Saint John Damascene (645-749) has the double honor of being the last but one of the fathers of the Eastern Church, and the greatest of her poets. It is surprising, however, how little that is authentic is known of his life. The account of him by John of Jerusalem, written some two hundred years after his death, contains an admixture of legendary matter, and it is not easy to say where truth ends and fiction begins. It is said that he was baptized immediately on his birth, probably by Peter II, bishop of Damascus, and his father was anxious to keep his son aloof from the savage habits of war and piracy, to which the youths of Damascus were addicted, and to devote John to the pursuit of knowledge.
The Saracen pirates of the seashore neighboring to Damascus, swept the Mediterranean, and brought in Christian captives from all quarters. A monk named Cosmas was captured, his executioners, probably Christian slaves, fell at his feet and entreated his intercession with the Redeemer. The Saracens enquired of Cosmas who he was. He replied that he had not the dignity of a priest; he was a simple monk, and burst into tears. The father of John was standing by, and expressed his surprise at this exhibition of timidity. Cosmas answered, “It is not for the loss of my life, but of my learning, that I weep.” The father of John, thinking he would make a valuable tutor for his son, begged for or bought his life from the Saracen governor, gave him his freedom, and placed his son under his tuition.
Under the instruction of Cosmas, John is said to have made great advances in music, astronomy and theology, soon rivaling Pythagoras in arithmetic and Euclid in geometry. As a refugee from Italy, Cosmas brought with him the scholarly traditions of Western Christianity. John went on to write works expounding the Christian faith, and composed hymns which are still used both liturgically in Eastern Christian practice throughout the world as well as in western Lutheranism at Easte. He is considered “the last of the Fathers” of the Eastern Orthodox church and is best known for his strong defense of icons. The Catholic Church regards him as a Doctor of the Church, often referred to as the Doctor of the Assumption due to his writings on the Assumption of Mary.