Chapter II (continued), Life of St Onuphrius, Book 1a
in flight, and clambered hastily up a nearby cliff face. In trembling haste I hid myself under some thick leafy plants, breathing heavily. Age and abstinence had nearly become the death of me. The man saw me on the cliff and cried out to me in a loud voice.
"Come down from the mountainside, you man of God. Don't be afraid. I am just a frail mortal man like you."
Reassured by these words I recovered my wits and came down, and going up to the holy man, hesitantly prostrated myself at his feet.
"Get up, get up," he said. "You mustn't kneel before me. You too are a servant of God and your name is Paphnutius, beloved of the Saints."
I got up at once, and although I was very tired it was with great joy that I sat down in front of him, with a keen desire to know who he was, and what sort of a life he lived.
"God who has guided me through the desert has fulfilled by heart's desire," I said. "My limbs and joints which were almost disintegrating already begin to feel refreshed. But my mind still thirsts for enlightenment. Tell me, reverend sir, with a fervent heart I beg you, I appeal to you in the name of him for the sake of whose love you inhabit the lonely wastes of this desert, whence did you come, what is your name, how long have you been here. I beg you, tell me plainly."
He could obviously see how keenly I wanted to know about the purpose of his life, and he gave me his answer.
"I can see how earnestly you wish to know about the tribulations of my long life, beloved brother. Have no fear, I shall tell you everything, right from the beginning. I am called Onuphrius, an unworthy sinner, and I have been living my laborious life in this desert for nearly seventy years. I have the wild beasts for company, my regular food is fruit and herbs, I lay my miserable body down to sleep in mountainsides, in caves, and in valleys. Throughout all these years I have seen no one except you, and I have not been supplied with food by any human being.
"I was brought up in the monastery of Hermopolis in the Thebaid, where there were about a hundred monks. Their life was such that they lived equably with each other in will and in deed. They were of one heart and one spirit, bowing their heads under the yoke and discipline of a holy rule, unworried by the ups and downs of life in the world. What pleased one pleased all. They walked before God with holy minds, pure faith, and perfect charity. Night and day they never ceased serving him with meekness and patience. They had such a love of silence, as part of their abstinence, that no one dared say a word, except by way of asking a necessary question or giving an apposite answer. I too received there the food of holy doctrine in my youth, there I learned from the brothers the model of a regular life. I was secure in the love they had for me, and they diligently instructed me how I ought to serve the commandments of God.
"Above all I frequently heard the venerable brothers praising the life of our holy father Elias, who disciplined himself in the desert with such abstinence and prayer that the Lord found him worthy to be given exceedingly great virtues. As he was carried away in a chariot of fire, he imparted his gifts of the holy Spirit to his disciple, and in his old age he did not see death (2 Kings 2.12). Then they would go on to the example of the blessed John Baptist who shines brightly through the pages of the New Testament. Throughout a period of many years he had been called aside for a special divine purpose, disciplining his body until such time as he was counted worthy to baptise the Redeemer of the world, when he pointed up to the heavens and declared him to be the Lamb of God.
"As I listened to them talking of such things, I found I had questions to ask.
"'Why do you stand in such awe of their life and miracles, good sirs,' I asked, 'and why do you rehearse their deeds so zealously? Are you not as strong as they were, living in the desert as you do? Or are you of less account than them?'
"'My son', they replied, 'those who live without the help of any other human being are much stronger than we are. Each one of us is constantly being observed by everyone else, we all share in the celebration of the divine office, our food is ready for us at meal time, if anyone of us is ill or suffers from any other kind of human disability, the brothers are there to care for us with all kindness. We live in spacious buildings which shelter us from the summer heat and from the rain in winter. We are protected from the turbulence of wind and tempest. But the monks in the desert have no comfort except in God. If at any time they are suffering trials and tribulations, or if they begin to wage war with the devil, that ancient enemy of the human race, who is there for them? Who can help them? But when human help is lacking, divine help is always present. And if they are hungry, who will feed them? If thirsty, who will give them water where there is no food or water?
