milk that you so foolishly talk about? For you say that you have three rivers flowing in paradise—one of water, one of wine, and one of milk. If your forerunner the camel is outside of paradise, it is obvious that she has dried up from hunger and thirst, or that others have the benefit of her milk—and so your prophet is boasting idly of having conversed with God, because God did not reveal to him the mystery of the camel. But if she is in paradise, she is drinking water still, and you for lack of water will dry up in the midst of the paradise of delight. And if, there being no water, because the camel will have drunk it all up, you thirst for wine from the river of wine that is flowing by, you will become intoxicated from drinking pure wine and collapse under the influence of the strong drink and fall asleep. Then, suffering from a heavy head after sleeping and being sick from the wine, you will miss the pleasures of paradise. How, then, did it not enter into the mind of your prophet that this might happen to you in the paradise of delight? He never had any idea of what the camel is leading to now, yet you did not even ask him, when he held forth to you with his dreams on the subject of the three rivers. We plainly assure you that this wonderful camel of yours has preceded you into the souls of asses, where you, too, like beasts are destined to go. And there is the exterior darkness and everlasting punishment, roaring fire, sleepless worms, and hellish demons.’
Again, in the book of The Table, Mohammed says that the Christ asked God for a table and that it was given Him. For God, he says, said to Him: ‘I have given to thee and thine an incorruptible table.’ 
And again, in the book of The Heifer,  he says some other stupid and ridiculous things, which, because of their great number, I think must be passed over. He made it a law that they be circumcised and the women, too, and he ordered them not to keep the Sabbath and not to be baptized.
And, while he ordered them to eat some of the things forbidden by the Law, he ordered them to abstain from others. He furthermore absolutely forbade the drinking of wine.
99. Cf. Gen. 16.8. Sozomen also says that they were descended from Agar, but called themselves descendants of Sara to hide their servile origin (Ecclesiastical History 6.38, PG 67.1412AB).
100. The Arabic kabirun means ‘great,’ whether in size or in dignity. Herodotus mentions the Arabian cult of the ‘Heavenly Aphrodite’ but says that the Arabs called her Alilat (Herodotus 1.131)
101. This may be the Nestorian monk Bahira (George or Sergius) who met the boy Mohammed at Bostra in Syria and claimed to recognize in him the sign of a prophet.
102. Koran, Sura 112.
103. Sura 19; 4.169.
104. Sura 4.156.
105. Sura 5.Il6tf.
106. The manuscripts do not have the adage, but Lequien suggests this one from Plato.
107. The Ka’ba, called ‘The House of God,’ is supposed to have been built by Abraham with the help of Ismael. It occupies the most sacred spot in the Mosque of Mecca. Incorporated in its wall is the stone here referred to, the famous Black Stone, which is obviously a relic of the idolatry of the pre-Islam Arabs.
108. Gen. 22.6.
109. Koran, Sura 4.
110. Cf. Sura 2225ff.
111. Sura 2.223.
112. Not in the Koran.
113. Sura 5.114,115.
114. Sura 2.
From Writings, by St John of Damascus, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 37 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1958), pp. 153-160. Posted 26 March, 2006.
The Life of Our Holy Monastic Father John of Damascus
From The Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints, Volume 4: December,
compiled by St. Demetrius of Rostov
Our venerable father John was born in the great city of Damascus in Syria to noble, pious parents whose ardent faith in Christ, tested by temptations, was more precious than gold tried by fire. They lived in perilous times, for the Saracens had conquered that land and taken the city, bringing terrible calamity upon the Christians. Some they slew, others they sold into slavery, and they permitted no one to confess Christ publicly. John’s parents, however, guarded by providence, remained unharmed, and their property was left untouched. They held fast to the holy faith, and God granted them to win the favor of the Saracens, as once Joseph had won the favor of the Egyptians, and Daniel of the Babylonians. Thus the impious Hagarenes did not forbid the saint’s parents to believe in Christ or to glorify His name. John’s father was appointed magistrate of the city and commissioner of public buildings. Enjoying as he did the rulers’ trust, he was able to benefit his Christian brethren greatly, ransoming captives, setting free the fettered and imprisoned, commuting the sentences of those condemned to death, and extending a helping hand to all the suffering. John’s parents shone amid the Hagarenes of Damascus like beacons in the night, or embers glowing among ashes. They were preserved by God, as was the holy line of David in Israel, because the Lord had chosen them to be the parents of a son who would be manifested as a brilliant light illumining the whole world.
