The Monk Joseph, writer of Church song, was born in Cilicia in a pious Christian family. His parents, Plotinos and Agathea, resettled into the Peloponnesus to save themselves from barbarian invasions. At age fifteen, Saint Joseph departed for Thessalonika and entered a monastery. He distinguished himself by his piety, his love for work, his meekness, and he gained the good-will of all the brethren of the monastery. The monk was later ordained to the dignity of presbyter.
The Monk Gregory Dekapolites visited the monastery and took notice of the young monk, taking him along to Constantinople, where they settled together near the church of the holy Martyrs Sergios and Bakkhos. This was during the reign of the emperor Leo the Armenian (813-820) – a time of fierce iconoclast persecutions. The Monks Gregory and Joseph fearlessly defended the veneration of holy icons. They preached in the squares of the city and visited in the homes of the Orthodox, encouraging them against the heretics. The position of the Constantinople Church was grievous to the extreme: not only the emperor, but also the patriarch were iconoclast heretics.
Pope Leo III – not being under the dominion of the Byzantine emperor – was able to render great help to the Orthodox. The Orthodox monks chose the Monk Joseph as a steadfast and quite eloquent messenger to the Pope. The Monk Gregory blessed him to journey to Rome and to report about the position of the Constantinople Church, and about the dangers threatening Orthodoxy.
During the journey, the Monk Joseph was captured by Arab brigands which had been bribed by the iconoclasts. They took him off to the island of Crete, where they handed him over to the iconoclasts. The Monk Joseph was locked up in prison. Bravely enduring all the deprivations, he encouraged also the other prisoners. Through the prayers of the monk, a certain Orthodox bishop who had begun to waver was strengthened in spirit and courageously accepted a martyr’s death.
The Monk Joseph spent six years in prison. On the night of the Nativity of Christ in 820 he was granted a vision of Sainted Nicholas of Myra, who informed him about the death of the iconoclast-oppressor Leo the Armenian, and also the cessation of the persecution over holy icons. Saint Nicholas gave the monk a scroll of paper and said: “Take this scroll and eat it.” On the scroll was written: “Hasten, O Gracious One, and attend to our aid in as Thou art the Merciful One, as may be possible and as Thou dost will.” The monk read the scroll, ate it and said: How sweet to my throat art these words. Saint Nicholas bid him to sing forth these words. After this the fetters of themself fell off from the monk, the doors of the prison opened up, and he freely emerged from it and was transported in the air and placed down on a large avenue near Constantinople, leading into the city. At Constantinople the Monk Joseph found that the Monk Gregory Dekapolites was no longer among the living, rather only his disciple Blessed John, who likewise soon died. The Monk Joseph built a church in the name of Saint Nicholas and transferred there the relics of the Monks Gregory and John. And nearby the church was founded a monastery.
The Monk Joseph received also part of the relics of the Apostle Bartholomew from a certain virtuous man. He built a church in the name of the holy apostle and wanted to solemnly honour his memory, but he was distressed that there was no laudatory canon of song glorifying the memory of the holy apostle, and he himself did not dare to compile it. For forty days the Monk Joseph prayed with tears, preparing for the feastday in memory of the holy apostle. On the eve of the feast the Apostle Bartholomew appeared to him in the altar, put the holy Gospel to his bosom and blessed him to write church canonical song with the words: “May the right hand of the All-Powerful God bless thee, that thy tongue pour forth waters of Heavenly Wisdom, that thy heart be a temple of the Holy Spirit, and thy church-song be sweet with rejoicing.” After this miraculous appearance, the Monk Joseph compiled a canon to the Apostle Bartholomew, and from that time he began to compose canonical song in honour of the Mother of God, of the holy saints and in their midst – in honour of Saint Nicholas, his liberator from prison.
During the period of the renewal of the iconoclast heresy under the emperor Theophilus (829-842), the Monk Joseph suffered a second time from the heretics. He was sent off into exile to Chersonessus for 11 years. The Orthodox veneration of holy icons was restored under the holy empress Theodora in 842, and the Monk Joseph was made keeper of vessels at the Sophia cathedral in Constantinople. But because of his bold denunciation of the brother of the empress, Bardas, for unlawful co-habitation, the monk was again sent off into exile and returned only after the death of Bardas in 867.
Patriarch Photios (857-867, 877-886) restored him to his former position and appointed him father-confessor for all the Constantinople clergy.
Having reached old age, the Monk Joseph fell ill. Just before Pascha, on Great Friday, the Lord informed him in a dream vision about his approaching demise. The monk made an inventory of church articles in the Sophia cathedral, such things as were under his official care, and he sent it off to Patriarch Photios. For several days he prayed intensely, preparing for death. In his prayers the monk besought peace for the Church, and for his soul the mercy of God. Having communed the Holy Mysteries of Christ, the Monk Joseph gave blessing to all that came to him, and with joy he reposed to God (+863). The choirs of the angels and the saints, whom the Monk Joseph had glorified by his canonical song, in triumph carried up his soul to the Heavenly realm.
About the spirit and power of the canon-song of the Monk Joseph, his biographer the Constantinople Church deacon John wrote thus in about the year 890: “When he began to write verses, then the hearing was taken with a wondrous pleasantness of sound, and the heart was struck by the power of the thought… Those that strive for the life of perfection find here a respite… Writers, having left off with their other versification, from this one treasure-trove from the writings of Saint Joseph began to scoop out his treasure for their own songs, or better said, daily they scoop them out. And finally, all the people carry it over into their own language, so as to enlighten with song the darkness of night, or staving off sleep, to continue with the vigil til sunrise… If anyone were peruse the life of a saint celebrated on whatever the day of the Church, they would see the worthiness of song of Saint Joseph and acknowledge his glorious life. Actually, since the life and deeds of almost every saint are adorned with praises, is not he worthy of immortal glory, that hath worthily and exquisitely known how to glorify them! And now let some other saints glorify his meekness, and others – his wisdom, and others – his works, and all together glorify the grace of the Holy Spirit, Which so abundantly and immeasurably hath bestown him his gifts.”