Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Patron saints and commemoration of St. John Damascene

Shortly before my chrismation, I was in a dilemma as to which saint I would want who would be my personal intercessor before the Dread Judgment Seat of Christ.  This is no easy task as any saint would do. Of course, most people, especially those received into the faith later in life and who did not necessarily have the luxury of having someone else (like a parent or godparent) choose their "church" name, go for the big name saints, usually who have some universal popularity like the Apostles or the three holy hierarchs or great martyrs, etc.  And that is totally fine.

I have no idea how St. John Damascene came to me. (Long digression: To be honest, I was leaning more towards St. Augustine (yes, he IS a saint) simply because I was very familiar with him and his writings and his Latin (very good Latin, by the way), but I was kind of being drawn away from that mainly because there is much opprobrium directed at him in the Orthodox Church, mainly the result of Fr. Romanides' influence.  And I think even my priest was hesitant simply because Augustine is often (wrongly) associated with the errors and heresies of the Roman Catholics and Protestants who use him to justify their theology even when I'm sure he would have nothing to do with those). The only real "reading" of St. John Damascene I had ever done was for a paper I had written in my senior year of college on the Great Schism between east and west.  His name  had come up in some of my research on the theological quarrels of the time.  But my exposure to him was minimal and was only in a strict academic sense.

Nonetheless, I chose him.  It was fortuitous since John also happens to be my middle name which is also my father's name.  But, I really have no reason why I chose him.  Looking back, it almost seems I chose his name out of a hat.  Or did I choose him?

Someone once told me (I can't remember whom) that we do not choose our patron saints; they choose us. They choose for whom they will intercede.  That does appear logical.  If it were strictly left to us, I believe that there are a great many of us who would end up "saint shopping" to see if we can get a better one if we deem the one we have to not live up to his/her part of the bargain.  And that's dangerous.  Every saint intercedes for us, especially out patron saints, but once we start thinking that our prayers aren't being answered because our patron saint is slacking, we turn our problems outward rather than acknowledge that we are the problem.  But, even in spite of that, the patron saint's work of intercession is never done.

And what an intercessor I have before the dread judgment seat.  I admit I did not know all that much about him, but as I progressed in the faith and with all that I did learn about him, I realized that he is very much a kindred spirit.  I'm not saying that I'm a  great theologian or composer as he was (you've read my blog. Would you compare it to St. John's work?), but as a chanter and someone who likes to think, he has provided me with great material from which to draw.  Though St. John may not have written all the hymns in the octoechos, he probably did give them their present form and the many works we know he did write are of such great prominence in the church's liturgical life that we end up praying through St. John's words.  For years I could not pray simply because whenever I tried to pray to God, every word was insufficient and  seemed vacuous and empty.  His words filled that void.

The canons of Pascha, Nativity, Ascension, two of the pre-communion prayers, the funeral service, any number of hymns and compositions enrich our prayer life as Orthodox Christians.  He shares this day of commemoration along with St. Barbara the Great Martyr who probably receives the lion's share of attention.  But I think it is quite appropriate that they share today.  St. Barbara commended her spirit and her flesh to God through torture and death; St. John gave his intellect and creativity to God through suffering a long life.

O Righteous Father John the Damascene, pray to God that our souls be saved!

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