Although the Moslems forbade anyone to be born of water and the Spirit, John’s parents, eager to make him a child of light, did not hesitate to have him baptized. As the child (the namesake of grace) grew, his father was careful to rear him well: not teaching him the customs of the Saracens, nor the military arts, nor how to hunt game, nor worldly learning of any sort, but meekness, humility, and the fear of God, acquainting him also with the divine Scriptures. Moreover, he prayed God fervently that He send a wise and devout teacher who would instruct his son more perfectly in the virtues. God heard his prayer and granted him his desire in the following manner.
The barbarians living in Damascus made frequent raids by land and sea against other countries, taking Christians captive to their city, some to be sold into slavery in the markets, others to be put to the sword without mercy. Once they happened to capture a monk from Italy named Cosmas, a man of noble appearance and even greater nobility of soul. As Cosmas was being offered for sale in the market with other captives, those who were to be put to death fell at his feet, tearfully beseeching him to pray to God for their souls. Seeing the honor in which he was held by those going to their death, the Saracens asked Cosmas what rank he held among the Christians in his homeland. To this he replied, “I held no rank and was never counted worthy of the priesthood. I am only a sinful monk, although one schooled in philosophy, both Christian and pagan.” Then, he began to weep, shedding bitter tears.
Not far off stood John’s father, who recognized the elder as a monk by his clothing. Wishing to console him, he approached and said, “Why, O man of God, do you weep? Is it because you have lost your earthly freedom? But your garb proclaims that long ago you renounced the world and died to it.”
“I do not weep because I have lost my freedom,” answered the monk. “I died to the world long ago, as you say, and care nothing for it. I know well that there is another life, one better than this, immortal and everlasting, prepared for the Lord’s servants, which I hope to inherit by the grace of Christ my God. I lament because I shall depart this life childless, without an heir.”
John’s father said in astonishment, “You are a monk, Father, and have consecrated yourself to God, vowing to preserve your chastity. You are not permitted to beget children. You should not grieve over this.”
“You do not understand my words, sir,” answered the monk. “I do not speak of sons according to the flesh or of a material inheritance, but of things spiritual. It is clear that I own nothing; nevertheless, I possess a great wealth of knowledge, which I have labored hard from my youth to acquire. With God’s help I have mastered every worldly science, including rhetoric and dialectic, the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, geometry, and the theory of music. I have acquainted myself thoroughly with the movements of the heavenly bodies and the courses of the stars, so that through the beauty of creation I might come to a clearer understanding of the wise Creator. Finally, I have learned well the mysteries of Orthodoxy as expounded by the Greek and Roman theologians. Yet while I possess such knowledge myself, I have failed to hand it on to another. Now there is no longer any possibility for me to teach what I have learned. I have no disciple, and little time remains to me, for I am certain that I shall die here by the sword of the Hagarenes. Then I will appear before the Lord and be likened to the tree that brought forth no fruit and the servant that buried his master’s talent in the ground. This is why I weep and lament. Like a married man who has no son, I leave no spiritual heir to inherit the wealth of my knowledge.”
John’s father rejoiced when he heard this, because he was certain he had found the treasure for which he had sought so long. He comforted the elder, “Do not sorrow, Father; for God may yet grant you the desire of your heart.” Thereupon he hastened to the Caliph of the Saracens, and falling at his feet, earnestly begged to be given the captive monk. The Caliph did not refuse him, and John’s father happily took the ruler’s precious gift, the blessed Cosmas, to his home, where he offered him hospitality and the opportunity to rest. He sought to console the monk, who had suffered much at the hands of the Moslems, saying, “Father, my house is yours, and I wish you to share in all my joys and sorrows.” He added, “God has not only granted you freedom, but the desire of your heart as well.” Then he presented his two sons and said, “I have two children, my son John and this boy who, like you, bears the name Cosmas. He was born in Jerusalem and orphaned while still a babe, and I adopted him. I pray you, Father, instruct them in the sciences and in good conduct, teaching them every virtue. They shall be your spiritual children, begotten anew by your teaching. Rear them and make them heirs of your spiritual riches, a wealth that no one can steal.”
