June 12, 2015

Saint Onouphrios as a Model for our Lives

St. Onouphrios (Feast Day - June 12)

By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas

Saint Onouphrios is one of the greatest ascetics of the Orthodox Church. He came from Persia and lived as an ascetic in one of the Egyptian deserts. At a young age he settled in a Cenobitic Monastery, where he lived for many years in asceticism and obedience. With the blessing of his Elder he later retired to the desert. There he met the hermit Hermias who, by divine revelation, was waiting for him and led him to a hut under a huge palm tree where there was a source of pure water. There in the silence he gave himself over to greater spiritual exercises and prayed without ceasing for the entire inhabited world. Through the grace of asceticism he purified his soul of the passions and reached illumination and theosis. The uncreated Grace of God flooded his entire being, soul and body, which is why his relic after his venerable repose gave off a sweet fragrance.

"Whoever has the Grace of the Holy Spirit in their soul and body, has perfect love. And whoever preserves this Grace, their relic will become sanctified, just as with the holy martyrs, the prophets and the other great saints" (St. Silouan the Athonite).

Venerable Onouphrios was once visited by Abba Paphnutios. The two hermits enjoyed each others presence, they exchanged experiences and were strengthened spiritually. But God set this meeting in order for it to coincide with the time of the repose of Venerable Onouphrios, and so Abba Paphnutios buried his body under the big palm tree, and "his soul rejoices in the heavens with all the saints."

The life and conduct of the venerable Onouphrios gives us the opportunity to highlight the following:

First, usually when someone hears about ascetics and asceticism the mind goes to monastics and especially hermits, and for this reason it must be stressed that the ascetic way of life taught by the Orthodox Church is the same for all believers. Asceticism is the struggle of a person to live according to the will of God, it is the effort to transform the passions and acquire existential communion with God. It is also called the practical life, or praxis, and results in the vision of God, or theoria. This means that for someone to achieve theoria, which is existential communion with God, they must be purified of their passions. When this takes place, then the Grace of the Holy Spirit dwells in a person, and through this Grace they come to a knowledge of God, thus acquiring perfect love that has no fear of death, because they defeat death and exceed the limits of their personal life. In turn, they consider all earthly and transient things, namely money, estates, pleasure, fame, etc. "as rubbish". Saint Silouan the Athonite, who tasted the sweetness of heaven, knowing God existentially "in the Holy Spirit," would say "my soul is weary on earth."

Second, the saints are to human societies what an oasis is to the desert. Those who have gone to a desert even for a moment can understand this better. The strong desert sun causes fatigue, sweating, thirst and paralysis of the psychosomatic powers. And in this situation, just to see an oasis, with the shadows of its trees and its cool water, causes relaxation and joy. Something similar happens with the saints, who are a spiritual oasis in the heat of temptations, doubts, insecurities and anxieties in the desert of personless human societies, where one looks for real people with the lamp of Diogenes. One feels strengthened, relieved, consoled, spiritually renewed and refreshed from the gurgling water of the words of the saints, which are not pious thoughts and reflections from a strong mind, but the results of spiritual experiences of a heart flooded with the uncreated Grace of the Holy Spirit and of selfless love.

But the human heart becomes a desert when it loses divine Grace. Those who have tasted the sweetness of divine Grace, even a little, and then happened to lose it, seek for it as a mother does her lost child in a crowd, shouting and running and seeking with tears and pain. And when she finds it she is happy and rejoices, tightly embracing it and careful not to lose it again. Something similar happens with those who tasted divine Grace and for some reason lost it. They feel their heart deserted and empty, and they cry and scream and pray unceasingly. And after a long struggle, with agony, searching, suffering and crying, they find it, and they are happy and rejoice and cry out with the Prophet Isaiah: "The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom" (Is. 35:1).

When referring to the lament of Adam after the disobedience and loss of Paradise, Saint Silouan the Athonite is essentially describing his own lament over the loss of the Grace of God, and for several years sought it again with pain and tears. And he teaches, from his experience, that the surest way to find and preserve divine Grace is that of humility.

The ascetic struggle is essentially the "tight and narrow path," but it gives sweetness and meaning to our existence. It also supplies the spiritual organism with strong antibodies, to be able to withstand difficulties, to repel the bitterness of sorrows, and to experience sweet joyful-sorrow.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Ὅσιος Ὀνούφριος", June 2006. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.