Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. John Damascene who is one of the great Fathers of the universal Church. He was born into a wealthy family and followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming the Treasurer of the Caliphate at a young age. As happens with many saints who begin their life in opulence and wealth, John became disillusioned and dissatisfied with his position. He left it behind for the monastic life and entered the monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem around 700 A.D. He lived the rest of his live devoted to ascesis, literary work, and pastoral activity. His works were of great importance during the iconoclast heresy of his day. His writing aided in the clarification of the Church’s teaching on icons and veneration of holy images and other material items.
The center of John’s work is the effect of the Incarnation on Creation. In the Fall, Creation was wounded and God has been working to heal that wound. He repeatedly revealed Himself to Israel and often the people of Israel went astray. In the Incarnation, God took on human flesh and came to dwell among His people. John points out that even though the world has been wounded by the fault of man, nature “should be strengthened and renewed” by the coming of the Son of Man. John explains further:
It was necessary for nature to be strengthened and renewed, and for the path of virtue to be indicated and effectively taught (didachthenai aretes hodon), the path that leads away from corruption and toward eternal life…So there appeared on the horizon of history the great sea of love that God bears toward man (philanthropias pelagos).
St. John Damascene, The Orthodox Faith, II, I, as referenced in Pope Benedict XVI’s The Father’s Volume II page 109
It is from this view of renewal that the Christian can look to the beauty of nature with optimism and hope. The wound is visible, but it is overtaken by the glory of God’s salvation in the Incarnation and subsequent Paschal Mystery. This is why the Catholic Church is so in tune with the need to marvel at the wonder and beauty of God’s creation. It is not because of the material world itself, but because in Creation we see the One who has saved us from our sins. This is one of the reasons Catholics have a long tradition of art, veneration, beauty, and architecture. We marvel at God in all things.
St. John Damascene is well known for his defense of veneration of icons and their use within the universal Church. God has redeemed the world and taken on human flesh. The material objects of this world are meant to heighten and lead us on our path to the Beatific Vision.
In other ages God had not been represented in images, being incorporate and faceless. But since God has now been seen in the flesh, and lived among men, I represent that part of God which is visible. I do not venerate matter, but the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to live in matter and bring about my salvation through matter. I will not cease therefore to venerate that matter through which my salvation was achieved. But I do not venerate it in absolute terms as God! How could that which, from non-existence, has been given existence, be God?…But I also venerate and respect all the rest of matter which has brought me salvation, since it is full of energy and Holy graces. Is not the wood of the Cross, three times blessed, matter?…And the ink, and the most Holy Book of the Gospels, are they not matter? The redeeming altar which dispenses the Bread of life, is it not matter?…And, before all else, are not the flesh and blood of Our Lord matter? Either we must suppress the sacred nature of all these things, or we must concede to the tradition of the Church the veneration of the images of God and that of the friends of God who are sanctified by the name they bear, and for this reason are possessed by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not, therefore, offend matter: it is not contemptible, because nothing that God has made is contemptible.”
Contra imaginum calumniators, I, 16 as referenced by Pope Benedict XVI page 107
This passage from John is filled with the rich Catholic tradition of understanding the relationship between matter, the Incarnation, and the Church as she lives in history. Since Christ took on human flesh, artists and disciples can depict God in artwork. As Catholics we live the bridge between flesh and spirit in all that we do whether it be in the Sacraments, in prayer, or hiking a mountain path. It is in these material experiences that the mind and heart are lifted to God. There is no risk of idolatry because the Church does not worship the matter itself; she worships the one who made the matter. It is difficult to imagine what the Church would look like without the beauty she has been given throughout the centuries.
It is easy to forget in our busy lives just how important it is to stop and contemplate the wonder of God in our daily lives. In reading the works of St. John Damascene we learn how God uses beauty and matter to reach us. God does this because, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, we are “embodied spirits.” Human beings are where matter and spirit unify. In fact, it is to deny a part of human nature if we ignore the material aspects of ourselves and the universe. Human beings are on a journey that is both material and spiritual as Fr. Clarke explains:
By coming to understand the meaning of the material world and of its own self in it, and following out the implications as far as they lead, a human being can finally rise to an indirect, analogous knowledge and direct love of the Transcendent Spiritual Source of itself and its cosmos, “led by the hand by material things,” as St. Thomas graphically puts it. This journey is a distinctly human one, quite different from that of the angels. “Embodied spirit” expresses better than “rational animal” this vaster perspective, wherein man appears in his deepest level of being as spirit, but a spirit that needs the body as a natural complement and mediating instrument to fulfill his destiny as a traveler to God through the material cosmos—homo viator, man the traveler, as the medieval loved to call him.
Norris Clarke, S.J., Person and Being, page 34
The human experience must be mediated through the material and the spiritual in order to reach the depths of the God given human nature we all possess. St. John Damascene reminds us of how matter is transformed in light of the Incarnation. God reached down to us in our material and spiritual existence by becoming flesh Himself. He wanted to enter fully into our experience, so that he could lead us. That includes in our experiences of beauty. It is a profound gift to be able to meditate upon the Pieta or an icon of Christ Pantocrator. We are now allowed to express our love through the mediums of our material existence. In fact, it is a great tragedy that many Christian traditions and other religions have denied this aspect of human nature. It is to split the person in half and fall into a form of dualism. It is to deny Christ’s renewal of Creation through the Incarnation. It is to deny that we were made to contemplate the face of Christ.
As we celebrate the feast of St. John Damascene thank God for the gift of the Incarnation and the gift of beauty. Embrace the long tradition of art, architecture, music, and iconography that has been given to the Church so that we may all worship God as “embodied spirits”. Yes, the world is still wounded and sin abounds, but it is overcome by the grace of the Most Holy Trinity. We can look out at the vastness of the universe in hope and awe because the glories of God are without end.
St. John Damascene, ora pro nobis.