The blessed elder Cosmas rejoiced and glorified God, and began to instruct both youths with all diligence. Since the boys were intelligent, they progressed rapidly in their studies. Like an eagle soaring through the air, John attained the understanding of lofty mysteries, while Cosmas, his spiritual brother, in a short time plumbed the depths of wisdom, quickly crossing the sea of learning like a boat driven by a favorable wind. Studying assiduously, like Pythagoras and Diophanes, they mastered grammar, dialectic, philosophy, and arithmetic. So profound was their understanding of geometry, that they might well have been termed new Euclids. The ecclesiastical hymns and verses they composed testify to their skill in poetry. They were also well acquainted with astronomy and the mysteries of theology. Besides tutoring them in all these subjects, their teacher instructed them in good morals and the life of virtue. In a word, both acquired perfect understanding of spiritual and external wisdom, especially John, who caused his teacher to marvel. John surpassed even his tutor in certain fields of knowledge, becoming a great theologian, a fact to which his divinely inspired and wise books attest. Nevertheless, he did not become proud because of his learning: like a fruitful tree that bends lower to the ground as it becomes more heavily laden with fruit, so the blessed lover of wisdom, John, thought less and less of himself in his heart the more he excelled in his studies. He knew how to extinguish the vain imaginations and passionate thoughts of youth, and kindled within his soul, radiant with spiritual wisdom, the fire of divine desire so that it shone like a lamp full of oil.
One day, the teacher Cosmas said to John’s father, “My lord, your desire has been fulfilled. Your children have studied well, surpassing me in knowledge. Thanks to good memories and diligent toil, they have sounded the depths of wisdom. God has granted increase to the gifts bestowed on them, and they can learn nothing more from me. Indeed, they are ready to teach others. Therefore I pray you, my lord, grant me leave to depart for a monastery, where I may become a disciple to monks who have achieved perfection and can instruct me in higher wisdom. The external wisdom I have mastered leads me on to spiritual philosophy, a wisdom purer and more honorable than any worldly science, for it profits the soul and leads it to salvation.”
John’s father was grieved at this, because he was loath to part with such a wise and worthy instructor. He did not, however, dare prevent the elder from doing as he wished, or give him cause for sorrow. Rewarding him handsomely, he permitted him to depart in peace. Cosmas took up his abode in the Lavra of Saint Sabbas, where he remained, leading the life of virtue until the day of his departure unto God, the most perfect Wisdom.
Some time later, John’s father also died in great old age. The Caliph summoned John, wishing to make him his chief counselor, but John declined, having another desire: to labor for the Lord in silence. Nevertheless, he was forced to accept the position and was charged with even greater authority in the city of Damascus than his father had enjoyed.
At that time Leo the Isaurian reigned over the Greek Empire. He rose up against the Church of God like a roaring lion, casting the holy icons out of the Lord’s churches, committing them to flames, and mercilessly destroying those who venerated them. Hearing of this, John was aroused with zeal for piety like Elijah the Tishbite and Christ’s Forerunner. He took up the sword of the word of God and hewed down the heretical arguments of the inhuman Emperor, writing many epistles in defense of the holy icons. These he circulated among the Orthodox, wisely demonstrating from the ancient traditions of the God-bearing Fathers that it is fitting to honor the sacred images. He asked his readers to show the letters to other Orthodox brethren and confirm them in the faith. Thus the blessed John traveled the whole world, not on foot, but by means of his divinely inspired letters, which were read everywhere in the Greek Empire, confirming the Orthodox in piety and flailing the heretics as if with a goad. Word of this reached the impious Emperor Leo himself, who, unable to endure this denunciation of his ungodliness, summoned other heretics who shared his opinions and ordered them to inquire among the Orthodox for a copy of a letter written by John in his own hand. If one of the Emperor’s agents should find such a letter, he was to take it on the pretext that he wished to read it. After much effort a letter written by John himself was found and brought directly to the Emperor. He in turn gave it to skilled scribes, commanding them to copy the handwriting and write a letter purporting to be a message to him from John. The forged letter read as follows: “Hail, O Emperor! In the name of our common faith I rejoice in your might, rendering due homage to your Imperial Majesty. I wish to make known to you that our city of Damascus, which is held by the Saracens, is poorly defended by them with a weak and paltry guard; therefore I entreat you for God’s sake to show compassion and send your brave army to our rescue. If it appears to be headed elsewhere, and then suddenly falls upon Damascus, the city can be taken under your rule without difficulty. I will do much to assist you in this, for the city and this entire country are under my administration.”