"'It is beyond all doubt that desert places demand the maximum amount of labour, for the necessities of life are not readily available. The first essential for anyone deciding to live in solitude, therefore, is to be certain of standing firmly in the fear of God. They crucify their bodies in hunger and thirst, in labour and suffering. They fight manfully against the wiles of the devil, and against the fiery darts of the wicked they conquer with the sword of the spirit. That ancient enemy, the fount of all evil, strives always to bring them to ruin and enrol them in the company of the wicked, by undermining the good will with which they set out, by ensnaring their minds in thoughts of worldly pleasures, and making them weary of persevering in the work they have begun.
"'But the Almighty God never abandons those who put their trust in him, for he surrounds them with the armour of his power, and the attacks of Satan have no power against them, for they are protected by divine mercy from on high. They are constantly under the protection of the Angels of God who habitually bring them everything they need. They drink water from the stony rock (Psalms 78.15), which, being interpreted, is Christ. For it is written: "The holy ones who trust in the Lord will be strong, they shall rise up with wings as eagles, they shall fly and shall not fall, they shall run and not be weary" (Isaiah 40.31). And again: "Those who thirst shall be refreshed by heavenly fountains, and green leaves shall melt in their mouths like honey" (cf. Exodus 16.31).
"'Whenever the devil gathers his forces against them, they arise and lift up their hands to God, faithfully pouring out their prayers before the divine majesty. Help from heaven is there for them immediately, and the crafty arrows of the enemy are straightway destroyed. Have you not understood, my son, what is written in the Psalms? "He forgets not the suffering of the poor without end; the longsuffering of the poor will not last for ever" (Psalms 9.12). And again: "The Lord will hear them in the time of trouble, and will deliver them in the narrow places" (Psalms 107.19). "Truly each one shall receive his reward according to his labour" (1 Corinthians 3.8). "Blessed is the man who is always fearful" (Proverbs 28.14), who seeks the will of God in this present life, and takes care of the weak. Rest assured, my son, that the Angels of God are always round about the righteous, and are ever enlightening their bodies and souls with power from above.'
"This was the instruction carefully given me in the monastery by the holy Fathers, and I began to picture silently the glorious bliss enjoyed in heaven, by those who for the love of God have endured great trials here on earth. My heart burned within me, my mind began to be set on spurning worldly joys completely, and seeking my heavenly father with all my might, as the psalmist says: 'It is good for me to cleave unto God and put my hope in the Lord my God' (Psalms 73.28)
As a result of carefully thinking these things over I was moved to get up quietly in the middle of the night, take some bread and enough pulse to last me for a few days, and I set off, trusting in the guidance and goodness of God to show me a place where I might live. As I went from that monastery in the mountains into the desert where I intended to remain, I suddenly saw a shining light in front of me on the way, which filled me with fear to such an extent that I thought I had better go back to the monastery whence I had come. Then suddenly I saw a man of most beautiful appearance come towards me out of that ray of shining light.
"'Fear not,' he said, 'I am your guardian Angel, whom God has assigned to you right from the beginning, to be with you by God's command and to lead you into the desert. Be perfected, walk humbly with God, labour joyfully, keep guard over your heart at all times, live uncomplainingly, persevere in good works. Rest assured I shall never leave you until such time as I shall bear you up into the presence of his Majesty most high.'
"Thus spoke the Angel, who became my companion at the beginning of my journey.
"We went on for about six or seven miles until we came to a rather insignificant looking cave. I went closer to see if there were anyone inside, and as is the custom of monks I humbly called out to ask a blessing. I suddenly saw a most holy man emerge, and I prostrated myself on the ground before him. But he stretched out his hands, lifted me up and offered me the kiss of peace.
"'Come inside, my son,' he said. 'You are my brother in the life of the desert. God grant that you remain always in his fear, and that all your doings may be pleasing in his sight.'
"I went in and stayed with him for many days, eager to know what he did, wanting to find out about his solitary life. He knew what it was I wanted to know, and in words of most loving kindness gave me some wonderful advice about how to counter the snares of the devil.
"'Arise, my son,' he urged me, after I had spent some days with him. 'Depart from me now. It is time for you to go into the inner desert, and there dwell alone in some other cave. Fight bravely, and you will overcome all the temptations of the devil. It is God's will that you be tested in this desert, to see whether you can fulfil all his commandments. "For his commandments are faithful and will endure for ever, grounded in truth and justice." (Psalms 111.7-8)'
"Having said this, the holy man arose and came with me, and travelled with me for four days into the inner desert. On the fifth day we came to a place in Calidiomea where there were some palm trees.
