THE THIRTY-FIRST DAY
OF THE MONTH OF DECEMBER
The Life of our Holy Mother the Nun
Melania the Roman
From The Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints, Volume 4: December,
compiled by St. Demetrius of Rostov
Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, and if the root be holy, so are the branches. Not surprisingly, then, the excellent fruit of sanctity and admirable sprouting of piety, the venerable Melania, was the child of devout Christian parents. She was granddaughter to Saint Melania the Elder, who visited many holy fathers on Mount Nitria in Egypt. The elder Melania provided for the saints out of her own resources, and for thirty-seven years also supplied the needs of pilgrims in Jerusalem, equaling Abraham in generosity. Oh, to how many strangers from east and west, north and south, did she offer hospitality! She was the benefactress of churches and monasteries, fed a vast number of monks and nuns, and saw to it that those in prison lacked nothing. Numerous men and women of Rome owed their salvation to her, for it was she who put them on the path to the eternal kingdom by her edifying counsel. Great indeed was the life, great were the God-pleasing deeds of the senior Melania, whose husband and son (Melania the Younger’s father) were foremost senators in old Rome.
Reaching maturity, the younger Melania fervently desired to keep her virginity and repeatedly begged her parents not to force her to marry, but she was their only child, and they wished to have descendants to inherit their vast wealth. Therefore, when the maiden was fourteen years old, she was wed to a youth of seventeen named Apinianus, who was of consular rank. Having agreed to marriage, Melania still yearned to live chastely, even if circumstances had forced her to surrender her virginity. She employed every argument she knew to encourage her husband to curb his desires, frequently exhorting him with tears in her eyes: "How happy we would be if we lived together in continence, laboring for God in our youth without enjoying conjugal pleasures! From the beginning I wished for this. If you are not strong enough to control a young man’s fiery lusts, find another wife, but leave me in peace to live as I wish. As ransom for my freedom I offer you everything I own: menservants and maidservants, gold and silver, and riches astounding the imagination. Take it all, but set me free."
At first Apinianus would not agree to restrain his yearnings, and replied affectionately, "For now this cannot be. When we have an heir, I will permit you to do as you wish. I realize that it is unseemly for a man to lag behind his wife in a good and godly undertaking. Be patient, and when the Lord grants fruit to our marriage, we shall, in perfect oneness of mind, enter upon a life such as you desire."
Melania reconciled herself to this suggestion, and God gave the couple a daughter. The blessed one dedicated the child’s virginity to God at birth, as though she were paying her debt for having entered (albeit unwillingly) into wedlock. In this way she made certain her daughter would not undergo the distress that was her own lot.
Meanwhile, Melania prepared for her new life, fasting and mortifying her flesh more, and stifling every craving of the body. She stopped wearing beautiful clothes and jewelry, and avoided visiting baths. Whenever compelled by her husband or parents to go, she would not disrobe, but would wash only her face, giving money to the servant-maids so that they would remain silent. She repeatedly reminded her husband of their agreement, saying, "We have an heir. Why have you not done as you said?’ So much did she long for God and a chaste life that she conceived the notion of taking refuge in a foreign land, abandoning father, mother, husband, daughter, and wealth. She would have left immediately, had not certain holy men cited to her the words of the Apostle: Unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband, and, How knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? This gave her hope of assisting Apinianus to save his soul, and she abandoned the notion of flight. Nevertheless, it was only with the greatest suffering that she continued bearing the yoke of wedlock. She wore a hair shirt, removing it whenever her husband was in the house. Her aunt, however, discovered that she was vexing her body thus, and mocked and reproached the saint, who tearfully begged her to tell no one the secret.
