(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press.Today's saint, St. Damaskenos, comes from Volume 1 of the series.)
The anguish of the American people over a small band of its brethren being held captive in an Islamic nation only serves to underscore the gallantry of the Greek nation which for nearly four centuries was hostage to a ruthless Ottoman horde even more merciless and wanton than its present-day counterparts. Further brought out are the stark historical facts that for the thousand years of its existence the bulwark between Christianity and oblivion was the Byzantine Empire, which was overrun by the Ottomans only after being weakened from within even by such well-meaning misadventures as the Crusades.
The Turkish invasion sent many Greek families scattering to Balkan regions, which accounts for the fact that the saint now known to us as Damaskenos came from generations of Bulgarians of Hellenic origin. Damaskenos was born in the village of Gabrova, Bulgaria, a country which had long since taken to its soul, in loving embrace, the Holy Orthodox Church. His beginnings were humble enough to remain in early eighteenth-century obscurity, and it was only after he had come to make his presence felt in the defense of Christianity that it was learned that from early youth he had felt the call to the service of Christ, a call which his devout Orthodox parents seemed to have anticipated with strong emphasis on his religious training in childhood.
The prestigious citadel of God known as Mount Athos had beckoned Damaskenos from his remote Bulgarian village, and when he appeared on the Holy Mountain with his more-than-adequate credentials, he was assigned to serve in the monastery of Chilandari. The monastery was not lacking for men of brilliance and devotion, and it took exceptional talent to keep a dedicated monk from melting into the crowd and comparative obscurity. Damaskenos had remained for only a short time when it became evident that his was not destined to be a face in the crowd. After a relatively brief but outstanding service, he was singled out for greater duty in his native country.
Having returned to a Bulgarian monastery affiliated with Mount Athos, the resolute Damaskenos was made overseer of an auxiliary building known as the Metochion, which in addition to serving as a spiritual retreat also saw to the administration of an agrarian economy which over the years had assumed a level of prosperity that was a national pride. The new overseer was aware of this enterprise that was so eminently successful, but unaware of the fact that the entire affair was slowly being wrenched from its original high purpose of providing for the poor and diverted instead to the high-handed Turks of the area.
Damaskenos discovered to his dismay that the coffers that were being filled by the honest labor of the peasants were being emptied systematically as loans to Turks who made no effort to repay and had no intention of doing so. When questioned, the monks as much as admitted they considered it a tribute to the conqueror and in the interest of peace and harmony in the community never pressed for payment of these loans, but to Damaskenos it was an extortion he could never countenance.
Damaskenos called for an immediate halt to the lending of money to anyone, asserting it to be the task of moneychangers, and furthermore called for the repayment of all outstanding loans, some of which had been on the ledgers for years. Even with their cunning and scheming, the Turks knew that Damaskenos was well within his rights and the law in calling for them to honor their debts, but honor was lacking in the Turkish character, a trait for which they substituted deception and deceit in every form.
When Damaskenos showed no signs of relenting in his demands, the perfidious debtors hit upon a scheme to rid themselves of the honorable overseer and go back to their evil ways. A Turkish girl was somehow smuggled into the compound, and through subterfuge they arranged to storm the house of Christianity under the pretext of rescuing one of their own who swore she had been abducted. Damaskenos was sentenced to death for this spurious crime, but was offered life if he would renounce Christ and become a Muslim. He refused and gave his life for Christ on January 16, 1771. As a postscript, a party celebrating his death with a cruise on the Danube was drowned when the craft capsized in high winds.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikimedia.