Today is the feast day of Saint Onuphrius, a desert dwelling hermit saint of the fourth or fifth century. The only evidence we have that he ever existed at all, comes from another saint called Paphnutius, who claimed to have met him.
I mentioned desert dwelling saints back in January when I wrote about Saint Anthony. In the third, fourth and fifth century there were a remarkable amount of hermits living in the deserts of Egypt and Syria.
When the Romans stopped persecuting Christians and made their religion legal, martyrdom was less of an option. So devout followers needed a new way to give up their lives to God. Many chose a life of austerity and solitude. They were all terribly fond of John the Baptist, who had lived in the desert, eating locusts and wild honey, before he baptised his famous cousin. They thought, all that dwelling in the wilderness had made him very holy and they wanted to emulate him.
So, Saint Paphnutius had gone to the desert to see if the life of a hermit would be for him. He wandered for seventeen days and, during that time, he came across a man who he tried to shake by the hand, but then realised he’d been dead for ages when his arm came off. Next he met someone who claimed that an angel had come, taken out his liver, healed it, and put it back. Then, he came across a wild man on all fours. He had a long beard and his body was covered with fur. He was wearing a loincloth of leaves and he was shouting a lot. Unsurprisingly, Paphnutius tried to run away and hide, but the man called him back, telling him he was a man of God. Paphnutius returned and the wild man introduced himself as Onuphrius, a hermit and former monk. The two went to the hermit’s cell where they spent the evening together. Onuphrius told Paphnutius that he had been living in the desert for sixty years, enduring extreme thirst, hunger and discomforts. An angel had brought him to this place and given him a date palm and a magic spring (the water kind). The angel also brought him bread every Sunday. They talked a long time and, at sunset, some bread appeared for them, which they ate and then spent all night praying.
The next day Paphnutius discovered that Onuphrius was dying. Paphnutius thought it might be a sign that he was to stay in the desert and move into Onuphrius’s cell. Onuphrius said no, he must return to civilisation and tell everyone all about their meeting. The old hermit then blessed him and died. Paphnutius tried to bury his body but it was hard in a rocky desert. According to one account, he stuffed the saint’s body in a crack in the rocks and covered it with his cloak. In another, some lions helped to bury his body.
So maybe Saint Onuphrius was a real person. Or maybe he is just the sort of thing that the mind conjures up, in someone who has been wandering about in the desert for seventeen days. I’m pretty sure that such a harsh environment, with its extremes of heat and cold, combined with a lack of food and water would be bound to produce some kind of mystical experience sooner or later.
For reasons I can’t really fathom, the saint who was clad only in leaves and his own hair has become a patron saint of weavers. Oddly, hairy saints were once quite popular, Saint Onuphrius is not the only example. They fit in quite well with medieval European legends of wild men who live in the forest. Sometimes they possess a secret wisdom and if you get them drunk and tie them up, they might exchange that wisdom for their freedom. This sounds similar to the story of Silenus who is a character from Greek myth. He wasn’t at all like Onuphrius, but wild men in general seem to dwell just beyond our world. In the deserts, in the forests, in a country far away that a friend of a friend once visited. Or they live on the edges of our imagination, in myths and legends. Hairy saints probably belong with all the other wild men, giants with one eye and people who have a dog’s head instead of a human one. People like Saint Christopher, who I wrote about in my third ever post on this site last July.