It came to pass that Melania conceived again, and on the eve of the feast of the holy martyr Lawrence went into labor. That night she did not sleep at all, but chanted psalms and made prostrations in spite of her discomfort. Morning found her still at prayer, and she continued making supplications on bended knee until pain overwhelmed her. With great difficulty she gave birth to a son, who was baptized and quickly departed this world for the heavenly homeland. After her delivery, the blessed Melania became very ill and almost died. Standing by her bed and witnessing her agony, Apinianus felt sick from worry and grief. He ran to church, fell down before God, and shedding copious tears, begged that his beloved wife be spared. Seizing the opportunity to persuade him to keep his commitment, Melania sent this message to him while he was still in church: "If you want me to remain alive, swear before God to live out your days chastely, and never touch me again."
Apinianus loved his wife deeply and was more concerned for her survival than for his own satisfaction and pleasure, so he vowed in the temple before God to live with her in chastity. The messenger returned to Melania with word of her husband’s promise, and she quickly began to recover. Her spirit rejoiced and her pain subsided: spiritual gladness overcame bodily infirmity. Glorifying God, the saint looked forward to a life of abstinence.
Soon after Melania rose from her sick-bed, the virgin shoot, her beloved daughter consecrated to God from birth, departed to heaven. Her death and Melania’s continuous exhortations increased Apinianus’ determination to restrain his fleshly appetites. "Do you see how God encourages us to exercise self-control?" Melania would ask. "If He wanted us to share a bed, He would not have taken away our children." Thus, the holy couple, after experiencing carnal gratification, was joined in a loftier union: fasting, prayer, labors, and the mortification of the flesh. Each incited the other to greater struggles, and finally they decided to entrust their wealth to Christ through the hands of the poor, to renounce the world, and to embrace the monastic life. Melania’s parents, however, were violently opposed to this.
One night, Apinianus and Melania were discussing how to escape the multiform snares of the world. Suddenly, divine grace overshadowed them, and a wondrous fragrance, impossible to describe or even imagine, descended from heaven. So greatly were they consoled, that they forgot their sorrows. Thenceforth, they longed unceasingly for celestial blessings, dying to the world and everything in it. They hoped to embrace monasticism, but there seemed to be no possibility of this unless they secretly left the country. In the event, this proved unnecessary, because God opened the way for them: Melania’s father soon died, leaving them free to do as they wished. Nonetheless, they could not leave the world at once, since they possessed great wealth, which they had promised to Christ. They remained in the city while distributing a large part of their fortune among the needy, after which they retired to their country estates nearby. There they resumed their labors with fervor, carefully avoiding any lapse of continence. Apinianus was twenty-four years old and Melania twenty at the time of their remarkable and God-pleasing withdrawal from society. Oh, what a wondrous marvel! Once, the children were preserved unharmed in the Babylonian furnace; now this holy couple, remaining together, supernaturally prevails over the scorching flames of carnal attraction. Blessed Melania, the Lord’s wise handmaiden, kept a careful watch over both herself and her husband, for she was his teacher and guide, always taking the initiative as she led him on the way of the Lord.
While matters were thus flourishing and the poor were enjoying their good fortune, the following trial befell the Lord’s favorites. Severus, Apinianus’ brother, became envious of the couple’s ardor for God; moreover, he hoped to enrich himself at their expense. He began by appropriating some of their possessions. Encountering no resistance, he prepared to seize all their estates. Apinianus and Melania, being strangers to guile, put their hope in God. Only one thought distressed them: that the needy would be robbed and valuables they had promised to Christ would fall into the predator’s hands. As it happened, God defended His servants, delivering them from the oppressor. The devout Empress Serena, hearing of Melania’s virtue, summoned her and received her with honor. Amazed by the saint’s worthless clothing and profound humility, she embraced Melania and exclaimed, "How blessed you are for having chosen such a life!" promising also to punish Severus.