Next the devious Emperor ordered that a letter from himself to the Saracen Caliph be composed. This letter read: “Nothing, I believe, is more blessed than to live in amity and enjoy friendly relations with one’s neighbors, for to keep a vow of peace is a thing most praiseworthy and pleasing to God. Truly, I desire ever to keep the peace I have concluded with you, honorably and faithfully. However, a notable Christian living in your domain often sends me letters urging me to attack you without warning and promises to deliver the city of Damascus into my hands without a great battle, if only I should come against it with my army. As a token of my friendship and so that you may know the truth of what I write, I am sending you one of the letters penned by that Christian. Thus informed of his audacious treachery, you will know how to reward him.”
The Emperor sent both letters to the Caliph. After reading them, the barbarian Prince summoned John and showed him the forged letter he had supposedly written. John examined it carefully, saying, “The handwriting is similar to mine, but it was not me who wrote it. It has never entered my mind to write the Greek Emperor or to deal falsely with my master!”
John understood at once that this was a plot of the malicious and cunning heretics, but the Caliph raged with anger and commanded that John’s right hand be cut off. John begged the ruler to allow him to explain the reason for the evil Emperor’s hatred toward him and to give him a little time to establish his innocence, but this was refused. The Caliph would permit no delay, so John’s right hand, which had so greatly strengthened the Orthodox and assisted them in remaining faithful to God, was severed. That hand which had censured most forcefully those who hated the Lord was now stained, not with ink from the pen employed to defend the holy icons, but with its own blood.
After the amputation John’s hand was hung aloft in the city market, and the saint, weak from pain and the loss of much blood, was returned to his home. Just before darkness fell, the blessed one was told that the Caliph’s wrath had abated; whereupon John sent him this request: “My pain continues to increase, giving me indescribable torment. Permit my hand to be returned from the market, my lord, that I may bury it and so assuage my pain.”
The Caliph granted the request, and when the hand was brought, John entered his prayer-room and fell to the floor before his icon of the most pure Theotokos. Pressing the severed hand to his wrist, he sighed and wept, praying from the depths of his heart: “O Lady, most pure Mistress and Mother of God, behold: my right hand hath been cut off for the sake of the divine icons by the tyrant Leo! Whatsoever thou willest, thou canst accomplish, for through thy holy prayers, the right hand of the Most High, Who was incarnate of thee, worketh numerous miracles; wherefore, come quickly to mine aid, that He may heal my hand by thine intercession, O Theotokos. May I again be permitted to defend the Orthodox faith; may my hand write once more in praise of thee and thy Son!”
With this John fell asleep and beheld in a dream the most pure Theotokos looking down upon him from the icon with warm, compassionate eyes. She said, “Your hand has been restored. Do not be troubled any longer, but return to your work and labor diligently, like a swiftly writing scribe, even as you promised me.”
John arose from sleep, felt his right hand, and realized that it had indeed been healed. His spirit rejoiced in God his Saviour and in the Lord’s most pure Mother, who had done such a great thing for him. He rejoiced throughout the night with all his household, chanting a new hymn: “Thy right hand, O Lord, is glorious in power. Thy right hand hath healed my severed hand and crushed Thine enemies, who do not revere Thy precious image or that of Thy most pure Mother. It shall destroy those who destroy the icons, and multiply Thy glory!”
John’s neighbors heard him and the others chanting songs of gladness and thanksgiving, and learning the reason for their joy, marveled greatly. It was not long before the Caliph learned of it as well. He summoned John and ordered him to display his severed hand. Around John’s right wrist was a mark like a red thread, which the Mother of God had allowed to remain as testimony to the fact that his hand truly had been cut off. Seeing this, the Caliph asked John what physician had rejoined the hand to his wrist, and what treatment had been used to heal it. John did not hesitate to proclaim boldly, “It was my Lord, the almighty Physician, Who healed me! He hearkened unto my earnest supplication, offered through His most pure Mother, and restored the hand that you cut off.”
