Monday, December 31, 2012

Saint Melania the younger, from Rome, and her grandmother, Saint Melania the Elder

Saint Melania of Rome, also known as Melania “the Younger” (or “Minor”) is the holy woman, one of the first nuns, who is celebrated in the last day of the calendar. She is named “of Rome” because she was born in Rome c. 383, but died in Jerusalem, in 439).Her name as “younger” discerns between her, and her paternal grandmother, Melania the Great or the Elder, also a nun and a monastery founder.

Melania the Elder

But before speaking about Saint Melania the Younger, celebrated today, please allow me to introduce in a few sentences her grandmother, a very important saint for the whole Christian asceticism.
Saint Melania the Elder or the Great (“Maior”, 325–410) was a Desert Mother with a great influence among the most famous monks from the 4th century. She was born in Spain, in a wealthy family, being married at fourteen with a man named Valerius Maximus Basilius, with whom she lived near Rome. Shortly being widow and losing also two out of their three sons,when she was only 22 years old, Melania moved with her remaining son, Valerius Publicola (the father of the future Melania the Younger), to Rome. Here she lived a pious life in a house organized almost like a monastery, but after a while she decided to go to Alexandria, in order to meet the famous ascetics from the desert. Probably she met some other fathers from the Egyptian Desert, but surely she was familiar with Abba Macarius, with St. Augustin and, St. Paulinus of Nola (her cousin or cousin-in-law), who offers in his letter a description of her visit to Nola.
After the death of Bishop Athanasius in 373 it started a persecution against the monks and many of them were exiled to Palestine, Melania went with them to aid them, visiting them in prison by night disguised in a slave's hood.After this persecution, Melania arrived in Jerusalem, where she founded a monastery on the Mount of Olives, together with Tyrannius Rufinus. Here she lived a very hard ascetic life. Among other, here she met Saint Jerome, but also Evagrius Ponticus, a monk who left Constantinople after a forbidden love affair, and who later, at Melania’s insistence, went to Egypt and lived an ascetic life in the desert of Kellia. Because of her involvement as a pro-Origenist in the controversy over Origen in the 390s, Jerome was especially acid writing about her, mocking her name and calling her "black in name and black in nature”, because Melania means in Greek, “black”.
Once more Melania went to Rome to see her son remained here, and who had married Caeionia Albina, and who had a daughter, also named Melania (the Younger). After this moment, the old nun returned to Palestine in 404 and died in 410 in Jerusalem, being regarded as a saint and celebrated on June 8.
St. Melania the Younger
Melania the Younger

Valerius Publicola, the son of Melania the Elder remained in Rome, in the care of the wealthy relatives and married later Caeionia Albina. Together they had a daughter named Melania, after her grandmother. Melania the Younger was married ratherly by force at the insistence of their parents, as the only inheritor of their wealth. Her marriage, when she was only 13 years old, with her paternal cousin, Valerius Pinianus, aged 17, was a formal one. In spite of her wish to bear an ascetic life, they had two children, a daughter and a son, who died very soon. Her own life was in danger after the second birth, and in this moment Melania and her husband swore to live further only as brother and sister. They left Rome, gave their wealth to the poor and lived further in a village like ascetics. At this time they were 24, respectively 20 years old. Anyway at the time everything they still had it was taken by force by Severianus, brother of Valerius Pinianus, because after a law they were not allowed to waste their wealth without the consent of the relatives. The empress Verena heard about such an injustice and asked Melania to come to her at the palace. After a tradition, no woman was allowed to enter the palace of the empress having her head covered, but Melania did so, showing her ascetic life. The empress admired her and their ascetic life, and gave an order to let them to do what they want with their properties. So they sold further everything, giving to the poor not only in Rome, but sending in some eastern countries.
Melania and Pinianus left Rome in 408, living a monastic life near Messina (Sicily) for two years. In 410, they traveled further to Africa, where they befriended Augustine of Hippo and devoted themselves to a life of piety and charitable works. Together they founded a convent of which Melania became superior, and cloister of which Pinianus took charge.
In 417 Melania and her husband traveled to Palestine, where they visited among others the Holy Sepulchre from Jerusalem. After a while, hearing about the ascetic life of the Desert Fathers in Egypt, Melania went to Alexandria, in order to visit some of them and to learn more about a holy life. There is a story in the famous ascetic book comprising the sayings of the Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum) in which Saint Arsenius the Roman is presented as being visited by a Roman wealthy woman, in my opinion no one else than Melania. Arsenius refused to accept her visit, but then she insisted by asking the authority of patriarch Theophilus. Finally, “when she had reached the old man's cell, by a dispensation of God, he was outside it. Seeing him, she threw herself at his feet. Outraged, he lifted her up again, and said, looking steadily at her, 'If you must see my face, here it is, look.' She was covered with shame and did not look at his face. Then the old man said to her, 'Have you not heard tell of my way of life? It ought to be respected. How dare you make such a journey? Do you not realise you are a woman and cannot go anywhere? Or is it so that on returning to Rome you can say to the other women: I have seen Arsenius? Then they will turn the sea into a thoroughfare with women coming to see me.' She said, 'May it please the Lord, I shall not let anyone come here, but pray for me and remember me always.' But he answered her, 'I pray to God to remove remembrance of you from my heart.' Overcome at hearing these words, she withdrew…” (Arsenius 28)

Melania visited also some other Fathers, but many of them refused her offerings. Anyway she came back with a curious gift from Abba Macarius the Great. After a story told independently by three different authors (Palladius, Timothy of Alexandria and the anonyme author of the Apophthegmata Patrum), Abba Macarius was once visited by a hyena who tried to convince him to come in her cave. Macarius went there, where he saw the blind offspring of the wild animal, which he cured through prayer. The second day, the hyena came to him with a wooly skin of a ram or a sheep. This skin was used as a fur in the cold winters by Melania until her death.
Melania went back to Palestine living in the hermitage of her grandmother, Melania the Elder, near the Mount of Olives. Here she was visited by her former husband and by her mother, also here, only once a week, because she decided to live as a secluded. After some time her mother, Albina, died, and soon also Pinianus (c. 420). Melania built then a cloister for men and a church, where she spent the remainder of her life.
In 436 she went to Constantinople, after receiving a letter from her uncle Volusian, who was ill and wanted to see her, and during this trip she convinced her uncle to baptize. She met here the emperess Eudokia, who later visited Jerusalem in 437 and, counseled by Melania, made some important donations for different churches in Palestine. The last years are dominated by her apostolic mission of counseling, but also curing miraculously different sick persons.
During the Feasts of the Nativity in 439, Melania knew that her death will occur soon. She participated to the Holy Liturgy of Christmas, met her close friends and gave them the last advices, dying soon, on December 31 the same year. On this day she is commemorated in both the Eastern and Western Churches. Her monastery resisted until 614, when it was destroyed by the Persians.
The Tomb of St. Melania in Jerusalem
The veneration of Saint Melania and her Relics

The life of Melania was written in Greek by a monk named Gerontius. There are some other (shorter) lives in Historia Lausiaca of Palladius and in the work of Peter the Iberian.
Today the tomb of Saint Melania is situated in the Monastery of Megale Panagia in Jerusalem. This sacred place is particular by the fact that the door to the monastery is very small. Her relics are to be found in the place where it is supposed to be her old stone cell, in fact a narrow cave. Together with the relics there are kept her chains that she wore under her cassock.

Troparion (hymn) of Saint Melania of Rome 

The image of God was truly preserved in you, O Mother,for you took up the Cross and followed Christ. By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away; but to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal. Therefore your spirit, O holy Mother Melania, rejoices with the angels!


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