Melania did not wish to return evil for evil, and entreated Serena not to harm her brother-in-law. She asked only that Severus not be permitted to do further evil. "It is better to suffer than to give offense," said the blessed one. "The divine Scriptures command us to turn the other cheek. Accept my thanks, lady, for your gracious protection, but do not pay back Severus for his injustice. We ask only to be left in peace so that we may continue to feed Christ’s servants, orphans, widows, and paupers, with what is Christ’s." Besides this, Melania and Apinianus (who had accompanied his wife) begged the Empress to give them leave to sell the towns and villages they owned near Rome, in Sicily, Spain, Gaul, and Britain. It was necessary for them to obtain authorization for this, because Melania’s inheritance had made her and her husband the wealthiest private citizens in the Western Empire. They received full warrant to do as they wished. Melania tried to give Serena an expensive present, but the Empress would not accept it, counting it robbery to take something promised to Christ. Finally, the estimable couple left the palace.
Some notion of the wealth God entrusted to the saints may be gained from the fact that no one in Rome could find the means to purchase their house there. It was only after the city fell to barbarians and the house had been damaged by fire that it was sold, at a reduced price. The proceeds were used to feed the poor. It would be no exaggeration to say that Melania and her husband surpassed Job in obedience to God. Job thanked the Lord for involuntary loss, but our saints gladly forsook enormous riches on their own and embraced poverty.
Once, the devil attempted to prevent the sale of a certain village belonging to the Lord’s favorites, and failing in that, tried to stir up avarice in their hearts, for they received an enormous quantity of gold for the property. In vain did the beguiler labor, for Melania was ever on the watch for him. Counting the money as less valuable that dirt, she quickly distributed it to the destitute, thereby crushing the serpent’s head. The blessed one related, "I had a fine home with a beautiful view near a village I owned. Together, house and hamlet constituted the best of my properties. On one side lay the sea, on which ships could be seen sailing and fishermen casting and drawing nets; on the other there were virgin forests full of game, green fields, gardens, and vineyards. Fresh water was provided by a splendid pool and delightful springs, to which came birds of every kind, singing wonderful songs. The adversary put it into my head not to sell that lovely domain, but to keep it as my residence. By the grace of God, I understood that the foe was leading me astray, and without further hesitation I sold the manor, giving the price to my Christ."
A river of money from the sale of Melania’s properties flowed to the ends of the earth. The beneficiaries were monasteries, convents, hostels, hospitals, widows, orphans, and prisoners in Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and elsewhere. The saints also provided ransoms for numerous captives. In short, the whole of the West and East shared the bounty. It is said that Melania and Apinianus purchased a number of deserted islands and built monasteries on them, richly endowing these communities. Churches everywhere were adorned with gold and silver and received splendid priestly vestments as gifts.
Having sold most of their lands in Italy, the holy couple, with Melania’s mother, took ship for Sicily, to view and sell their holdings there and to visit their spiritual father, the blessed Paulinus, on the way. Not long after their departure, barbarians devastated Italy, plundering and burning throughout the peninsula. It then became obvious what wisdom the saints had shown in selling their properties, with God’s help, before the invasion. What they would have lost utterly, they exchanged for a hundredfold reward in the kingdom of heaven. Moreover, by leaving Italy they escaped danger, saving themselves like Lot fleeing Sodom. After staying for some time with Saint Paulinus, they arrived in Sicily and attended to affairs there, then continued on to Carthage and Libya.
While Melania and Apinianus were at sea, a fierce storm arose, lasting many days. The ship was crowded with oarsmen and servants, and the water supply failed. Saint Melania understood that it was not God’s will that they go directly to their intended destination. She ordered the sail spread to catch the wind and trusted the Lord to guide the vessel wherever He wished. The ship made its way to an island on which barbarians had landed just a few days before. The enemies had seized a large number of men, women, and children and were demanding an enormous ransom from the islanders still at liberty. They planned to put the captives to the sword if they were not paid. The people wept bitterly: the free because they did not have the means to redeem their relatives, the prisoners because death awaited them. Hearing that a ship from Rome had arrived, the Bishop hurried to beg assistance in raising the ransom. Saint Melania and her husband were moved by the plight of the people and gave more than anyone expected was possible, enough to obtain the release of every captive. The sea was calm and the wind fair when the saints resumed their voyage. Before long they were entering Carthage’s harbor. No sooner had they disembarked than they began showering alms upon churches, monasteries, the poor, and the ill. For some time the saints lived in the town called Thagaste, not far from Carthage. An eloquent, learned presbyter named Alypius lived there, who greatly edified everyone who heard him teach. Melania and Apinianus became very fond of this man, adorned his church with rich offerings, and endowed it with several villages. They also founded a monastery nearby for eighty monks and a convent for 130 nuns, providing both with adequate incomes.
