St. John Damascene was born in Damascus in 690 AD. His father was John al-Mansur, a Christian official in the court of the Moslem khalif.
St. John was baptized in infancy, and had a tutor called Cosmas who taught he the sciences and theology. Cosmas became a poet and singer, and subsequently accompanied his adopted brother (St. John) to the monastery in which both became monks.
In spite of his theological training St. John does not seem, at first, to have contemplated any career except that of his father, to whose office he succeeded. Even at court he was able freely to live a Christian life, and he became remarkable there for his virtues and especially for his humility. Nevertheless, after filling his responsible post for some years, St. John resigned office, and went to be a monk in the lavra of St. Sabbas near Jerusalem.
John and Cosmas settled amongst the brethren, and wrote books a composed hymns. Patriarch John V of Jerusalem knew them well by reputation and wished to have them among his clergy. First he took Cosmas and made him bishop of Majuma, and afterwards he ordained John priest and brought him to Jerusalem. St. Cosmas ruled his flock admirably until his death, but St. John soon returned to his monastery.
St. John's three letters in defence of the holy icons, for which he was slandered before the khalif and his hand was cut off, had become known and read everywhere, and had earned him the hatred of the persecuting emperors. If his enemies never succeeded in injuring him, it was only because he never crossed the frontier into the Roman empire. After his miraculous healing by the Theotokos, he spent the rest of his life writing many books on theology and poetry at St. Sabbas, where he died around 750 AD. His most famous work is the Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, which is the best summary of the teachings of the early Church Fathers. He also wrote polemical works against various heresies and sermons on feast days. He is renowned as the writer of many feast-day hymns and canons (including the Pascha service), and as the compiler of the Octoechos, whose verses are a summing up of Orthodox teaching.
Saint John of Damascus
Famous writer and clerical poet St. John was a minister of caliph Abdul-Malek and a governor of Damascus in his younger years. He came from Syria and lived in the 8th century when the iconoclastic heresy was raging in the Byzantine Empire: icons were destroyed, and the advocates of icon worshiping were persecuted severely. A highly educated person and a talented writer, John of Damascus ardently and convincingly advocated the veneration of icons by the Orthodox believers.
The vehement iconoclast emperor Leo the Isaurian was infuriated by John’s writings. He ordered his scribe to study St. John’s handwriting and to imitate it in a letter addressed to the Byzantine emperor and allegedly written by John offering the emperor his assistance in overthrowing caliph. Emperor Leo sent this spurious letter to caliph as a proof of his loyalty to caliph and St. John’s treason.
Without looking properly into the matter or listening to St. John’s clarification the Asian despot ordered to imprison St. John and cut off his right hand, which had ostensibly, written the perfidious letter. St. John placed his cut hand in front the icon of the most holy Mother of God that he had with him in prison and fell down in a long prayer and lamentation before the icon. In a dream Most Holy Virgin appeared to the martyr and looking at him kindly she said, "Behold, your hand is healed now, do not grieve any more." When St. John woke up he was amazed to see that his hand was re-joined to his arm miraculously and became as lively as before. Only a narrow scar reminded of the execution. St. John was so ecstatic with joy and gratitude to the Merciful Protectress that a hymn flowed out of his soul, which is still sung in churches: "Every creature rejoices in Thee, Oh, Blessed One!"
When caliph heard of the wonder, he investigated the case carefully and understood that St. John was innocent. The caliph felt guilty, so, trying to amend the injustice done, he offered St. John lavish awards and high tribute. But St. John refused to accept any of those, as he saw how transient fortune and glory are in this world. As a sign of gratitude to the Holy Mother of God he ordered an image of her hand made of silver and attached it to the icon, which he had with him in prison when the miracle occurred. This icon was called "Three hands."
Having given away all of his possessions and dressed as a commoner, St. John withdrew to the monastery of St. Sabba the Sanctified located 25 miles to the southeast of Jerusalem. Since St. John was very famous, none of the monastery brothers wanted to become his supervisor in his work of penance. Finally one elder agreed to guide him only on the condition that for the sake of humbleness St. John would no longer write any literary compositions. St. John agreed and began to live and work at the monastery as an ordinary monk. There he was from the very beginning a model of humility and obedience, and performed all the works of asceticism prescribed for monks.
Several years passed by. Once St. John’s friend asked him to write a prayer for the repose of his father’s soul. In a moment of inspiration St. John wrote a requiem hymn that is still sung in churches during burial services. An interpretation of one of them by Alexei Tolstoi, a Russian writer and poet goes:
"What earthly sweetness of our lives
All these are shadows, ash and dust,
Can despotic rule stay ever strong?
Having learned that John broke the promise and wrote a prayer, the elder got angry and wanted to banish him from the monastery. Then all the monks of the monastery asked the elder to forgive John. The elder agreed to pardon John’s disobedience on the condition that John would clean out all the dirty places in the monastery with his own hand. St. John executed this severe demand humbly. After that Holy Theotokos appeared to the elder in a night dream and said: "Do not obstruct my wellspring any more. Let it flow in the name of the Lord’s glory." Having risen from sleep the elder understood that it was God’s will for St. John of Damascus to devote himself to literary work.
From that time on nobody hindered St. John’s writing clerical compositions and church prayers. Several years of his ceaseless work made a great contribution of compositions, prayers and service canons to the Church services; they are sung in churches to this day and render more beauty to Orthodox services. Many hymns sung at Christmas, Easter and other celebrations were composed by him. He composed the Octoechos (eight tones) sung during Sunday sermons, the Irmologion, the Menologion and the Easter Canon. A great monk, hymnographer, a subtle theologian, and a great warrior for the truth of Christ, St. John of Damascus wrote a famous book "The Exact Exposition of Orthodox Faith," in which he summarized the main postulates of Christianity. He entered peacefully into rest in the year of 777, at the age of seventy-five
Troparion, Tone 3: