St John Damascene

Doctor of the Church (entered heaven in 749)

Dear Joan,

Thank you for the lovely e-card.  I always knew you had true artistic talent, and every time you send me pieces of your work, my conviction is more soundly confirmed.  And if I were you, I wouldn’t worry at all about your family situation; it is part of God’s plan, never fear. That you are the only one of your siblings to continue practicing your faith, that your parents continue divorcing and remarrying in an alarming way – such painful phenomena will not and cannot thwart the power and the love of God, as long as you continue to put your faith in him.  As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if those very afflictions become the occasion for your contribution to Christ’s Kingdom. That’s what happened to today’s saint, you know (who also happened to be a great artist, through poetry and music were his fields of endeavor, not painting).

St John Damascene grew up in the Caliphate of Damascus (in Palestine) in the eighth century.  As you remember from your history classes, this meant that Muslims – and not the Byzantine Emperor – ruled the cities where he was to live and work.  At that time, the Caliphs were more lenient with Christians than they would later become, and so they afforded followers of Christ freedom of belief, of worship, and even of movement.  Thus, John and his brother were peacefully brought up in their faith, and both joined the monastery of St Sabas near Jerusalem.

About that time, Emperor Leo III began his diabolical scheme to wrest total control of the Christian Church from the monks and patriarchs by condemning the use of icons (sacred images), claiming that they violated the first commandment (which included a clause about not worshipping “graven images”).  Of course, this iconoclasm was heretical (images are fine and useful, as long as we remember that they are just images), and the Pope and other Bishops said so. But the Emperor deposed those bishops who opposed him, ransacked monasteries, and violently silenced his critics, creating a chaotic mess. St John, a gifted writer, and brilliant theologian, quickly perceived the heretical nature of Leo’s claims and began a series of writings exposing it.  These writings, eloquent and accurate, were spread throughout the empire and shored up the faithful against the Emperor’s ploys.

Furious, the Emperor tried to turn his wrath on John, his lone opponent.  But, because John was living under the Caliphate of Damascus, the Emperor had absolutely no authority to do anything to him at all.  He would have had to go to war with the Muslims (not a good idea at the time) in order to snatch away the dauntless defender of Christian truth.  So John continued writing and preaching, coming to the defense of the Apostolic faith until Leo died and the Empire was restored to order.

Certainly, it was a tragedy that the Christians of the Holy Land lost their autonomy and had their freedom curtailed by the Muslim conquerors, but our Lord turned the tragedy to his advantage.  I am confident that he will do the same for you. Just keep striving to please him in all you do, and he’ll take care of the rest.

Your affectionate uncle, Eddy

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