Saint Melania gradually became accustomed to strict fasting and an abstinent way of life. At first she ate every other day, then every third day, then only on Saturdays and Sundays. She occupied herself with copying manuscripts, being a skilled calligrapher. The money she received for the books she transcribed she gave to the poor, for whom she also sewed clothes. She was extremely devoted to the reading of the divine Scriptures. Whenever she wearied of writing or sewing, she read, and when she tired of reading, would ask another to read to her. Three times a year she read the entire Old Testament and the New, memorizing the most important passages so that she could quote them readily. She limited herself to two hours of sleep daily. Her bed was a rough mat on the floor. "We should always keep watch, for we do not know at what hour the thief (that is, death) will come," she would say. Not only did she teach her serving-maids to live a vigilant life; she also succeeded in persuading many youths to remain virgins, and converted numerous unbelievers to God.
Saint Melania spent seven years in Cathage and the surrounding region, then decided to visit the Holy Places in Jerusalem. With her mother and her former husband (now her spiritual brother and fellow ascetic), she sailed first to Alexandria. There she visited and enjoyed spiritual conversation with Saint Cyril, archbishop of the city, and a clairvoyant elder named Theodore. Afterwards, she took ship to Palestine. Arriving in Jerusalem, she made the rounds of the Holy Places sanctified by the footsteps of our Lord and the most pure Mother of God, venerating them with ineffable joy and a contrite heart. While in Jerusalem, blessed Melania prayed every night from sunset to sunrise, locked in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Oh, what fervent prayers she offered to Christ on bended knee, weeping, embracing the Tomb, and kissing it lovingly!
While Melania and Apinianus were in Jerusalem, a trusted friend sold the last remnants of their Italian properties. He sent the proceeds to them in Palestine. Shortly thereafter, they decided to visit the desert fathers of Egypt and give them alms. They left behind in the Holy City Melania’s aged mother, with instructions to build them a house on the Mount of Olives. Once in Egypt they made the rounds of anchorites’ cells, discussing matters profitable to the soul with the fathers, to whom they showed great generosity. Many of the ascetics, however, refused to accept anything, because they fled from gold as from a serpent’s bite. Coming to the hermitage of one Hephaistion, they begged him to take a little gold, but he declared that he would have none of it. The blessed Melania peered into his hut, where she saw nothing but a rush mat, a water-pot, a few dry biscuits, and a little basket of salt; so she hid several gold coins in the salt before leaving. Her ruse did not deceive the elder. Snatching the money, he ran after Melania and Apinianus, shouting, "Wait! Wait!" When he caught up with them, he opened the hand clutching the coins and demanded to know, "What am I to do with these? I have no use for them. Keep what is yours."
"Give them to someone else," they replied.
The elder marveled, "Are you blind? This is a desert. Who needs money here, and for what?" Neither Melania nor Apinianus wished to take the gold, but he forced them to accept it and rushed back to his cell. The travelers continued on to Alexandria, thence to Nitria, everywhere visiting the habitations of holy men. Like bees they flew from flower to flower, collecting sweet nectar. Before long they were back in Jerusalem, greatly profited by the discourses of numerous desert-dwellers. They found their house on Olivet completed, and moved into it at once.