"'See, brother,' said the man of God, 'here is the place which God has prepared for you.'
"And he stayed with me for a further thirty days, teaching me how to serve the teachings of God's commandments with watchful diligence. At last he commended me to God in his holy prayers, and went back to his own place. He continued to visit me once a year, and never ceased to admonish me with his godly words about how to live in simplicity and diligence.
"There came a time when he visited me as usual and fell down to the ground as he greeted me. He had given up his soul to the Lord and had fallen asleep. I was overcome with grief, and flung myself down, weeping floods of tears which rose up from within me. And then I took up his body and committed it to the earth of Calidiomea."
"Holy Father," I said, in reply to all that the most holy Onuphrius had said to me, "I sense that you must have persevered through some rather difficult adversities in this desert in the name of Christ."
"Believe me, beloved brother," the holy man replied, "I have endured such things in this desert that I have often thought I was very near death. There have been so many times in my life when hope has failed me and I have scarcely had any breath left in my body. Scorched by day in the heat and burning fire of the sun, exposed to dew and hoar frost by night, fainting from hunger and thirst - O how many such things have I suffered! I cannot tell you how many wounds and hard knocks must be suffered by anyone who is willing to die for the love of God, nor would it be right to do so. But the Lord rewards the labours of his Saints (Wisdom 10.17), for his riches are beyond telling, nor can they be diminished. Through all the manifold pains and torments that I have suffered, cold and heat, hunger and thirst, his power has strengthened me with the heavenly riches of the company of Angels. By spurning food for the body I have been found worthy to receive the bread of heaven. My holy Angel has daily brought me bread, and water in due measure, to refresh my body lest it faint, that I might continue in the praise of God.
"The palm trees have this property that the dates ripen twelve times a year. I picked them daily and ate them together with green herbs, and they were in my mouth as the honey and the honeycomb. In the Gospel it is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God' (Matthew 4.4). Brother Paphnutius, if you wish to fulfil the will of God, everything necessary is ready for you. For the Truth himself counsels you, 'Take no thought for what you shall eat, or what you shall drink, or what you shall wear, for your heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things. Wherefore seek first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you'" (Matthew 6 31-33).
I was lost in admiration for what this blessed man Onuphrius was telling me about his deeds and labours.
"Tell me, good Father," I asked, "do you receive Communion from anyone on the Sabbath, or Day of the Lord?"
"I find every Sabbath or Day of the Lord that the Angel of the Lord has prepared the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring me. With his own hand he gives me these precious gifts, for the everlasting salvation of my life. Indeed all the monks who lead a spiritual life in the desert share in this joy. If perchance any holy hermit living in solitude has a desire to see another human being he is carried up hence by an Angel into heaven where he can contemplate the vision of the souls of the righteous, shining like the sun in the kingdom of the Father. There, in the company of Angels, they see their own souls joined together with the souls of the blessed. And all who struggle in the battle with their whole mind, their whole heart and all their strength abound in good works in order that they may be found worthy to share in the glory of that heavenly country with Christ and all his Saints."
As I listened to all these things that the venerable Onuphrius was telling me at the top of his little mountain where he met me, I was filled with such great joy that every hardship which I had suffered on my journey was banished into oblivion.
"Father," I said, "I count myself to be numbered among the blessed for having been found worthy to meet you, and to hear of all your wonderful works. What you have told me is so beautiful, so honey-sweet, and my heart is so pierced to the core, that I can truly say with the Psalmist, 'How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey and the honeycomb in my mouth.'" (Psalms 119.103).
"Come with me, my son," he said. "Come and see where I live. No more words for the moment."
He got up immediately, moved away, and I followed him. He led me on for about three miles until we arrived at his spiritual home in Calidiomea, a pleasing spot among the palm trees. We first poured out prayers to God, then sat and conversed together on spiritual themes. At the precise moment of sunset I noticed some bread and a little water. The man of God could see how wearied I was.
