The name Onuphrius or Onoufrios (Greek: Ονούφριος) comes from Egyptian, Wenn-nefer meaning “the always-good being”, an attribute to the Egyptian god Osiris. In Arabic, the saint is known as Abū Nufar, which, besides being a variant of the name Onuphrius, also means “herbivore”, also an hermit.
St. Onuphrius is supposed to be lived as a hermit in the desert of Upper (southern) Egypt of Thebaida, in the 4th or 5th centuries.
The most complete and wide “Life of St. Onuphrius” is written by Paphnutius the Ascetic, an Egyptian monk who encountered him after a long journey in the Egyptian desert. There is uncertain which Paphnutius is this author. He could be Paphnutius of Scetis, a 4th century abbot in the northern Egypt, named in the Apophtegmata Patrum or Paphnutius the Ascetic, named by St. John Cassian in his Dialogues with the Desert Fathers.
The Life of St. Onuphrius
Much about the early life of the saint is not known. A tradition states that Onuphrius had studied jurisprudence and philosophy before becoming a monk near Thebes, and later a hermit, that thing not being stated in the classical biography mentioned above.
According to Paphnutius, the author of the “Life” undertook a pilgrimage into the desert, to study the hermits’ way of life and to determine whether he must live such a life or not. After 17 days of wandering in the desert, thirsty and tired, Paphnutius came across a wild figure covered in hair, wearing a loincloth of leaves. Paphnutius ran away to a mountain, because he was afraid of the strange vision, possible a demon, but the figure called him back, shouting, “Come down to me, man of God, for I am a man also, dwelling in the desert for the love of God”. This part of the story is quite similar with the Life of St. Mary the Egyptian and St. Zosimas, because the authors of the ascetic lives inspire themselves many from the same type of tradition, so they use the same literary motives (“topoi”).
Turning back, Paphnutius talked to the wild man, who introduced himself as Onuphrius and explained that he had once been a monk at a large monastery in the Thebaida called “Erete”, but he later left it and lived as a hermit for 70 years, enduring the extreme thirst, hunger, and discomforts like heat during the days and coldness during the nights. After a while he was accustomed to this life. A miraculous palm tree grew near his cell, producing fruits 12 times in year (that is a clear account to the Tree of Life mentioned in the last Chapter of the Apocalypse). Also an angel came every Sunday and brought him the Holy Eucharist. Hearing about this story, Paphnutius forgets about hunger, heat, or even about the whole world, because he was symbolically in the “paradise” together with his new teacher.
Onuphrius took Paphnutius to his cell, and they spoke until sunset, when bread and water miraculously appeared outside of the hermit’s cell. After the night spent in the prayer, when Onuphrius had completely turned into fire, in the morning Paphnutius knew that Onuphrius was near death, and God sent him here, in order to know such an extraordinary life. Paphnutius asked the hermit if he should remain in this cell after his death, but Onuphrius told him, “That may not be, your work is in Egypt with your brethren”. After blessing him, Onuphrius died, being the 16th day of the Egyprian month Paone.
Due to the hard and rocky ground, Paphnutius could not dig a hole for a grave, and therefore covered Onuphrius’ body in a cloak, leaving the hermit’s body in a cleft of the rocks. After the burial, Onuphrius’ cell crumbled an the palm tree fell down, which Paphnutius took to be a sign that he should not stay.
Onuphrius’ life is a typical life of the desert hermits or anchorites, in which the wonder-histories and the teaching are mixed in a pedagogical way, in order to help the monks to improve their personal but also comunitary life.
Onuphrius’ cult spread across the Western Europe, Middle East, Eastern Europe and Russia. Both the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches traditionally mark his feast day on 12 June (or 25 June for the Churches who respect the Old Calendar), the day of his death.
A part of his relics are situated in the church in Sutera, in Sicily, together with the relics of St. Paul the Hermit.
In Rome, the church of Sant’Onofrio, was built on the Janiculan Hill in the 15th century. Saint Onuphrius is venerated in Munich, Basel, and in the all southern Germany. The Duke Henry the Lion (1129 –1195) of Saxony, and of Bavaria, the traditional grounder of Munchen and a big crusader, held St. Onuphrius as his patron saint. Images of Saint Onuphrius as “wild man" were painted in many churches after the Crusades. Usually he is depicted as a wild man completely covered with hair, wearing a girdle of leaves around his middle.
The archbishop Antony of Novgorod wrote around the year 1200, that Onuphrius’ head was conserved in the church of Saint Akindinos in Constantinople. The Image of the Saint is depicted together with other anchorites at Yilanlı Kilise (or the Snake Church), in Cappadocia, already in the early Middle Ages.
A monastery dedicated to St. Onuphrius is situated in Jerusalem, at the far end of Gai Ben Hinnom, the Gehenna “Valley of hell”, where according to the tradition is the location of Hakeldama, the place bought with the 30 dinaries of Judas Iscariot.
The cult of St. Onuphrius is strongly spread in the Eastern Poland, where a monastery dedicated to him was built at Jableczna, dating from at least 1498. According to the legend, after a big flood, the waters of the River Bug brought, on the place of the actual altar, the icon of the Saint. At the Feast of the saint, celebrated according to the old calendar (25th June), every year come thousands of pilgrims and traditionally the bishops celebrate the Holy Liturgy 4 times during the night, at the 4 churches of the monastery. There are in Poland also other churches and some monasteries dedicated to St. Onuphrius, both catholic (Bircza, 1422) or orthodox (Posada Rybotycka, 1367 and Perehinsk, now in Ukraine, 1400).
Troparion of the Saint
In the flesh you lived the life of an Angel, you were a citizen of the desert and a treasury of grace, O Onuphrios adornment of Egypt. Wherefore we honour your struggles as we sing to you: Glory to Him Who has strengthened you; glory to Him Who has made you wonderful; glory to Him Who through you works healings for all.