Venerable Onuphrius the Great; Venerable Peter of Mt. Athos

Saint Paphnutius, who led an ascetical life in the Thebaid desert in Egypt, has left us an account of Saint Onuphrius the Great and the Lives of other fourth century hermits: Timothy the Desert Dweller, the abbas Andrew, Charalampus, Theophilus, and others.

It occurred to Saint Paphnutius to go to the inner desert in order to see if there were a monk who labored for the Lord more than he did. He took a little bread and water and went into the most remote part of the desert. After four days he reached a cave and found in it the body of an Elder who had been dead for several years.

Having buried the hermit, Saint Paphnutius went on farther. After several more days he found another cave, and from the marks in the sand he realized that the cave was inhabited. At sundown he saw a herd of buffalo and walking among them a man. This man was naked, but was covered with long hair as if with clothing. This was Abba Timothy the Desert-Dweller.

Seeing a fellow man, Abba Timothy thought that he was seeing an apparition, and he began to pray. Saint Paphnutius finally convinced the hermit that he was actually a living man and a fellow Christian.

Abba Timothy prepared food and water for him. He related that he had been living in the desert for thirty years, and that Saint Paphnutius was the first man he had seen. In his youth, Timothy had lived in a cenobitic monastery, but he wanted to live alone.

Abba Timothy left his monastery and went to live near a city, sustaining himself by the work of his own hands (he was a weaver). Once a woman came to him with an order and he fell into sin with her. Having come to his senses, the fallen monk went far into the desert, where he patiently endured tribulation and sickness. When he was at the point of dying from hunger, he received healing in a miraculous manner.

From that time Abba Timothy had lived peacefully in complete solitude, eating dates from the trees, and quenching his thirst with water from a spring. Saint Paphnutius besought the Elder that he might remain with him in the wilderness. But he was told that he would be unable to bear the demonic temptations which beset desert-dwellers. Instead, he supplied him with dates and water, and blessed him to go on his way.

Having rested at a desert monastery, Saint Paphnutius undertook a second journey into the innermost desert, hoping to find another holy ascetic who would profit his soul. He went on for seventeen days, until his supply of bread and water was exhausted. Saint Paphnutius collapsed twice from weakness, and an angel strengthened him.

On the seventeenth day Saint Paphnutius reached a hilly place and sat down to rest. Here he caught sight of a man approaching him, who was covered from head to foot with white hair and girded his loins with leaves of desert plants. The sight of the Elder frightened Abba Paphnutius, and he jumped up and fled up the hill. The Elder sat down at the foot of the hill. Lifting his head, he saw Saint Paphnutius, and called him to come down. This was the great desert-dweller, Abba Onuphrius. At the request of Saint Paphnutius, he told him about himself.

Saint Onuphrius had lived in complete isolation in the wilds of the wilderness for sixty years. In his youth he had been raised at the Eratus monastery near the city of Hermopolis. Having learned from the holy Fathers about the hardships and lofty life of the desert-dwellers, to whom the Lord sent help through His angels, Saint Onuphrius longed to imitate their exploits. He secretly left the monastery one night and saw a brilliant ray of light before him. Saint Onuphrius became frightened and decided to go back, but the voice of his Guardian Angel told him to go into the desert to serve the Lord.

After walking six or seven miles, he saw a cave. At that moment the ray of light vanished. In the cave was an old man. Saint Onuphrius stayed with him to learn of his manner of life and his struggle with demonic temptations. When the Elder was convinced that Saint Onuphrius had been enlightened somewhat, he then led him to another cave and left him there alone to struggle for the Lord. The Elder visited him once a year, until he fell asleep in the Lord.

At the request of Saint Paphnutius, Abba Onuphrius told him of his labors and ascetic feats, and of how the Lord had cared for him. Near the cave where he lived was a date-palm tree and a spring of pure water issued forth. Twelve different branches of the palm tree bore fruit each month in succession, and so the monk endured neither hunger nor thirst. The shade of the palm tree sheltered him from the noonday heat. An angel brought Holy Communion to the saint each Saturday and Sunday, and to the other desert-dwellers as well.

The monks conversed until evening, when Abba Paphnutius noticed a loaf of white bread lying between them, and also a vessel of water. After eating, he Elders spent the night in prayer. After the singing of the morning hymns, Saint Paphnutius saw that the face of the venerable Onuphrius had become transformed, and that frightened him. Saint Onuphrius said, “God, Who is Merciful to all, has sent you to me so that you might bury my body. Today I shall finish my earthly course and depart to my Christ, to live forever in eternal rest.” Saint Onuphrius then asked Abba Paphnutius to remember him to all the brethren, and to all Christians.

