For too long Southerners viewed Africans as inferior to Europeans. While things have changed dramatically in this regard over the last few decades, there are no doubt still pockets where racial smugness is the rule rather than the exception.
But when one studies the history of the Church, what does he find? An Africa of debased wretches, contributing nothing to the Body of Christ? On the contrary, before the Muslim conquest, extraordinary saints - martyrs, wonderworkers, theologians, monastics, etc. - were raised up on that continent. Many modern Christians (whether in the South or elsewhere) have no conception of the holy life some of these African saints were able to attain to. The struggles and trials they endured to obtain godliness, to acquire the Blessed Holy Spirit in greater and greater measure, are so foreign to us they sound like fable, but this is only because our own faith in and love for God has grown so cold: We value worldy comfort rather than the hardship needed to purify our bodies and souls for closer communion with the Most Holy Trinity.
Wherefore, let the lives of the African saints of old be a light to us in the South today. There is no better cure for racial arrogance than to acknowledge the holiness of these African saints and implore them, 'Holy Saints of Africa, pray to God for us sinners in the South!'
The life of St Onuphrius is but one example from Africa's exalted past. Below one may find a recounting of his life. For other examples of godly desert dwellers in Africa, be sure to read the whole article from which this excerpt was taken.
Africans are as much an integral part of the South as the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains; Africa's inheritance is thus also a part of the larger tradition of the South. May the South fully recover and humbly accept the priceless treasures of African Christianity and make herself beautiful in them.
The Life of St Onuphrius
'Having rested at a desert monastery, St 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. St Paphnutius collapsed twice from weakness, and an angel strengthened him.
'On the seventeenth day St 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 St Paphnutius, and called him to come down. This was the great desert-dweller, Abba Onuphrius. At the request of St Paphnutius, he told him about himself.
'St 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, St Onuphrius longed to imitate their exploits. He secretly left the monastery one night and saw a brilliant ray of light before him. St 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. St Onuphrius stayed with him to learn of his manner of life and his struggle with demonic temptations. When the Elder was convinced that St 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 St 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, St Paphnutius saw that the face of the venerable Onuphrius had become transformed, and that frightened him. St 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.” St Onuphrius then asked Abba Paphnutius to remember him to all the brethren, and to all Christians.
'St 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, St 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.
'St 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, St Paphnutius set out on his return journey.'
In the flesh you lived the life of the angels, / You were citizens of the desert and treasuries of grace, / O Onuphrius, adornment of Egypt, / And Peter the light of Athos. / Therefore we honor your struggles as we sing to you: / Glory to him who has strengthened you! / Glory to him who granted you a crown! / Glory to him who through you grants healing to all!
You appeared as a bright star to the hermits of the desert, / A light shining in the darkness of solitude, O holy Father Onuphrius, / Therefore ceaselessly intercede for us all.
By your achievements in the wilderness you became like the Bodiless Powers, / Godly Onuphrius, and righteous Peter adornment of Athos. / The heavenly-minded pair who sing in one voice: “Alleluia”!