December 4 is the Feast Day in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church of the man generally considered to be the last of the Fathers of the Church: Saint John Damascene. John of Damascus was born in the year 676 and died in 754; his life spanned one of the great hinge points in the history of the world. The classical world of Mediterranean unity that had sprung up with the poems of Homer thirteen centuries before, continued and flourished with the expansion of Greek culture, colonization, and the might of the Roman Empire which built the highways on which the Church traveled in its first great expansion was now dead. Islam had come out of the desert four decades before John of Damascus’ birth and during his lifetime it split the Mediterranean in two, a rupture that persists to this day many long centuries later.
Saint John Damascene was a great opponent of Leo the Isaurian’s iconoclast heresy and a strong defender of the veneration of holy images but what earned him the title of last Father of the Church was his compilation of the Orthodox Faith. In it he catalogues and summarizes the works of the Fathers and the decisions of all of the Councils of the first theologically turbulent seven centuries of the Church’s existence. It is a marvelous summary of Christian antiquity, an era that was then at its end, and it helped to set the foundation for the maintenance of the Church in the medieval age that was at that moment being born. Interestingly Saint John Damascene seems to regard Islam as another of the Christian heresies, a claim echoed in the twentieth century by Hilaire Belloc in The Great Heresies (I don’t receive a dime from Amazon, but this book is seriously worth reading by anyone interested in confronting the enemies of the Catholic Church). There is much evidence I think to support the supposition that, at its beginning at least, Islam was at least greatly influenced by the anti-Trinitarian heresies that had so troubled the Greek East for the three centuries before its birth. I will do a post on that subject at some other time.
John Damascene was a figure of some note in the court of the Ummayad caliphs in Damascus, holding the position of minister of finance for a time. He was the last great figure of the Greek East to have gained an influence over the whole Church, East and West, and his life marked the end of an era in the history of the Church and the world. The land of his birth is the now tortured country of Syria. Saint John Damascene pray for us and for your native land, that its people return to the True Faith of the fathers of the fathers of their fathers.
Pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, for its liberty and its salvation and the restoration of its ancient position as a pillar of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome, and for the conversion of the Muslim people.