Saint Paphnutius wanted to remain there after the death of Abba Onuphrius. However, the holy ascetic told him that it was not God’s will for him to stay there, he was to return to his own monastery instead and tell everyone about the virtuous lives of the desert-dwellers. Having then blessed Abba Paphnutius and bid him farewell, Saint Onuphrius prayed with tears and sighs, and then he lay down upon the earth, uttering his final words, “Into Thy hands, my God, I commend my spirit,” and died.

Saint Paphnutius wept and tore off a portion of his garment, and with it covered the body of the great ascetic. He placed it in the crevice of a large rock, which was hollow like a grave, and covered it over with a multitude of small stones. Then he began to pray that the Lord would permit him to remain in that place until the end of his life. Suddenly, the cave fell in, the palm tree withered, and the spring of water dried up. Realising that he had not been given a blessing to remain, Saint Paphnutius set out on his return journey.

After four days Abba Paphnutius reached a cave, where he met an ascetic, who had lived in the desert for more than 60 years. Except for the two other Elders, with whom he labored, this monk had seen no one in all that time. Each week these three had gone on their solitary paths into the wilderness, and on Saturday and Sunday they gathered for psalmody, and ate the bread which an angel brought them. Since it was Saturday, they had gathered together. After eating the bread provided by the angel, they spent the whole night at prayer. As he was leaving, Saint Paphnutius asked the names of the Elders, but they said, “God, Who knows everything, also knows our names. Remember us, that we may see one another in God’s heavenly habitations.”

Continuing on his way, Saint Paphnutius came upon an oasis which impressed him with its beauty and abundance of fruit-bearing trees. Four youths inhabiting this place came to him from out of the wilderness. The youths told Abba Paphnutius that in their childhood they had lived in the city of Oxyrhynchus (Upper Thebaid) and they had studied together. They had burned with the desire to devote their lives to God. Making their plans to go off into the desert, the young men left the city and after several days’ journey, they reached this place.

A man radiant with heavenly glory met them and led them to a desert Elder. “We have lived here six years already,” said the youths. “Our Elder dwelt here one year and then he died. Now we live here alone, we eat the fruit of the trees, and we have water from a spring.” The youths gave him their names, they were Saints John, Andrew, Heraklemon and Theophilus (Dec. 2).

The youths struggled separately the whole week long, but on Saturday and Sunday they gathered at the oasis and offered up common prayer. On these days an angel would appear and commune them with the Holy Mysteries. This time however, for Abba Paphnutius’ sake, they did not go off into the desert, but spent the whole week together at prayer. On the following Saturday and Sunday Saint Paphnutius together with the youths was granted to receive the Holy Mysteries from the hands of the angel and to hear these words, “Receive the Imperishable Food, unending bliss and life eternal, the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, our God.”

Saint Paphnutius made bold to ask the angel for permission to remain in the desert to the end of his days. The angel replied that God had decreed another path for him. He was to return to Egypt and tell the Christians of the life of the desert-dwellers.

Having bid farewell to the youths, Saint Paphnutius reached the edge of the wilderness after a three day journey. Here he found a small skete, and the brethren received him with love. Abba Paphnutius related everything that he had learned about the holy Fathers whom he had encountered in the desert. The brethren wrote a detailed account of what Saint Paphnutius said, and deposited it in the church, where all who wished to do so could read it. Saint Paphnutius gave thanks to God, Who had granted him to learn about the exalted lives of the hermits of the Thebaid, and he returned to his own monastery.

Saint Peter of Athos, a Greek by birth, served as a soldier in the imperial armies and he lived at Constantinople. In the year 667, during a war with the Syrians, Saint Peter was taken captive and locked up in a fortress in the city of Samara on the Euphrates River.

For a long time he languished in prison and he pondered over which of his sins had brought God’s chastisement upon him. Saint Peter remembered that once he had intended to leave the world and go to a monastery, but he had not done so. He began to observe a strict fast in the prison and to pray fervently, and he besought Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker to intercede before God for him.

Saint Nicholas appeared in a dream to Peter and advised him to call upon Saint Simeon the God-Receiver (Feb. 3) for help. Saint Nicholas appeared to him once more in a dream, encouraging the prisoner in patience and hope. The third time that he appeared it was not in a dream, but with Saint Simeon the God-Receiver. Saint Simeon touched his staff to the chains binding Saint Peter, and the chains melted away like wax. The doors of the prison opened, and Saint Peter was free.