"Come now, my son," he said, "I can see that you are almost about to faint unless you take some food. So come and eat."
"As the Lord liveth, (1 Kings 17.12) and as the Lord my God is blessed in whose sight we live," I said, "I will neither eat nor drink unless we both eat together in perfect charity."
I was only just able to persuade him to do as I asked. But when he saw I was serious he broke the bread and shared it with me, and we ate and were satisfied; in fact there were some fragments left over from our meal. We passed almost the whole night without sleep as we offered up divine praise.
After we had observed the hours of prayer next morning, I noticed that he had gone very pale.
"Is there something the matter with you?" I asked.
"Don't be over alarmed, brother Paphnutius," he said, "but I think that the omnipotent God has directed your footsteps into this desert that you may give me an honourable burial, and commit my body to the earth. For this is the hour when my soul is to be released from its earthly chains and carried away to its creator in the kingdom of heaven. I know what you intend to do, my beloved brother, so when you go back to Egypt, tell all your brothers and all the worshippers of Christ about me. I have made a request to God which he has granted me: If anyone offers the holy sacrifice for the love of my name in the sight of our Lord Jesus Christ and gives himself wholly to the praise of God, he will be able to resist all the temptations of the devil and will be freed from all the chains of human wickedness, and will be able to enjoy the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven with the holy Angels for ever.
"And anyone who is not authorised to make the offering or who cannot afford to pay for it, let him give an alms to the poor in the name of the Lord and in his honour, and I will pray for him in the sight of God that he may be found worthy to enjoy the life above in the heavenly realms.
"If there is anyone who cannot offer the sacrifice or give alms, let him offer sweet smelling incense to the Lord our God for love of me, and I will ask that he enjoy perpetual bliss."
"Do not be angry with me, Father," I said, "if I ask you what if there is someone who has no incense, and no money to offer to God. How should he call upon you so that he will not suffer from the lack of your blessing?"
"If there is any poor person in the desert or in any other place who cannot offer the sacrifice, or give alms or incense, let him arise and stretch out his hands before the Lord and say the Paternoster, the Lord's prayer, three times, keeping me firmly in his mind, and let him sing a psalm in the name of the holy Trinity. And I will truly pray for him to the Lord that he may be found worthy to partake in the life of heaven with all the Saints of God."
I had a further request to make to him.
"If you think I am worthy, and if you could find it in your heart to make me a gift, let me have this place to live in after your death."
"No, that cannot be granted you," he said. "God did not guide your journey through this desert in order for you to find a place to live in, but that you should enjoy the company of the righteous in the desert, and then take pains to tell the world about what you have learnt in the desert. Go back to Egypt. Live there for the rest of your life. Be perfect in good works, and you will enjoy the crown of perpetual glory."
In response to what the man of God was saying I fell down at his feet.
"Beloved Father," I said, "I know that whatever you ask of God, the Lord will grant you because of the immense labour of the long struggle that you have endured by disciplining your body for seventy years in the name of the Lord. Grant me the gift of your holy blessing, that I may be like you in virtue, and that my spirit may always be guided by your intercessions, and that I may be found worthy to share with you in the life to come."
"Paphnutius," he replied, "do not worry. The Lord will grant that your desire will stand firm. Stand in faith, act manfully (1 Corinthians 16.13), keep your eyes and your mind always on God, keep the commandments, do not be weary in well-doing, grasp hold of eternal life. May the Angels of God protect you and keep you from every working of wickedness, that you may be found pure and spotless before God in the day of judgment."
Weeping, he prayed to the Lord, bent his knees and said, "Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit."
As he said this, a brilliant light surrounded him, and his holy soul left his body in a flash of blinding light. [Probable date, c.400, according to Butler, Lives of the Saints, 6th Edition, A & C Black (Publishers) Ltd. 1989]
And I suddenly heard the voice of a multitude of Angels praising God as the most holy soul of Saint Onuphrius departed, and that angelic song resounded with ineffable joy among all the stars of the universe, while the heavenly armies carried the soul of this distinguished warrior up to heaven. I wept profusely, I groaned inwardly, rivers of tears flowed down, I beat my breast over and over again. I complained in sadness that hardly had I met him than I was no longer able to enjoy his company.
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