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‘Saints John of Damascus and Cosmas’ – by Unknown (Menologion of Basil II, 11th AD) – Wikimedia

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The knowledge of the existence of God is implanted in us by nature.”
~ John of Damascus

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In spiritual matters, it is always a pleasure and a thrill to find a new gem, to mingle with a different formulation, to venture for a while with an old, unexpected description of the perennial understanding; in more simple terms, to stumble on a new exponent of the eternal truth. John of Damascus is one such talented teller, to the point of having been named, in his own remote time, the ‘golden speaker’, or literally — and even more poetically — ‘streaming with gold’ (from the Greek ‘Chrysorroas’). John of Damascus was born in 675-676 AD to a prominent and wealthy Arab-Christian Damascene family. He is known to have composed many hymns and canons that are still sung today, and has written treatises, teachings, and other works, amongst which a highly influential synthesis of Christian philosophy called ‘The Fountain of Wisdom’.

Although raised in a rich and influential family, John became so dissatisfied that he relinquished all his possessions at around the age of 40, becoming a priest and a monk in a monastery near Jerusalem, where he spent the rest of his life studying, writing, and composing. The excerpts presented here are borrowed from the last volume of John’s work ‘The Fountain of Wisdom’, translated by S. D. F. Salmond, called ‘An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith’. In Book I, Chapter 1, John shows in a few eloquent quotes, that God is not to be apprehended in objects. It is empty and unreachable by thought or the mind. However, God is not knowable outside of, or away from ourself, but only in and as our very own self. In consequence, the nature of God as awareness is self-sufficient, and doesn’t need to find peace and happiness outside itself, in the objects of experience, which would rob God — and ourself — of Its/our divine nature…

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No one hath seen God at any time. […]
The Deity, therefore, is ineffable and incomprehensible
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God, however, did not leave us in absolute ignorance.
For the knowledge of God’s existence has been implanted by Him in all by nature
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No one knoweth the Father, save the Son, nor the Son, save the Father. […]
[no one] has ever known God, save he to whom He revealed Himself
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The Divine nature […] is both passionless and only good.”

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In ‘An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith’, John of Damascus’ wish and endeavour was to collect in one single work the result of all that was said of importance by precedent writers on the subject of Christian faith and theology. In Book I, Chapter 2, John is writing on the difficulty to describe the nature of awareness through words, stressing that true understanding is never found in concepts, but in the very nature of our being, an experience that is ineffable and uncommunicable. He continues by describing the nature of the non-dual essence of God or consciousness in terms that are reminiscent of the ancient Upanishads of India…

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It is necessary, therefore, that one who wishes to speak or to hear of God should understand clearly that […] neither are all things unutterable nor all utterable; neither all unknowable nor all knowable. […] It is one thing to speak and another thing to know. Many of the things relating to God, therefore, that are dimly understood cannot be put into fitting terms, but on things above us we cannot do else than express ourselves according to our limited capacity.”

But neither do we know, nor can we tell, what the essence of God is, or how it is in all. […] It is not within our capacity, therefore, to say anything about God or even to think of Him, beyond the things which have been divinely revealed to us.”

We both know and confess that God is without beginning, without end, eternal and everlasting, uncreate, unchangeable, invariable, simple, uncompound, incorporeal, invisible, impalpable, uncircumscribed, infinite, incognisable, indefinable, incomprehensible, […] and that God is One, that is to say, one essence; and that He is known.”

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That which contains is not within that which it contains.”
~ John of Damascus

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A movement called iconoclasm grew at this time, against the veneration of icons. John fought ardently against it, arguing that an icon was never meant to be an object of veneration, but was on the contrary the transparent and objectless means towards a higher form of devotion or prayer directed within. It is not a devotion directed to the icon, but a devotion that springs from seeing the icon, and aims at experiencing god’s being in and as our very own being, the icon being only an image of the expressed devotion. As was succinctly put in the 4th century AD Bishop Basil the Great: “The honor paid to an icon is transferred to its prototype.” In Book I, Chapter 3, John attempts to show that all objective things or experiences are bound to appear in something uncreated, non-objective, and immutable, that is here before their creation, and allows them to exist, change, and perish. This uncreated, non-objective, and immutable ‘something’ is what the contemplated icon helps us to contemplate, transparency being the fundamental nature of an icon…

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All things, that exist, are either created or uncreated. If, then, things are created, it follows that they are also wholly mutable. For things, whose existence originated in change, must also be subject to change, whether it be that they perish or that they become other than they are by act of will. But if things are uncreated they must in all consistency be also wholly immutable. […] Things that are created must be the work of some maker, and the maker cannot have been created. For if he had been created, he also must surely have been created by some one, and so on till we arrive at something uncreated. The Creator, then, being uncreated, is also wholly immutable. And what could this be other than Deity?

