13 January 2009

'Praising God until her last breath'—St Melanie the Younger

Today, 31 December on the Church’s calendar, is the feast of St Theophylact of Ohrid—the author of the famous Explanation of the New Testament that comes to us so highly recommended by St Ignatius (Brianchaninov) (he calls the reading of it ‘indispensable’—The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, trans. Archim. Lazarus [Moore] [Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1991], p. 21), and a man whom St Nicholas (Velimirović) has called ‘of enormous learning, both secular and theological, of refined Byzantine tastes, melancholy and sensitive’ (Prologue, 31 Dec.).

But I thought it worthwhile to focus on a little-known, but important female Saint who is also commemorated today—St Melanie the Younger of Rome (383-439). St Melanie is one of the figures that I recall primarily from Derwas Chitty’s magisterial The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism Under the Christian Empire (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1995). It is immediately apparent in that book that she is connected, often directly, with nearly all of the ecclesiastical figures of her day, East and West. Like her grandmother before her, St Melanie the Elder (although I have not yet found the Elder on an Orthodox calendar, the Lausiac History refers to her as ‘the wonderful and saintly Melania’ and St Demetrius of Rostov explicitly calls her a ‘Saint’ in connection with her granddaughter), St Melanie the Younger was a wealthy Roman lady who gave up her status and riches to go East, visiting the Fathers of Egypt—including, in the case of the Younger, St Cyril of Alexandria—and eventually settling in Jerusalem.

There St Melanie and her husband, St Pinianus, with whom she had lived as brother and sister since the deaths of their infant children, gave themselves up to austerities. According to St Nicholas, she read the Old and New Testaments through three times every year, and lived a hesychastic life in a small hermitage on the Mt of Olives. In the words of the Prologue—‘There Melania closed herself off and devoted herself to divine contemplation, fasting and prayer. Thus, she lived for fourteen years, after which she came out to help others to salvation.’ She founded a monastery for women, and after the death of St Pinianus, another one for men. According to St Demetrius, ‘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.’ Aided by St Proclus of Constantinople, St Melanie converted to Christianity her uncle, Volusianus, whom St Augustine was apparently unable to win over.

Besides her assocation with Ss Cyril, Augustine (and his friend, St Alipius), and Proclus, St Melanie counted herself a spiritual daughter as well as a kinswoman of St Paulinus of Nola (see Agnes B.C. Dunbar, A Dictionary of Saintly Women, Vol. II [London: George Bell, 1905], p. 85). Furthermore, she in turn acted as a sort of spiritual mother to St Peter the Iberian, receiving him into her monastery and having him tonsured by her priest, Gerontius. In Palestine, she was cordially received by St Jerome, and when the Empress Evdokia visited Palestine in 438, St Melanie was, in Chitty’s words, ‘very much at the centre of the picture’ (p. 88)—according to St Demetrius, she healed the Empress’s foot.

St Melanie fell asleep in the Lord in 439—at the age of 57—on the Mt of Olives, attended by her cousin Paula, a nun of St Jerome’s monastery in Bethlehem. Here is the ‘Hymn of Praise’ in her honour in the Prologue:

The Venerable Melania the Roman

The wealthy Melania possessed great gold.
She gave it to the poor, for the sake of Christ and her salvation.
He who trades wisely receives great value from his gold,
And with it quickly purchases the Heavenly Kingdom.
Melania, a devout woman, became poor;
She possessed nothing in the world except the Living God,
And without gold—but with the Living God—she became wealthy.
Melania said: ‘God alone is enough!’
Melania the physician healed pains,
Praising God until her last breath.

Derwas Chitty cites as the source of her life, the Vita Melaniae Junioris, Analecta Bollianda 22 and Sources Chrétiennes 90. She is also mentioned in Palladius’s Lausiac History, wherein she is described as a young woman with ‘such great virtue’ that it ‘far surpasses that of old and zealous women’.


orrologion said...

When my wife was taken for baptism in a Polish Catholic church, the priest refused to baptize her with the name my mother-in-law had picked, so she was baptized with the name Mary. My mother-in-law liked a name from a character in 'Gone With the Wind' and that is the name on her birth certificate, the name she goes by and the name used at our marriage in the Catholic Church: Melanie.

So, the priest didn't know what he was talking about, though my mother-in-law's mother did. It may have had something to do with the priest doing a little calculating so as to realize little Melanie was not conceived after her parents' wedding - such things mattered in those days.

So, my early days exploring the Orthodox Church included time reading up on St. Christopher and the Sts Melanie (Melania). I always remembered the Younger's feast day, but always forgot the Elder's.

Melania the Righteous (or, the Elder) is remembered by the Church on June 8


Saint Melania was a lady of noble birth, most wealthy and renowned, a descendant of Roman consuls, and of Spanish origin. When her husband and two of her children died, she departed for Egypt to visit the monks living at Mount Nitria. She distrubuted her wealth to those that were in need there, as well as to the confessors of the Faith who were being persecuted by the Arians. In three days alone, she fed some 5,000. Then, when these Orthodox Christians were exiled to Palestine, she also went to Jerusalem. There, at her own expense, she built a convent for virgins, and reposed therein in holiness about the year 410. Her granddaughter Melania the Younger is celebrated on December 31.

Apolytikion in the Plagal of the First Tone

Scorning riches that perish and worldly dignity, thou soughtest heavenly glory through self-denial and toils, making noble rank more noble by humility; and thou didst build a holy house in Jerusalem, where thou didst guide souls unto salvation. And now, O Mother Melania, grant us the alms of thy rich prayers to God.

Kontakion in the Fourth Tone

Thou didst use thine earthly wealth, O wise Melania, to console and help the poor; and with the riches of thy mind, thou leddest many of noble rank with joy to be poor in spirit for Jesus' sake.

(Reading, Apolytikion and Kontakion courtesy of Holy Transfiguration Monastery)."

Sts. Melania pray to God for us - especially for Melanie and her family.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for the tip! It didn't occur to me to look in my HTM Horologion!

And that's really cool that your wife is a Melanie. We have some Orthodox friends who, I believe, named their daughter Melanie.

Momzillamel said...

St Melania's (the Elder) feast day in the Eastern Orthodox Church is June 8.
-Melanie B.