“Woe is me!” lamented the Caliph. “I condemned you, a good man, unjustly, without investigating the accusation made against you. I beseech you to forgive me for passing judgment so hastily and foolishly. Agree to accept your former rank of chief counselor. Henceforth nothing shall be done in the realm without your advice or consent!” But John fell at the Caliph’s feet and pleaded to be released from service. He begged the ruler not to forbid him to take the path his soul desired, but to allow him to follow the Lord with those who have renounced themselves and the world, and have taken up Christ’s yoke. The Caliph was loath to agree, since he wished to retain John as overseer of his palace and entire domain. Each continued his attempts to persuade the other, but finally John prevailed.
Returning home, John immediately distributed his possessions among the poor, freed his slaves, and set out for Jerusalem with Cosmas his foster-brother. After venerating the Holy Places, he went to the Lavra of Saint Sabbas, where he implored the abbot to accept him as a lost sheep and admit him to his chosen flock. The superior and brethren knew of John, since he was famous even in Palestine due to his writings and the high rank he had held. Rejoicing because such a man had come to him in poverty and humility, the abbot received him with love. He called for a brother experienced in asceticism, to entrust the novice to his care for training in spiritual philosophy and the traditions of monasticism, but the monk refused to accept John, being unwilling to become teacher to a man who surpassed so many in knowledge. Then the abbot summoned another, but he too refused. A third and a fourth monk were brought, but they and all the rest declared that they were unworthy to instruct such a man. All were daunted by John’s wide learning and former exalted rank. Finally, a simple but wise elder was summoned who agreed to be John’s guide. The elder received John into his cell, and wishing to set for him the foundation of a life of virtue, first imposed upon him the following rules: never to do anything according to his own will; to offer God his labors and fervent supplications as a sacrifice; and to shed tears to wash away the sins of his former life, since God regards tears as an oblation more precious than any incense. These rules the elder regarded as the basis for the higher works that are perfected by labors of the body. Furthermore, he required that John not harbor any worldly thoughts; that he not dwell on unseemly images, but preserve his mind pure, untouched by every vain attachment; and that he not boast of his learning or consider that by his studies he had attained a perfect understanding. He also forbade John to seek revelations or the understanding of hidden mysteries, or to imagine that his reason would remain unshaken till the end of his life, and that he would never wander from the path of truth. On the contrary, he warned him that men’s thoughts are feeble and their understanding damaged by sin. For that reason, he said, he ought not to permit his thoughts to wander, but should take care to control them, so that his mind would be enlightened by God, his soul sanctified, and his body cleansed of every impurity. He enjoined the saint to strive to bring into concord body, soul, and mind after the image of the Holy Trinity, and to be ruled neither by the body nor the soul, but by the noetic faculty. In this way it is possible for a man to become altogether spiritual. Such were the rules given to his son and pupil by this father and teacher, who added to them these words: “Write to no one, and speak to no one of the secular sciences. Keep a discreet silence. Remember that it is not our wise men alone who teach the value of a quiet life; Pythagoras also had his disciples keep a lengthy silence. Pay heed to David, who said, I held my peace, even from good, and understand that it is not profitable to speak out of season. And what gain did he derive from silence? He says: My heart grew hot within me; that is, the fire of divine love was kindled in him by reflection on God.”
The elder’s instructions fell like seed upon fertile ground in John’s heart, taking root there. John lived for a long time with the divinely inspired elder, carefully fulfilling his injunctions and submitting to him without pretense, gainsaying, or murmuring. Even in his thoughts he never contradicted the elder’s commands, and he inscribed in his heart this saying as on tablets of stone: “Every command given by one’s father is to be obeyed without wrath and doubting, as the Apostle says.” Indeed, how does a novice profit by fulfilling a task with his hands, while grumbling with his lips? What gain is there in doing what is commanded, while contradicting with the tongue and mind? How can such a man attain perfection? Never will he reach his goal. He labors in vain, for by thinking that he has achieved virtue through obedience, he has only hidden a serpent in his breast by complaining. But the blessed John, who was truly obedient, never grumbled, no matter what tasks he was ordered to perform.
