(Nov. 26/ Dec. 9)

About How Cemeteries Teach Edifying
Lessons to Christians

Brothers and sisters!


          Today we commemorate a saint who led a quite unusual life, Alypius the Stylite.  Stylites were ascetics who lived atop tall pillars.  The conditions of their existence were particularly harsh, because the platforms on which they stood were necessarily small.  In most cases they could not lie down, and if they were covered by a structure of some sort, it was tiny and rudimentary, and always unheated.  Many stylites lived completely exposed to the elements in every season.

          After about the eleventh century, we encounter fewer of these intrepid pillar-dwellers.  Nevertheless, they do continue to appear from time to time.  The most recent stylite I have heard of lived in the Jordanian desert in the 1950’s or early 1960’s.  A professor of mine – a mentor, really – was exploring a remote area when he spotted what looked like a pillar at a distance.  Being a historian and an archaeologist, he approached it, only to discover that a stylite was living on it.  Unfortunately, they could not converse, because the stylite knew no Greek or English, and the professor no Arabic.

          The venerable Alypius was born in Adrianople, a town of Paphlagonia, a region in northern Asia Minor, modern Asiatic Turkey.  In those days (the late sixth and early seventh centuries), Asia Minor was a Greek-speaking area, except for the Armenian regions.  At first Alypius was the deacon of the local bishop, but he would often leave his cell to wander in the mountains, fields, and forests, searching for a place conducive to the contemplative life.  One day he found a beautiful spot on a remote mountain that suited his purpose, and he dug out a spring there.  The Bishop, however, did not want to lose Alypius altogether, so he had men block up the spring with earth and stones.  As a result, Alypius took up the solitary life not there, but in an old, desolate heathen cemetery, infested by demons.  The cemetery was closer to the town than was the mountain.  Alypius lived for a considerable time in one of the pagan sepulchers.  Above the grave stood a column, on which was an idol that Alypius smashed.  Eventually Alypius built a church in the cemetery, and he mounted the pillar.  From then till the end of his days, he led the harsh life of a stylite in that cemetery, enduring cold, burning heat, rain, hail, snow, ice, and every change of season, not to mention all the other discomforts of a strictly ascetical existence. 

          Cemeteries sometimes have a reputation for being haunted, but it is not ghosts that make mischief there.  Rather, unconsecrated cemeteries, like the one in which Saint Alypius lived, are often the haunts of demons, being full of the bodies of unbelievers.  This place was fearsome to others, but attractive to the saint, and the evil spirits, unable to endure his prayers and virtue, were compelled to abandon their home.

          We Christians should have no fear of cemeteries, if we are in a prayerful state while we are there.  In fact, we should be drawn to them, as Saint Alypius was.  Why is that?  The reason is that cemeteries teach edifying lessons to Christians.  Beyond a doubt, the saint chose a cemetery as the place for his spiritual struggles because it constantly reminded him of the vanity and brevity of man’s earthly life; it reminded him of death, corruption, and God’s dread judgment.  “Remember your last moment,” the saying goes, “and you will never sin.”  It was this remembrance that drew Saint Alypius to the cemetery, and doubtless he pondered these matters often in the many years he lived there.  So, on this day of his commemoration, let us turn our thoughts to the cemetery, and consider what it can teach us.

          People of all kinds are buried in a cemetery:  old and young, men and women, rich and poor, famous and obscure, good and bad.  If we open their graves, what will we find?  In one and all we will find rotting corpses or bones, disfigured faces, bodies being eaten by worms or already eaten away, clothes that are falling to pieces.  There is no beauty in the grave, no matter how handsome the person in it once was.  However rich the dead man was in his lifetime, he is penniless in the tomb.  Everything people pursue so ardently and value so highly in this life is absent from the grave:  fame, honor, fashionable clothes, social gatherings, tasty foods, entertainments, and enjoyments.  Not one of these can be found in the grave.  When a person is buried, he leaves behind, once and for all, everything that pertains to this life.  There remains only the soul, and what the soul did with itself in this life, and the Lord’s just punishment or reward.

          Soon, brothers and sisters, every one of us will find ourself in a cemetery, just like our parents, grandparents, and other ancestors.  Soon we will get sick and breathe our last, or a sudden, unexpected death will overtake us.  Soon our bodies will be crawling with worms, and our souls will be assigned by God to a place corresponding to their inner spiritual condition.  The cemetery reminds us that many die young, when they were least expecting it, despite their seeming health and strength.  For some of us this could well be our last year, or month, or week – we have no way of knowing.  In sixty, seventy, or eighty years not one of us will remain among the living.  We will all be rotting beneath the earth.

          Truly, these things are so!  And if they are, then why do we have so little thought for our eternal salvation, for what awaits us at death?  If we must leave behind everything earthly, then why are we more concerned about things of this world than about those of the next?  If our flesh will soon be food for worms, then why do we allow ourselves to be troubled by anything?  If all that in the end matters is whether we live according to Christ, then why do we not strive to the utmost to fulfill the Saviour’s commandments; why do we not struggle to lead a seriously devout life?  Why, indeed, do we scarcely even think about this?  Why are we so adamant, so absolutely set on not doing what is to our own ultimate benefit?

          Beloved brothers and sisters!  Let us all meditate more frequently upon death and, whenever possible, let us visit the graves; and let us listen very attentively to what they teach us.  Amen.