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102A86E4-5E4A-4AAB-A332-868A26F693F0‘John of Damascus – Icon from Athos, 14th AD – Wikimedia

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In Book I, Chapter 4, John is serving us with an eloquent series of questions on the incorporeal, immutable, undivided, immobile nature of God. He then continues to show that the non-objective nature of God or consciousness “does not belong to the class of existing things”, and therefore can only be described through a negative process. He then ventures to say that “all that is comprehensible about [God] is His infinity and incomprehensibility”, and shows that when speaking of the qualities of God, “all that we can affirm concerning God does not shew forth God’s nature, but only the qualities of His nature”…

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It is plain, then, that there is a God. But what He is in His essence and nature is absolutely incomprehensible and unknowable. For it is evident that He is incorporeal. For how could that possess body which is infinite, and boundless, and formless, and intangible and invisible, in short, simple and not compound? How could that be immutable which is circumscribed and subject to passion? And how could that be passionless which is composed of elements and is resolved again into them? For combination is the beginning of conflict, and conflict of separation, and separation of dissolution, and dissolution is altogether foreign to God.”

Everything that is moved is moved by another thing. And who again is it that moves that? and so on to infinity till we at length arrive at something motionless. For the first mover is motionless, and that is the Deity. And must not that which is moved be circumscribed in space? The Deity, then, alone is motionless, moving the universe by immobility.”

It must be assumed that the Deity is incorporeal. […] But even this gives no true idea of His essence, to say that He is unbegotten, and without beginning, changeless and imperishable, and possessed of such other qualities as we are wont to ascribe to God and His environment. For these do not indicate what He is, but what He is not. But when we would explain what the essence of anything is, we must not speak only negatively. In the case of God, however, it is impossible to explain what He is in His essence, and it befits us the rather to hold discourse about His absolute separation from all things. For He does not belong to the class of existing things: not that He has no existence, but that He is above all existing things, nay even above existence itself. For if all forms of knowledge have to do with what exists, assuredly that which is above knowledge must certainly be also above essence (or being [as existence]): and, conversely, that which is above essence will also be above knowledge.”

God then is infinite and incomprehensible and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility. But all that we can affirm concerning God does not shew forth God’s nature, but only the qualities of His nature. For when you speak of Him as good, and just, and wise, and so forth, you do not tell God’s nature but only the qualities of His nature. Further there are some affirmations which we make concerning God which have the force of absolute negation: for example, when we use the term darkness, in reference to God, we do not mean darkness itself, but that He is not light but above light: and when we speak of Him as light, we mean that He is not darkness.”

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It is a natural necessity that duality should originate in unity.”
~ John of Damascus

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John is sometimes represented studying with Cosmas, a future Saint, Bishop, and hymn writer who was adopted by John’s father and became his foster-brother. In Book I, Chapter 8, John describes, in one long, powerful, evocative sentence, all that can be said on the nature and qualities of God’s being…

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We believe, then, in One God, one beginning, having no beginning, uncreate, unbegotten, imperishable and immortal, everlasting, infinite, uncircumscribed, boundless, of infinite power, simple, uncompound, incorporeal, without flux, passionless, unchangeable, unalterable, unseen, the fountain of goodness and justice, the light of the mind, inaccessible; a power known by no measure, measurable only by His own will alone (for all things that He wills He can), creator of all created things, seen or unseen, of all the maintainer and preserver, for all the provider, master and lord and king over all, with an endless and immortal kingdom: having no contrary, filling all, by nothing encompassed, but rather Himself the encompasser and maintainer and original possessor of the universe, occupying all essences intact and extending beyond all things, and being separate from all essence as being super-essential and above all things and absolute God, absolute goodness, and absolute fulness: determining all sovereignties and ranks, being placed above all sovereignty and rank, above essence and life and word and thought: being Himself very light and goodness and life and essence, inasmuch as He does not derive His being from another, that is to say, of those things that exist: but being Himself the fountain of being to all that is, of life to the living, of reason to those that have reason; to all the cause of all good: perceiving all things even before they have become: one essence, one divinity, one power, one will, one energy, one beginning, one authority, one dominion, one sovereignty, made known in three perfect subsistences and adored with one adoration, believed in and ministered to by all rational creation, united without confusion and divided without separation (which indeed transcends thought).”

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Here, John shows us, with two brilliant questions, that God or consciousness can only be one and without limit, which demonstrates Its eternal, infinite, indivisible and all-pervasive nature. He then gives us the two most important names given to God in his view, and the reason behind the explosion of manifestation as we know it…

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The Deity is perfect, and without blemish in goodness, and wisdom, and power, without beginning, without end, everlasting, uncircumscribed, and in short, perfect in all things. […] If there are many Gods, how can one maintain that God is uncircumscribed? For where the one would be, the other could not be.”
~ Book I, Chapter 5

So then this one and only God is not Wordless. And possessing the Word, He will have it not as without a subsistence, nor as having had a beginning, nor as destined to cease to be. For there never was a time when God was not Word: but He ever possesses His own Word, begotten of Himself, not, as our word is, without a subsistence and dissolving into air, but having a subsistence in Him and life and perfection, not proceeding out of Himself but ever existing within Himself. For where could it be, if it were to go outside Him?
~ Book I, Chapter 6