One day, the elder, wishing to test John’s humility, ordered him to fetch a large number of baskets, which they made and sold. He said to John, “I have heard, child, that baskets sell for much more in Damascus than in Palestine. As you see, we are lacking in necessities of every sort and are in need of money. Go without delay to Damascus and sell our baskets there.” The elder set a price for the baskets far above their value, and insisted that John accept nothing less, but the true son of obedience did not protest in word or thought. He did not object to being sent on such a long journey, nor was he ashamed to sell baskets in a city where he was known to everyone and had been a man of great authority, because he was determined to emulate the Master Christ, Who was obedient unto death. He asked for his father’s blessing and loaded the baskets on his shoulders. Arriving in Damascus, he began to walk through the markets, offering his goods for sale. Those who wished to purchase them asked what they cost, and learning their high price, would laugh at John, mockingly insulting him. Clad as he was in rags, the blessed one was not recognized by anyone, since the people of Damascus had always seen him wearing gold-embroidered robes. Moreover, his face was worn by fasting, his cheeks were sunken, and his handsome appearance had faded away. But finally one citizen, who had been John’s servant while the saint was in a position of authority, did recognize him after staring for some time. Astonished at seeing John clothed in wretched tatters, he was moved from the bottom of his heart. Pretending not to know him, the man approached John and gave him the full price set by the elder; not because he was in need of baskets, but because he felt compassion for his former master, who, having enjoyed great fame and wealth, had come to such poverty and humility for God’s sake. Accepting the money, John returned to his elder like a victor from battle, having cast to the ground his enemy, the proud and vainglorious devil, by obedience and humility.
Some time passed, and one of the monks of the lavra fell asleep in the Lord. He had a brother according to the flesh who grieved inconsolably for him. Although John spoke at length with the man, trying to comfort him, he was unsuccessful, for the mourner was wounded by measureless sorrow. Then the monk began to entreat John to compose compunctionate burial hymns, to console him in his sadness. At first John refused, not wishing to transgress the command given by his elder, who had forbidden him to do anything without permission, but the mourning brother did not cease his entreaties, saying, “Why will you not have pity on my sorrowful soul? Why do you not wish to give me a little medicine to heal my grieving heart? If you were a physician and some illness had stricken me, and I asked you to cure me, would you disdain me and leave me to die, though you had the ability to treat me? I am suffering greatly from heartache and seek only a little help, but you spurn me! If I die of grief, will you not have to answer for me to God? If you are afraid to violate your elder’s injunction, I will conceal what you have written so that he will not learn of it.” At length John yielded to such persuasion and wrote the following troparia: “What sweetness of life,” “Like a flower that withereth,” “All human vanity,” and others, which are used to this day in the funeral service.
One day, while the elder had left the cell, John was chanting the hymns he had composed. Upon his return the elder, drawing near the cell, heard John singing. He rushed in and reproached the disciple angrily, “How is it that you have forgotten your vows so quickly and make merry, singing to yourself instead of weeping?” John told him the reason and explained that he was compelled by the brother’s tears to write the hymns he was singing. Begging forgiveness, he fell to the ground before the elder, who nevertheless remained unyielding and forbade the blessed one to continue living with him.
Driven out of the cell, John recalled Adam’s expulsion from Paradise because of disobedience. He remained for some time before the door weeping, as once did Adam before the gate of the Garden. Afterwards, he went to the other fathers whom he knew to be perfect in the virtues, and entreated them to go to his elder and ask him to forgive his offense. They implored the elder to pardon John and permit him to return, but their pleas were unavailing. One of the fathers said to him, “Impose a penance upon the sinner, but do not forbid him to live with you.”
To this the elder replied, “This is the penance I give him: if he wishes to be forgiven his transgression, let him wash out all the chamber-pots in the lavra and clean every one of the latrines.”
When the monks heard this, they departed in consternation, amazed at the elder’s crudity and unyielding disposition. John went out to meet them as they returned, and bowing down before them, as was the custom, asked what was his father’s reply. They told him of the elder’s harshness, but did not dare relate what he had set as a penance. John, however, fervently besought them to tell him what his father demanded, and when he learned, he rejoiced exceedingly and was eager to undertake the shameful task. Preparing without delay the equipment necessary for the cleaning, he began the work with diligence, touching excrement with fingers once fragrant with perfumes, and soiling the right hand healed miraculously by the most pure Theotokos. Oh, the profound self-abasement of that wondrous man and true son of obedience! Seeing how John gladly allowed himself to be humiliated, the elder was moved to compunction and hastened to embrace his spiritual child, kissing him upon the head, shoulders, and hands. He exclaimed, “Oh, what a great sufferer for Christ have I begotten! Truly, he is a son of blessed obedience!” Flustered by the elder’s words, John fell at his feet, weeping. He did not permit feelings of pride to gain access to his heart because of his father’s praises, but humbled himself all the more, begging to be forgiven his offense. The elder took him by the hand and led him back to the cell. So elated was John by this that it seemed to him he was being led into paradise. After this he lived with his father in their former accord.
