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MESSAGE OF THE MONTH
Respect for the Dead: Our Cemeteries Are God’s Vineyards
From "The Spiritual Meadow," by John Moschus, ch. 77.
Close to Antioch there once stood a monastery, called the Monastery of the Giants. The humble abbot of this monastic community recounted the following to two famous visitors, St. Sophronius and his blessed teacher, John Moschus:
Not long before your arrival, a young man came to see me.
—For the love of God, accept me into your monastery, said the youth. He looked extremely distraught. Sobbing loudly, he cried torrents of tears.
—Tell me, what is the cause of your grief?
—O father, I am an awful sinner ...
The youth again began to sob, and crying aloud, beat his breast. From his great turmoil and extreme grief, he had no strength to relate his calamity.
—My child, listen to me. Collect yourself a little bit and tell me what is wrong, and Christ will bring peace to your soul. By His fathomless mercy He did not turn away repentant sinners and endured death on the Cross for our salvation. He will accept you with joy into His embrace, seeing your repentance.
Then, making a great effort, the youth began to speak.
—Father, I am not worthy of Heaven and earth. What have I done! Not long ago, a lavish funeral was held in the city. A wealthy father was burying his only daughter. He spared nothing. All of the jewels which he had given her were placed in the tomb. The deceased one, as in life, shone with jewels and gold. The father, mortified with sorrow and in tears, walked behind the casket. At that time I came up with the satanic idea of robbing the departed one. For two days I deliberated my intent and set out at night to the lonely tomb outside the city. The silence was inexplicable, as if everything was holding its breath. Only the crescent moon hung down its sharp sickle, lighting up the environs and the marble sepulchre.
The youth sighed and continued:
—Breaking the locks, I entered the inner chamber. A weak light slipped over the dead one. She lay as if alive, a sleeping beauty. Suddenly, I was frightened. A quiet pain entered my heart. Nonetheless I threw myself on the dead girl and in exasperation began to undress her. I took everything off... I did not even spare the last underclothes, and took those too... I left her naked, as her mother had borne her. I was collecting everything and about to leave. Suddenly, fear gripped me again. My hands shook. My heart beat loudly in my chest. I glanced at the deceased and froze ill fright. She arose from her deathbed and grabbing me by the arm, she spoke:
"So foul one, you had to go so far as to undress me? Had you no fear of God? No fear of the final recompense at the Dread Judgment? Have you no compassion for me, who died in the spring of my life? Did you have no natural shame common to all of us? You are a Christian! Is this the way I am to stand before Christ? Did my gender not shame you? Did not a woman give birth to you? Did you not desecrate your own mother along with me? Oh, what answer, what excuse, wretched one, will you bring to Christ’s judgment seat? In life not a single stranger’s eye beheld my countenance, and you, following my death and burial, disrobed me and saw my nakedness. Oh, Mankind! To what depths have you fallen! With what feelings and hands will you approach the holiest Mysteries of the Body and Blood of our Jesus Christ?"
—Gasping from terror, I cried out with great effort: "Let me go!... I will never do any such thing again…"
"Yes, you came here of your own will, but it is not up to you to leave this place! This sepulchre will become our common abode—yours and mine... You will not die now, but right here, after countless sufferings, you will give up your wicked soul in an awful manner..."
—I do not remember much of what else I told her... I besought by Almighty God that she release me, I repented, asked forgiveness...
She then said, "If you wish to rid yourself of this fate, give me your word that you will reject the world and will serve God alone...."
"Not only to what you have said," I swore, "no, even more, I shall not even return to my own home."
"Dress me as I was before!"
—As soon as I arrayed her, she fell breathless on her deathbed. Once again the eyes and mouth were closed, and the hand which had clutched me so firmly lay motionless. And I, the wretched one, ran from the tomb, and came to you...
Having heard this, I comforted the youth. Clothing him in a monk’s garb, I enclosed him in a mountain cave. Look in on him, if you wish, and see: he is now toiling for the salvation of his soul.
† † †
Alexandria long remained the center of Greek scholasticism—up to the time when the Islamic yoke brought its dark clouds to the Orthodox East. Then, it is said, Omar commanded that the Alexandrian library be burned down. Before the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs, not one curious traveler ever passed Alexandria by. With its museums, palaces, libraries, it was still considered the highest center of learning for philosophy, philology, literature, astronomy, and mathematics, as well as alchemy, astrology, magic, and other metaphysical studies for which ancient Egyptians were famous.