It appears then that the most proper of all the names given to God is “He that is,” as He Himself said in answer to Moses on the mountain. […] For He keeps all being in His own embrace, like a sea of essence infinite and unseen. Or as the holy Dionysius says, “He that is good.” For one cannot say of God that He has being in the first place and goodness in the second.”
~ Book I, Chapter 9

Since, then, God, Who is good and more than good, did not find satisfaction in self-contemplation, but in His exceeding goodness wished certain things to come into existence which would enjoy His benefits and share in His goodness, He brought all things out of nothing into being and created them, both what is invisible and what is visible.”
~ Book II, Chapter 2

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055AA99B-4BC4-4458-9619-16134FAE86C8‘Three-handed Theotokos’ – Athos, 8th-14th – Wikimedia

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There is a beautiful legend that runs on account of John’s talent at writing and his passionate defence of icons. It is said that his work ‘Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images’, so irritated the emperor of the time, that he commanded that John’s right hand be severed. It was done so, but John had his hand healed and miraculously restored through his fervent prayer in front of the icon representing the Holy Mother of God, or ‘Theotokos’. This legend is the object of the ‘Three-handed Theotokos’ icon in which a third hand, made of argent, was added. In Book I, Chapter 13, John is stressing that God’s presence is “invariable and un changeable”, yet “mingled with everything”, and attempts to explain how this is possible…

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It must be understood that the Deity is indivisible, being everywhere wholly in His entirety and not divided up part by part like that which has body, but wholly in everything and wholly above everything.”

With [God] there is no happening or ceasing to be: for He is invariable and unchangeable: and it would not be right to speak of contingency in connection with Him. For goodness is concomitant with essence. He who longs alway after God, he seeth Him: for God is in all things. Existing things are dependent on that which is, and nothing can be unless it is in that which is. God then is mingled with everything, maintaining their nature: and in His holy flesh the God-Word is made one in subsistence and is mixed with our nature, yet without confusion.”

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Prayer is an uprising of the mind to God or a petitioning of God for what is fitting.”
~ John of Damascus

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John’s talent in so many fields including philosophy, theology, music, law, and astronomy, didn’t go unnoticed. He is considered a Father of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and is regarded as a Doctor of the Church by Catholics. His writings were a major influence on some Western Theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. In Book I, Chapter 14, John presents us with another fine description of God’s nature which “has the property of penetrating all things without mixing with them”…

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Uncreate, without beginning, immortal, infinite, eternal, immaterial, good, creative, just, enlightening, immutable, passionless, uncircumscribed, immeasurable, unlimited, undefined, unseen, unthinkable, wanting in nothing, being His own rule and authority, all-ruling, life-giving, omnipotent, of infinite power, containing and maintaining the universe and making provision for all: all these and such like attributes the Deity possesses by nature, not having received them from elsewhere, but Himself imparting all good to His own creations according to the capacity of each.”

All things long after it and have their existence in it. It gives also to all things being according to their several natures, and it is itself the being of existing things, the life of living things, the reason of rational beings, the thought of thinking beings. But it is itself above mind and reason and life and essence.”

Further the divine nature has the property of penetrating all things without mixing with them and of being itself impenetrable by anything else. Moreover, there is the property of knowing all things with a simple knowledge and of seeing all things, simply with His divine, all-surveying, immaterial eye.”

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In Book II, Chapter 30, it is wonderful to feel, behind the jargon of Christianity, the more subtle accents of truth. The road “from the devil to God” is perfectly shown and exemplified to be only the road between our repeated failures to find happiness in objective experience — called here “the unnatural” — and the finding in our own being the perfume and inherent peace contained in god’s being — called “the natural state”…

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It is not [God’s] will that there should be wickedness.”

Bear in mind, too, that virtue is a gift from God implanted in our nature, and that He Himself is the source and cause of all good, and without His co-operation and help we cannot will or do any good thing, But we have it in our power either to abide in virtue and follow God, Who calls us into ways of virtue, or to stray from paths of virtue, which is to dwell in wickedness, and to follow the devil who summons but cannot compel us. For wickedness is nothing else than the withdrawal of goodness, just as darkness is nothing else than the withdrawal of light. While then we abide in the natural state we abide in virtue, but when we deviate from the natural state, that is from virtue, we come into an unnatural state and dwell in wickedness.”

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Repentance is the returning from the unnatural into the natural state, from the devil to God.”
~ John of Damascus

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John of Damascus died December 4, 749, at his home, near Jerusalem, in the Mar Saba Monastery where he lived.

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‘John of Damascus’ – Wikimedia

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Quotes and excerpts by John of Damascus (676-749 AD)

Opening painting from manuscript ‘Menologion of Basil II’ (11th AD)

Additional text by Alain Joly

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Bibliography:
– ‘An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith’ – by John of Damascus (Trans. by S.D.F. Salmond) – (Veritatis Splendor Publications)
– ‘The Complete Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene Collection of Early Church Fathers’ – by Philip Schaff

Websites:
John of Damascus (Wikipedia)
Menologion of Basil II (Wikipedia)
Three-handed Theotokos icon (Wikipedia)
Mar Saba Monastery (Wikipedia)

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