Soon thereafter, the Mistress of the world, the most pure and blessed Virgin, appeared to the elder in a dream, saying, “Why have you blocked up a stream which pours forth an abundance of sweet water, a water preferable to that which sprang from the rock in the wilderness or the water that David longed to drink? This is the water Christ promised the Samaritan woman. Do not hinder the flow of this spring that will water the whole world, drowning heresies and their bitterness! Let the thirsty hasten to this water, and let those who do not possess the pure silver of an unsullied life sell their passions and gain it by emulating John, a man radiant with purity and good deeds, and most learned in the dogmas of the Church. He will take up the psaltery of the prophets and David’s harp to sing a new song to the Lord God, one that shall surpass the canticles of Moses and Mariam. The fabled odes of Orpheus will be counted as nought when compared with his works, for he will sing a spiritual and heavenly hymn like that of cherubim. He will make the churches of Jerusalem like maidens playing the timbrel, chanting unto God and proclaiming Christ’s death and resurrection. He will expound in writing the dogmas of Orthodoxy and denounce the perverse teachings of the heretics; his heart shall pour forth a good word, and he shall speak of the wondrous works of the King.”
The next morning, the elder summoned John and said to him, “O son of obedience to Christ, speak what is stored up in your heart! Let your mouth declare wisdom, announcing the things God has revealed to your mind. Open your mouth and proclaim, not legends and dark fables, but the truths of the Church and her dogmas. Speak to the heart of the Jerusalem that truly beholds God, that is, the Church, which He has reconciled unto Himself. Do not pour out empty words into the air, but relate what the Holy Spirit has inscribed in your heart. Ascend the lofty Sinai of the vision of God and the revelation of divine mysteries: ascend by means of your great humility, which is a bottomless abyss, to the summit of the Church, and there proclaim the Gospel to Jerusalem. Lift up your voice mightily, for the Mother of God has told me wondrous things of you. And forgive me, I pray, for my crudeness and ignorance have been a hindrance to you.”
From that time the blessed John resumed writing sacred books and composing melodious hymns. He wrote The Ochtoechos, which, like a spiritual flute, delights the Church of God even to this day. John began this book with words he had once sung when his hand was restored: “Thy victorious right hand hath in godly manner been glorified in might.” The hymn “In thee all creation rejoiceth, O thou who art full of grace” he also first chanted when exulting after the wondrous healing. John always wore upon his head the bandage he had used to wrap his severed hand, in remembrance of the miracle worked by the most pure Theotokos. He also wrote the lives of a number of saints, composed festal homilies, and various compunctionate prayers. He denounced the heretics, especially the iconoclasts, expounding the dogmas of the true faith and the mysteries of theology, and to this day the faithful are spiritually nourished by his edifying treatises, from which they drink as from a sweet stream.
The venerable John had as a helper in his labors the blessed Cosmas, who was reared with him and studied under the same learned monk. Cosmas, who was later consecrated Bishop of Maiuma by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, urged John to write sacred books and compose hymns, and himself assisted in this work.
The same Patriarch that consecrated Cosmas ordained John presbyter; but John, not wishing to tarry in the world and be praised by the laity, returned to his cell in the Monastery of Saint Sabbas like a bird to its nest. There he devoted himself to the reading and writing of sacred books, and the attainment of his salvation. Collecting all the books, homilies, and sermons he had previously written, he edited them carefully, so that no errors would remain in them. John passed much time in these labors, which greatly benefitted both his soul and the entire Church of Christ. He attained perfect holiness, and having pleased God in all his works, departed unto Christ and His most pure Mother. Not before their icons does he now pay them homage, but instead he gazes upon their countenances in the glory of heaven. Moreover, he prays that we also be deemed worthy of divine vision by the grace of Christ, to Whom, with His all-hymned and most blessed Mother, be honor, glory, and worship forever. Amen.
According to Theophanes, Saint John had two surnames: Chrysorolus and Mansur. He was called Chrysorolus because the grace of the Holy Spirit shone like gold in him and was evident both in his writings and his life. Mansur was the family name he inherited from his ancestors.
- OrthodoxWiki: John of Damascus
- Wikipedia: John of Damascus
- Mystagogy: The Life of St. John the Damascene