Here is the image portion of a Russian icon:


The inscription tells us this fellow is СТ АНОФРИИ ВЕЛИКИЙ.  I hope you know by now that СТ abbreviates Svyatuiy, meaning “Holy,” which is the Slavic term for a male saint.  The second word in the title is a little off in its spelling.  The writer wrote it as he pronounced it, but it should be written ОНУФРИЙ — Onufriy.  He is the saint the Greeks call Onouphrios (Ὀνούφριος).

The third word in the title inscription is ВЕЛИКИЙ — Velikiy — meaning “[the] Great.”  So this icon depicts “Holy Onouphrios the Great” if we use the Greek form of the name.  In Latin form it is Onuphrius.

As with many Eastern Orthodox saints, there is much uncertainty regarding Onufriy and his authenticity.  He supposedly lived in the 4th century, but that date is uncertain.  As Holweck says, the account of his life is a “medieval romance,” and it is not sure that he ever actually existed.  Someone supposedly named Paphnutios wrote the account of him, but no one is quite certain which Paphnutios this was.

The story is that Paphnutios went out into the desert to look for hermits, wanting to see if others led a more holy life than he.  After four days he came across a dead ascetic in a cave, and buried him.  Several days later he came across another cave, and a living ascetic named Timotheos, who had been in the desert 30 years.  After meeting him, Paphnutios paused at a monastery for rest, then continued his search.  After wandering again for some 17 days he came to some hills, and saw a strange figure approaching him, an ascetic with a long beard, dressed only in leaves.  The sight so frightened Paphnutios that he ran away and up a hill, but the ascetic called him back and explained that he was a hermit who formerly had been a monk in a monastery, and that he had lived alone in the desert for some 60 years.  He dwelt in a cave, living on the dates from a nearby palm, and drank water from a spring.  Onufriy regularly received the Eucharist from an angel, who conveniently showed up each Saturday and Sunday.

After a supper of bread and water that appeared miraculously in the cave at sunset, Paphnutios learned that Onufriy was about to die.  The old man said that God had brought Paphnutios to him just at that time in order to bury him.   Onufriy blessed him, and died.  After his  death Paphnutios covered Onufriy in fabric torn from his clothing, and because the ground was too hard to dig, placed his body in a gap among the rocks.

As soon as this “burial” was accomplished, the cave in which Onufriy had lived collapsed, the date palm withered, and the spring dried up.

This unconvincing tale is rather typical of hagiographic accounts of desert ascetics, but at least the names of Onufriy and Paphnutios appear to be based on actual Egyptian names.

It may seem strange to us that Eastern Orthodox believers depicted and prayed to so many saints who either never existed at all or whose lives were so heavily fictionalized that little or nothing that is certain can be said about them, but before the 20th century what the Church taught in Russia was generally just accepted without question.  The odd thing is that even now in the 21st century, when literacy is widespread and so much more is known, many still do not bother to question or investigate the long list of Eastern Orthodox saints.

Onufriy/Onouphrios/Onuphrius is considered a patron of those in captivity.  The now seldom-used English name Humphrey is a later form of Onuphrios, and his veneration was found also in the Catholic West, where he was a patron saint of weavers.


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