Onuphrius or Onoufrios (Greek: Ὀνούφριος), venerated as Saint Onuphrius in both the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Catholic Churches; Venerable Onuphrius in Eastern Orthodoxy and Saint Nofer the Anchorite in Oriental Orthodoxy, lived as a hermit in the desert of Upper Egypt in the 4th or 5th centuries.
Onophrius was one of the Desert Fathers who made a great 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 this time many Christians were inspired to go out into the desert and live in prayer in the harsh environment of extreme heat and cold, with little to eat and drink, surrounded by all sorts of dangerous animals and robbers.
It is uncertain in which century Onuphrius lived; the account of Paphnutius the Ascetic, who encountered him in the Egyptian desert, forms the sole source for our knowledge of the life of Saint Onuphrius. Even the authorship is uncertain; “Paphnutius”, a common name of Egyptian origin in the Upper Thebaid, may refer to Paphnutius of Scetis, a 4th-century abbot of Lower Egypt, rather than Paphnutius the Ascetic. “But Paphnutius the Great [i.e. Paphnutius the Ascetic],” Alban Butler writes, “also had a number of stories to tell of visions and miraculous happenings in the desert, some of them in much the same vein as the story of Onuphrius.”
The name Onuphrius is thought to be a Hellenized form of a Coptic name Unnufer, ultimately from the Egyptian: wnn-nfrmeaning “perfect one”, or “he who is continually good”, an epithet of the god Osiris.
According to Paphnutius’s account, Paphnutius undertook a pilgrimage to study the hermits’ way of life and to determine whether it was for him. Wandering in the desert for 16 days, on the 17th day, Paphnutius came across a wild figure covered in hair, wearing a loincloth of leaves. Frightened, Paphnutius ran away, up a mountain, 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.”
Turning back, Paphnutius talked to the wild figure, who introduced himself as Onuphrius and explained that he had once been a monk at a large monastery in the Thebaid but who had now lived as a hermit for 70 years, enduring extreme thirst, hunger, and discomforts. He said that it was his guardian angel who had brought him to this desolate place. Onuphrius took Paphnutius to his cell, and they spoke until sunset, when bread and water miraculously appeared outside of the hermit’s cell.
They spent the night in the prayer, and in the morning Paphnutius discovered that Onuphrius was near death. Paphnutius, distressed, asked the hermit if he should occupy Onuphrius’ cell after the hermit’s death, but Onuphrius told him, “That may not be, thy work is in Egypt with thy brethren.” Onuphrius asked Paphnutius for there to be a memorial with incense in Egypt in remembrance of the hermit. He then blessed the traveler and died.
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, which Paphnutius took to be a sign that he should not stay.
One scholar has written that Onuphrius’ life “fits the mold of countless desert hermits or anchorites… [However] despite its predictability, Paphnutius’ Life of Onuphrius is marked by several unique details… the years of Onuphrius’ youth were passed in a monastery that observed the rule of strict silence; a hind instructed him in Christian rites and liturgy. During his sixty years in the desert, Onuphrius’ only visitor was an angel who delivered a Host every Sunday…”
Both the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches traditionally mark his feast day on 12 June. A Life of Onuphrius of later Greek origin states that the saint died on June 11; however, his feast day was celebrated on June 12 in the Eastern Orthodox calendars from an early date.
For several decades Orthodox seminarians in Poland have begun their spiritual training in the monastery of St. Onuphrius in Jablechna. It is said that the saint 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.
There is a monastery in Jerusalem dedicated to him. The monastery is located at the far end of Gai Ben Hinnom, the Gehenna valley of hell, further it is situated within the site of a Jewish Second Temple cemetery and is built among and includes many typical burial niches common to that period. The monastery also marks the location of Hakeldama, the purported place where Judas Iscariot hanged himself.
Saint Onuphrius was venerated in Munich, Basel, and southern Germany, and the Basel humanist Sebastian Brant (who named his own son Onuphrius) published a broadside named In Praise of the Divine Onuphrius and Other Desert Hermit Saints.
His name appears very variously as Onuphrius, Onouphrius, Onofrius; and in different languages as Onofre (Portuguese, Spanish), Onofrio (Italian), etc. In Arabic, the saint was known as Abū Nufir (Arabic: ابو نفر) or as Nofer (Arabic: نوفر), which, besides being a variant of the name Onuphrius, also means “herbivore.” The English given name Humphrey has also been derived from the name of the saint, although it is usually given a Germanic etymology.