Melania secluded herself in a little cell and for fourteen years admitted no one, excepting only her mother and her spiritual brother Apinianius, whom she permitted to see her once a week. Then her mother, full of good works, fell asleep in the Lord. After giving her a fitting burial, Melania returned to her narrow cell for another year. Following her brief appearance to commit her mother to the earth, the saint’s fame spread everywhere. Many people began to visit her, seeking counsel. Concern for the salvation of others forced her to abandon solitude and found a convent of more than ninety virgins. Sinful women also flocked to her, and she showed them the path to salvation and taught them how to live in a God-pleasing manner. She refused the office of superior, preferring to serve everyone like a slave, while at the same time providing as a mother for the needs of all. The blessed one constantly instructed the sisters in moral excellence: firstly in chastity; secondly in love (without which it is impossible to attain perfection in any virtue); afterwards in humility, obedience, patience, and gentleness. She frequently recounted to the nuns the following story, intending to instill in them long-suffering and meekness.
"Once, a young man went to an elder and asked to become his disciple. Wishing to teach the youth what is required of a monk, the old man instructed him to kick one of the posts framing the entranceway and to beat it with a stick. The youth did as commanded; whereupon, the elder inquired, ’While you were beating the post, did it take offense or protest? Did it flee or fight back?’ ’No,’ answered the young man. The elder said, ’Strike it harder, and at the same time revile, reproach, and slander it in the harshest way.’ When the youth returned, the old man asked, ’Did the post become angry? Did it contradict or rebuke you, or complain?’ ’No, Father,’ the youth said. ’How can a post lose its temper or say anything at all? It is not alive.’ ’If you are able to imitate the post, never becoming annoyed or gainsaying when you are struck, ordered about, or reproved, but remaining untroubled by every sorrow, then stay and be my disciple,’ said the old man. ’Otherwise, do not darken my doorway with your shadow.’"
Saint Melania built a beautiful church in the convent. Enshrined there were relics of the prophet Zacharias, Saint Stephen the proto martyr, and the Forty Martyrs of Sebasteia. After it was completed, her spiritual brother and former husband, the blessed Apinianus, departed unto the Lord, ending his God-pleasing life in the monastic habit. Melania gave him an honorable burial, then began preparing for her own death, which she expected would soon follow. Providence, however, deigned to prolong her life for the salvation of others. The saint expended her last funds on the construction of a monastery and became truly poor, having long before attained poverty of spirit. At that time she received a letter from her uncle Volusianus, who had traveled from Rome to Constantinople, asking that she come to see him in the eastern capital. Initially, she did not want to go, since he was a pagan, but holy men advised her not to disdain the request; so she changed her mind, hoping to turn him to God.
Melania’s fame preceded her on the way to Byzantium. In every city and village she was greeted joyfully and shown the utmost esteem, for God glorifies them that glorify Him. Bishops and priests, abbots and abbesses, nobles and commoners came out to meet her, welcoming her as though she were sent from heaven. When the time came for the saint to depart the towns in which she stopped, clergy and laity invariably escorted her a long way before taking final leave of her. Thus, as a result of the journey, the light of Melania’s virtue and self-denial shone even further than before, reaching, like the sun’s rays, the very ends of the earth. When she arrived in Constantinople, the blessed one was received with great respect by the Emperor Theodosius the Younger, the Empress Eudocia, and the Most Holy Patriarch Proclus. Volusianus had meanwhile fallen ill. Seeing her clothed in monastic garb, her flesh wasted, the beauty of her countenance erased by fasting and austerities, the saint’s uncle cried out in astonishment, "How you have changed, Melania!" Her presence, demeanor, divinely inspired discourses, and edifying admonitions had a profound effect on Volusianus, as did the exhortations of Saint Proclus. Soon, he renounced Hellenic impiety and agreed to be baptized. Several days after first receiving the divine Mysteries, Volusianus surrendered his spirit into God’s hands and was buried by Melania.
