A Tale of Saint Onuphrius

By Eric N. Peterson

Onuphria was a pious young woman who lived with her family in the village.Despite her youth, she was already well known for the quality of her weaving.She was also known for her tremendous beauty. Many a suitor came toOnuphria’s family home, but her parents wanted for her only the best–someonewith money. One day, a wealthy merchant came to ask for Onuphria’s hand.Savvy, though foolish and burning with lust for her, the merchant saw at oncethat the prize was his for the asking. And, indeed, Onuphria’s parentsconsented to the marriage almost immediately. The betrothal ceremony was totake place the next day. Determined not to fall into the hands of one sorough, Onuphria meditated and prayed all night. She turned the hand of God toher face and made upon it a long beard. At church the next day, no onesuspected anything until Onuphria drew back her veil. The merchant wasrevolted and stormed out. Onuphria’s parents accused her of commerce with thedevil. Outraged, they ordered her away.

Guided by the Deity, Onuphria ran away into the forest and entered a cave.She removed her maiden’s clothing and burned them. For twelve years, Onuphrialived simply in the cave. She ate little, prayed and meditated, and listenedonly to the voice of God. Her hair and beard grew very long, disguising herfemale form. During this time seekers of wisdom began to speak of a wise oldhermit in the woods, a saint. Word of this holy one spread.

One day, a young man came to the mouth of the cave seeking spiritualguidance. He, too, was a renunciant.

“Holy and wise old man, how shall I call you?”

“Call me Onuphrius. You may come in.”

The young man entered the cave.

“Onuphrius, though I am still quite young, I have abstained from sensuouspleasures for many years. I pray at every hour. And I have never looked uponthe form of a woman. Tell me what else I may do in order that I may become asGod wishes me to be?”

Onuphrius, a kindly saint, chuckled. “Had you never looked upon a woman’sform, you would not be standing here. Nevertheless, you speak a kind of truthand your heart is pure. I shall instruct you as you ask.”

Onuphrius proposed an initiatory test of the young man’s purity. He toldthe seeker that he would, that very night, send him a woman in his dreams tosee how he would react. The young man respected the wisdom of the saint.

That night, Onuphrius drew upon his holy powers to restore his formerappearance. Then, by the gentle force of his attention, he awoke the youngman who slept on the floor of the cave. Awestuck and overcome by the beautyof the maiden before him, the seeker ejaculated. Onuphrius immediately sentthe man to sleep again and restored his own prodigious beard. The nextmorning, the seeker awoke and remembered what had happened. Distraught, hecast his soiled loincloth into the fire, bathed himself in icy waters, anddetermined thenceforth to wear only thorns and nettles against his privateparts.

“Shall I take myself away from you, then? I fear I am unworthy to remainin your sight.”

Onuphrius laughed softly and shook his head. “So you lack the mastery youthought you had. Learning this is a good thing. Do not despair, my son. Waitand see what God has in mind. Thanks to your humility, redemption is surelyat hand. Last night, God showed me a vision. I saw the hand of God come downand remove the blight from a field. This means that God will soon heal thecause of your present sorrow.

The young man, though still disturbed at heart, was comforted. Onuphriusand the young man spent the day in prayer and meditation.

That night, while the young man slept on the cave floor, Onuphrius againused his magic powers, this time changing the young man into a woman. Thenext morning, the young woman, still thinking she was a young man, wept indespair.

“I knew it! God has cursed me for my sin.”

Onuphrius smiled kindly and said: “So, though you made a fool of yourselfonly yesterday, today you claim to know the mind of God? Do you not remembermy vision? God has taken away what caused you sorrow. Everything has happenedas I said.”

The young woman remembered and was struck with awe. Onuphrius and therenunciant spent the day in prayer and mediation.

On the third day, as they sat together in the cave, Saint Onuphrius saidto the young woman, I will show you a dream of renunciation.

Onuphrius caused the woman to fall asleep and to dream that she was backin the village. She married there and had a son. Years passed. One day thewoman’s son fell ill and died. A bearded sage was said to be passing throughthe town. The desperate young woman carried her son’s corpse to the sage andbegged him to help her.

The sage said: “Not even I can raise the dead. But it doesn’t matter.Don’t you remember that I told you that I would send you to sleep, and makeyou dream? This is your dream.” The young woman remembered and stoppedcrying. She left the sage and gave her son a proper burial. Whereupon sheawoke inside the cave.

“Now,” said Onuphrius, “I have one final vision to show you”. Onuphriuslifted his beard and revealed his breasts. “Do you understand?” he asked.

“Yes,” replied the renunciant. And she went back into the village, found awise and worthy husband, and raised many children.

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