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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Saints Barbara & John of Damascus


This is about as much as we know with any certainty about Saint Barbara. There is, however, an encomium written to her which is almost unreadable today. It begins: “At the time when the impious Maximianus was emperor and Marcianus was governing, there was a local official called Dioskoros, who was exceptionally rich and was also fanatical regarding idol worship.
He had an only child, a daughter called Barbara, who was outstanding for her beauty and a shining example of modest behaviour. So he built a tall tower and locked the maiden up in it, so that other people would not gaze on the brilliance and radiance of her beauty, which blossomed and sparkled”.

These accounts, however, were not the ‘objective’ narratives upon which we pride ourselves today, even though our criteria for objectivity are often flawed. Instead of  ‘selfies’, they had tropes. Thus Saint Barbara was ‘outstanding for her beauty’. Another virgin saint who was exceptionally beautiful? Were none of them plain? No, because the description is of the person, not of the physical appearance. And Saint Barbara was shut up in a tower. Of course it’s possible that she really was, given the attitude of some people to the way their daughters should be brought up, but perhaps it also is a trope, from the Song of Songs: “Your neck is like an ivory tower”. This was also used of the Mother of God and was a symbol of purity. The Song of Songs goes on to say: “Your nose is as the tower of Lebanon looking toward Damascus”. Well, Ilioupolis was to the west of Damascus and so probably not far from the region which people at the time called “Lebanon”. The point is not that Saint Barbara is a figment of someone’s imagination, but that we need to understand how people in the past presented her story.

By an odd coincidence, the person who wrote this encomium for Saint Barbara was also a Syrian and his feast-day also falls on December 4. As remote as Saint Barbara seems to us, because of historical circumstances, Saint John the Damascan almost leaps out of the pages of history to greet us. C. S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories and The Allegory of Love, was a Medievalist and it takes no great feat of the imagination to see him and Saint John, who was distinguished polymath (dialetics, theology, apologetics, poetry, music), discussing allegory and tropes over a glass of port in an Oxford college.

Saint John was born into a privileged background. It is reported that his grandfather surrendered Damascus to the invading Arabs. This might account for his Arabic family name, “ Mansur”, “the victorious one”, though this does not mean that he was an Arab (A meat vendor in Anglo-Saxon England would have been called ‘Fleshmonger’, but after the Norman conquest he became ‘Butcher’). His father, Sarjun (=Sergius) served the Umayyad caliphs and there are reports, which may not be true, that, as a young man, John led a dissolute life as the scion of a prominent family. Be that as it may, he became a monk at Mar Saba monastery and became a priest in 735, at the age of about 60. He departed this life in 749.

He is, of course, particularly famous, for his defence of the holy icons and he also wrote An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, which is sometimes criticised for not being ‘original’, though how one can be original with the truth is not immediately apparent. This work is available on the Internet as a free download.
The cave where St. John lived in asceticism in the 8th century while a monk of St. Savvas the Sanctified Monastery in Israel. He lived here for 30 years.

Apart from this, however, he also wrote some of the loveliest poetry in the whole of the hymnography of the Orthodox Church. He is responsible for the Octoechos, the arrangement of the hymns of the Church into eight tones; he wrote at least part of the funeral service, the most beautiful of our services; he wrote, or set to music, the canon to the Mother of God for the Annunciation; many of our most familiar hymns; and, of course, the Easter canon. All in all a most remarkable man, a ‘man for all seasons’.

Saint Barbara was born into a repressive culture of intolerance and brutality. In the same geographical region, Saint John was born into an Islamic culture which was tolerant of Christians and, indeed, appointed them to high positions of trust in the state. How tragic it is that today, this ancient Christian community which gave us saints such as Barbara and John, as well as John Chrysostom, Peter of Damascus and, of course, Isaac of Nineveh should again be threatened by fanaticism and the desire to uproot Christians and expel them from their ancient homeland. May the prayers of our Syrian saints be with all of us.

W. J. Lillie



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