Meet St John Damascene, the Saint “Prudent as a Serpent”

Saint John Damascene is celebrated by the Church as an illustrious and tenacious saint, defender of orthodoxy and Catholic piety.

Newsroom (December 5, 2021, 4:20 PM, Gaudium Press) John Damascene was born in Damascus, capital of Syria, to a wealthy family, in the second half of the 7th century.

From an early age, he mastered with ease the Arabic and Greek languages, because his father – committed to his studies – wanted him to have contact not only with the book of the Muslims (the Koran) but also with the writings of the Greeks. Thus, his bilingual education allowed him to quickly develop and master both cultures.

It is said that upon the death of his father Sargum, Damascene had to take over the Umayyad caliphate in his region, after which, being freed from the religion of his pagan progenitor, he was able to become a monk in the monastery of St. Sabas, where he was ordained a priest, completely abandoning the opulence of the gentiles to embrace the abnegation of the Christians. It was at this time that he was united in a special way, by a bond of devotion to the Virgin Mary, until the end of his days.

His life showed, however, that even confined within the walls of his monastery, he still kept his keen keenness in dealing with the complicated affairs of the Muslim groups. And it was not by becoming a monk or a priest that he forgot his experience at court. Rather, it was in the cloister that he honed it as never before.

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A defence prepared in the smallest detail

In 726, Emperor Leo III (717-741) issued an edict against the veneration of images and their display in public places.

Since the beginning of the 8th century, the iconoclastic movement had been gaining strength in the Byzantine Empire, defending the illicit nature of the veneration of images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints by the faithful. The adherents of this doctrine soon agglutinated and began to spread the error everywhere.

And to combat this evil, St. John arose and began a thorough defence of the images in a magnum opus, with which he obtained such stupendous success that soon the heresy died out and went on to disappear.

It was his work, the Apologetic Treatises against the Condemnation of Sacred Images, which at that time liquidated the iconoclast heresy.

“Be wise as the serpent…”

One also counts in the roster of his works, numerous other ‘written struggles’ that Damascene still had to fight in his life; all of them dedicated filially to the Holy Mother of the Creator, to whom from an early age he piously entrusted himself. [1]

And it was by availing himself of her maternal support that St. John Damascene fulfilled in himself Christ’s advice to the children of light, “Be as prudent as serpents and as simple as doves” (Mt 10:16). Indeed, to this day his example shines in the firmament of the Church and stuns those who are not sympathetic to images.

May St. John Damascene, from heaven, teach us to be like him: shrewd and prudent as serpents.

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By Renan Costa

[1] Cf. BENEDICT XVI. General Audience. On Saint John Damascene. Wednesday, May 6, 2009.

Compiled by Zephania Gangl

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