Saint Volodymyr le Grand b
Ukrainian Orthodoxy
Orthodoxie ukrainienne

The Beauty of the Saints

Very Reverend Ihor Kutash

"I mostly feed and quench my thirst on the sweet words of God":

Venerable Onuphrius the Great

OnuphreThe vision of the Venerable Onuphrius, a tall slender man with a long white beard flowing to the ground before him, has been an inspiration for Eastern Christians for hundreds of years.  Tomorrow it shall be ten years since the dedication in the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa of a Ukrainian Catholic Church brought over intact from where it had been built by pioneers in the district of Smokey Lake, Alberta.  It is the Church of St. Onuphrius.  A statue of this Saint is found in a little shrine beneath the steps leading to the mighty St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv.  For several decades Orthodox seminarians in Poland have begun their spiritual training in the monastery of St. Onuphrius in Jablechna.  It is said that he himself chose the place for it, appearing nearly four hundred years ago to fishermen and leaving them an Icon of himself on the banks of the river Buh. 

The story of this remarkable Saint is shrouded in mystery for he was one of the Desert Fathers who made such an impression on Eastern spirituality in the third and fourth centuries, around the time that Christianity was emerging as the dominant faith of the Roman Empire.  At that time many folks joined the Church with little understanding and still less intent to live according to the teachings of Our Lord Jesus as proclaimed in the Gospels and especially in the Beatitudes.  At this time many Christians were inspired to go out into the desert and live in prayer under the providence of God alone in this harsh environment of extreme heat and cold, very little to eat and drink surrounded by all sorts of dangerous animals and desperadoes. 

We know of the life of St. Onuphrius from the testimony of the monk Paphnutius.  The saintly hermit had lived in the desert for sixty years when Paphnutius visited him. His hair and beard reached to the ground.  This does not normally happen – the beard reaches a certain length and grows no further.  His beard, related the Saint, grew to his feet in one day to cover his nakedness when the clothes with whish he had come to the desert fell away.  All the hairs on him were as white as snow and his entire appearance glistened, sublime and awesome.

As soon as he saw Paphnutius, Onuphrius called him by name and related to him his life in the wilderness. He said that it was his guardian angel who had brought him to this desolate place. For a long time he fed only on vegetables which could rarely be found in the wilderness and after that, when he had overcome by patience and faith violent attacks of temptations by demons and when his heart was fortified and centred upon the love of God, an angel of God brought him bread for nourishment. Besides that, by the good Providence of God, a palm tree grew next to his cell which brought forth dates in abundance and a spring of water began to flow there.

However, Onuphrius said, his face shining: "I mostly feed and quench my thirst on the sweet words of God."  To Paphnutius' question: "How do you receive Communion?" the hermit replied that an angel of God brings him Holy Communion every Saturday. The next day, the elder said to Paphnutius that this would be the day of his departure from this world.  He knelt in prayer and quietly gave up his spirit to God. At that moment, Paphnutius saw a heavenly light as it illumined the body of the reposed saint and heard the singing of angelic hosts.

Having buried the body of Onuphrius, Paphnutius returned to his monastery and related to others the wondrous life of this man and the greatness of God's Providence which always nourishes and protects those who have completely given themselves over to the service of God. Onuphrius died in the year 400 A.D.

Perhaps it is the thought of God being able to keep a man alive for so many years in a situation where most could only live for a few days that has inspired Eastern Christians and led them to honour St. Onuphrius.  Although it is not immediately obvious, we too live in deserts for even though comforts, food, clothing and shelter abound, their very abundance often leads to starvation of that which is most essential for a happy human life: the soul and the spirit.  Without the nourishment of prayer and the sweet words of God these atrophy and people are filled with anxiety and despair which they seek in vain to dispel with more and more toys and pleasures.  And so our lives flow by.  Let us look to the strong figure of St. Onuphrius and recall where our true nourishment and health are to be found!

All saints

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