Saint Simeon the God-Receiver became invisible, but Saint Nicholas conveyed Saint Peter to the borders of the Greek territory. Reminding him of his vow, Saint Nicholas became invisible. Saint Peter then journeyed to Rome to receive monastic tonsure at the tomb of the Apostle Peter. Even here Saint Nicholas did not leave him without his help. He appeared in a dream to the Pope of Rome and informed him of the circumstances of Saint Peter’s liberation from captivity, and he commanded the Pope to tonsure the former prisoner into monasticism.

On the following day, in the midst of a throng of the people who had gathered for divine services, the Pope loudly exclaimed, “Peter, you who are from the Greek lands, and whom Saint Nicholas has freed from prison in Samara, come here to me.” Saint Peter stood in front of the Pope, who tonsured him into monasticism at the tomb of the Apostle Peter. The Pope taught Saint Peter the rules of monastic life and kept the monk by him. Then with a blessing, he sent Saint Peter to where God had appointed him to journey.

Saint Peter boarded a ship sailing to the East. The shipowners, after going ashore, besought Saint Peter to come and pray at a certain house, where the owner and all the household lay sick. Saint Peter healed them through his prayer.

The Most Holy Theotokos appeared in a dream to Saint Peter and indicated the place where he should live til the very end of his days: Mount Athos. When the ship arrived at Athos, it then halted of its own accord. Saint Peter realized that this was the place he was meant to go, and so he went ashore. This was in the year 681. Peter then dwelt in the desolate places of the Holy Mountain, not seeing another person for fifty-three years. His clothing had become tattered, but his hair and beard had grown out and covered his body in place of clothes.

At first Saint Peter was repeatedly subjected to demonic assaults. Trying to force the saint to abandon his cave, the demons sometimes took on the form of armed soldiers, and at other times of fierce beasts and vipers that seemed ready to tear the hermit apart. Saint Peter overcame the demonic attacks through fervent prayer to God and His Holy Mother. Then the enemy resorted to trickery. Appearing under the guise of a lad sent to him from his native home, he besought the monk with tears to leave the wilderness and return to his own home. The saint wept, but without hesitation he answered, “Here have the Lord and the Most Holy Theotokos led me. I will not leave here without Her permission.” Hearing the Name of the Mother of God, the demon vanished.

After seven years the devil came to Saint Peter in the guise of a radiant angel and said that God was commanding him to go into the world for the enlightenment and salvation of people in need of his guidance. The experienced ascetic again replied that without the permission of the Mother of God he would not forsake the wilderness. The devil disappeared and did not bother to come near the saint anymore. The Mother of God appeared to Saint Peter in a dream with Saint Nicholas and told the brave hermit that after he had fasted for forty days, an angel would bring him heavenly manna. Saint Peter fasted, and on the fortieth day he fortified himself with the heavenly manna, receiving the strength for another forty-day fast.

Once, a hunter chasing after a stag saw the naked man, covered with hair and girded about the loins with leaves. He was afraid and was about to flee, but Saint Peter stopped him and told him of his life. The hunter asked to remain with him, but the saint sent him home. Saint Peter gave the hunter a year for self-examination and forbade him to tell anyone about meeting him.

A year later the hunter returned with his brother, who was afflicted with a demon, and several other companions. When they entered the Saint Peter’s cave, they saw that he had already reposed. The hunter, with bitter tears, told his companions of the life of Saint Peter. His brother, after merely touching the saint’s body, received healing. Saint Peter died in the year 734. His holy relics were on Athos at the monastery of Saint Clement. During the Iconoclast period the relics were hidden away, and in the year 969 they were transferred to the Thracian village of Photokami.

Saint Peter once saw the Mother of God in a vision, and she spoke of Her earthly domain, Mount Athos: “I have chosen this mountain… and have received it from My Son and God as an inheritance, for those who wish to forsake worldly cares and strife…. Exceedingly do I love this place. I will aid those who come to dwell here and who labor for God… and keep His commandments…. I will lighten their afflictions and labors, and shall be an invincible ally for the monks, invisibly guiding and guarding them….”

Generations of Orthodox monks can attest to the truth of these words. The Mother of God is regarded as the Abbess of the Holy Mountain, not just in name, but in actual fact. For this reason, Mt. Athos is known as the “Garden of the Theotokos.”

Translated into English by oca.org.

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