There were also humble and self-sacrificing ascetics of Christian thought. Dedicating their lives to study, they did not seek rewards, fame, riches—no. Their studies served as a pathway to an incomparably higher goal—moral perfection. Such a one was Cosmas the Scholastic, who was described briefly but distinctly by an eyewitness, St. John Moschus.
Blessed John Moschus and his pupil Sophronius (who later became more famous than his teacher), in undertaking their great journey, could not pass Alexandria by. Besides visiting Cosmas, they stopped to see other scholars of that time who lived in Alexandria.
It was hot at noon when they headed for the living quarters of the scholar Stephen. He lived close to the church of the Mother of God. For a long time they knocked at the door. Finally, the scholar’s daughter looked out of the window and said:
—Wait a while. My father, wearied by his studies last night, has not yet risen.
—What shall we do, Master Sophronius? Let us go to the Tetrapil.
The Tetrapil was a huge portico, surrounded by columns, in four rows. One could always rest there. At the noon hour even the Tetrapil was empty. On the steps between the columns sat three beggars, all of them blind. What can one learn from blind men? However, the travelers quietly came towards them and, placing their books on the marble floor, sat down next to the blind men. They were engaged in a lively conversation.
—How did you lose your eyesight? one asked another.
—I was a sailor in my youth. During a journey from Egypt to Constantinople my eyes began to hurt. It was impossible to treat them aboard the ship, and there was no doctor. The disease progressed too far. White patches grew over my eyes and I am now blind.
—How were you stricken with blindness? the same beggar asked the other one.
—The tragedy was almost instantaneous. I was a glass blower. A flame jumped from the forge covering me with sparks, and burned my eyes.
Saying this, the blind man heaved a great sigh.
—Now you tell us of your misfortune, said both the blind men to their enquiring companion.
—Oh, my misfortune is my own fault! I will tell you the truth: as a youth I was very lazy. No matter how my parents tried, they could do nothing to develop a love of work in me. After their death I spent my fortune in a short time. I knew no trade, and did not like to work. What could I do? I became a thief. Once I had a particularly lucky day. I stole several times successfully, proceeded to finish off an excellent lunch, and then went to look around the town square. Right then I encountered a lavish funeral procession: a well-known rich man was being buried. Instantly, a demonic thought took hold of me: why not rob the deceased one? I followed the procession, which made its way to the church of St. John. Beside the church was a family crypt. When the man was interred, the crowd gradually dispersed. Evening was falling...
The blind man continued:
—Looking around, I decided that no one was watching me. I always carried a chisel and other instruments of my trade. Breaking the lock, I entered the crypt. I remember even now—the damp cold of the tomb encompassed me... The bier stood in the center. Without pausing, I came up to the dead one and took everything from him, then headed home. This will last a long time. Wait, the shroud! It is made from fine cloth and is expensive. Might as well... And I began to undress the dead man. Then—O, terror! He arose, fixed his lifeless gaze upon me—I froze on the spot like a stone. Cold sweat ran down my face. I felt the cold touch of his fingers. He passed them over my face and, stopping at the eyes, plucked them out. Recovering from fright, I threw everything down and ran from the tomb. I cannot describe to you the sorrow which overcame me. I cried unceasingly and considered myself to be lost forever. This is my story.
Glancing at Sophronius, the teacher noted that he was motioning for them to leave. Sophronius was visibly upset. Thank you, abba. Today we shall not attend the lecture: we have already received our lesson.
† † †
While visiting a cemetery, who has not noticed how some tombstones are broken by some daring hand, how crosses and holy images are defiled. What sorrow this brings to the heart! Is it possible that they do not know what a great sin this is? The wrath of the righteous Judge does not always descend immediately, as in the account above, but God’s punishment will sooner or later come upon those vultures who have lost their conscience and sense of shame. Be wary of such a heavy sin. Do not disturb the peace and tranquillity of those who have reposed from earthly cares. Cemeteries are God’s vineyards from which the angels will harvest the great crop into God’s storehouses.