While staying in Constantinople, the Lord’s favorite converted many from pestilent Nestorianism to Orthodoxy, and warned the faithful not to be deceived by false doctrines. Her God-given wisdom invariably prevailed over the sophistical argumentation of the heretics. The venerable one, who was full of the grace of the Holy Spirit, studied the Scriptures daily and knew them extremely well. From morning till night she was surrounded by people asking questions about the Orthodox faith. So profound were her replies that the entire city was amazed. She remained in Constantinople for some time, then returned to Jerusalem where she began preparing for her departure to heaven.
Saint Melania possessed the gift of healing and cured numerous infirmities. Let us recount a few of her miracles, so that the reader may understand what manner of grace abode in her.
The Empress Eudocia went to Jerusalem to venerate the holy places and to visit Melania, her spiritual mother. While travelling, the Empress dislocated her foot. She was in great discomfort, but as soon as Saint Melania touched the foot, the pain vanished.
A young woman was tormented by a demon, which sealed her lips, altogether preventing her from speaking or eating. Between thirst, hunger, and the torments of possession, she was at death’s door. The godly Melania anointed her with holy oil and prayed for her, after which the demon was expelled and the woman could open her mouth and receive nourishment.
Another woman was pregnant, but could not deliver her child, which had died in the womb. Overwhelming pain rendered her incapable of uttering a sound. Were it not for Saint Melania’s intercession, she would certainly have perished. No sooner was the venerable one’s belt placed on her chest, than the dead child came forth. The woman felt immediate relief and could speak again.
Foreseeing her departure to God, the blessed Melania decided to visit the holy places in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Galilee one last time. She attended the All-night Vigil at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, after which she said to one of the sisters, a cousin of hers who never departed her side, that she would not celebrate the feast of Christ’s birth again on earth. Hearing this, the woman wept bitterly. On the eve of Saint Stephen’s, Melania attended Vigil at the convent church where the protomartyr’s relics were enshrined. While reading his Passion to the sisters, Melania commented that they would never again hear the account together. The nuns understood that she was predicting her imminent departure, and lamented bitterly. The saint consoled them with divinely inspired counsel and used the occasion to deliver a discourse on the virtues. Then she returned to the church and prayed, "O Lord God, from the beginning I devoted myself to Thee and loved Thee more than wedlock or wealth, glory or pleasure. From infancy I entrusted my soul and body to Thee, and from fear of Thee my flesh hath cleaved to my bones. Thy right hand hath directed me, and Thy statutes have ever been my guide. Do Thou hearken unto my voice, and may my tears loose the floods of Thy mercy. Wash away the stains of my voluntary and involuntary sins; permit me to attain unto Thee without hindrance; do not allow the wicked spirits of the air to detain me. O Immortal One, Thou knowest the infirmity of our mortal nature; Thou knowest, O lover of mankind, that no man is without fault; Thou knowest that we all transgress every day, giving our enemies reason for claiming us as their own. But do Thou, Master, overlook mine offenses and cleanse me, that I may appear spotless before Thy judgement seat."
Having completed this prayer, Saint Melania began to weaken. She desisted from ascetic labors, but continued attending church and teaching the sisters. The Bishop of Eleutheropolis arrived with his clergy to visit, and imparted the divine and most pure Mysteries to her. Then, having consoled her cousin and the other sisters, Melania gave them a final kiss and uttered her last words: "May the Lord’s will be done." So saying, the venerable one surrendered her soul into God’s hands. She fell asleep in the Lord on the thirty-first of December, lying on her bed with her eyes closed and her hands crossed upon her breast in a dignified manner. All the monks and nuns living near Jerusalem assembled for her funeral. After chanting psalms the whole night long over her body, they buried her reverently. Her holy soul took up its abode in the courts of the Lord Whom she loved and for Whom she labored fervently throughout her life. There she boasts in glory with all the saints, praying for us sinners to the one God in Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to Whom be praise forever. Amen.
Abbreviated from Metaphrastes, whose narrative is supplemented by the account in The Lausiac History, Ch. 109