St. Melania the Elder

icon of St. Melania the Elder


Several sources for the life of Melania the Elder, the most complete first hand record being Palladius's Lausiac History (trans. R.T. Meyer, Ancient Christian Writers, Paulist Press, ©1964), containing three chapters, numerous additional references, and the life of her granddaughter, St. Melania the Younger. Important additional first-hand information is located in the writings of Rufinus of Aquileia, St. Jerome, and in the lives several Fathers of the Egyptian Desert.[1] The accounts are not consistent in every detail, especially with regard to her son.[2]


St.Melania was the daughter of the Roman consul, Marcellinus, and born Spain in 341. She moved to Rome following her marriage at age 14, to a proconsul and prefect of Rome. She was widowed eight years later, age 22.

Among the richest women of her day, she gave away her son to the care of a trustee, and took all her household goods to Alexandria, where she sold them and befriended the ascetics and teachers there. She made extended pilgrimages to the Nitrian desert, learning true philosophy from the great fathers, including Pambo, Paphnutius, Isidore, and Evagrius. When the Arian bishop Alexandria, Theophilos, banished many ascetics and hierarchs during the anthropomorphite controversy, St. Melania followed them into Palestine.

The depth of her compassion for the needy is reflected in an Egyptian tradition holding that to alleviate suffering at the hands of the Arians, she feed out of her own wealth some 5,000 people over the course of three days.

In Palestine, St Melania supported the ascetics from her own wealth. To serve them, she wore slave's clothing, an action that resulted in her being cast into prison. When brought before the judge she defended her action declaring herself a slave of Christ.

St. Melania remained in Jerusalem when the exiled ascetics were allowed to return to Egypt, and out of her own wealth established a female cenobium on the Mount of Olives that exceeded fifty monastics, energetically practiced hospitality, and funded churches and monasteries in the Roman and Persian Empires, and charitable works. Erudite, she constantly read and re-read the works of Origen, Basil the Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus, turning night into day, she once reproached a young man, saying How can a warm-blooded young man like you dare to pamper your flesh...Do you not know that this is the source of much harm? Look, I am sixty years old and neither my feet nor my face, nor any of members, except for the tips of my fingers, touched water, although I am afflicted with many aliments and my doctors urge me. I have not yet made concessions to my bodily desires, nor have I used a couch for resting, nor have I ever made a journey on a litter.

As in Alexandria, in Jerusalem she used the nobility of her character and hospitality in service of the unity and peace of the Church. In the words of Palladius describing her, and her coenobium's, work:

So, for twenty-seven years they both entertained with their own private funds the bishops, solitaries, and virgins who visited them, coming to Jerusalem to fulfill a vow. They edified all their visitors and united the four hundred monks of the Pauline schism by persuading every heretic who denied the Holy Spirit and so brought them back to the Church. They bestowed gifts on the local clergy, and so finished their days without offending anyone.

At age sixty, she traveled to Rome and promoting and teaching the ascetic, peace-loving life. Among those choosing to follow her in the practice of self-control and renunciation were her daughter-in-law, Albina, her granddaughter, St. Melania the Younger and her husband, Pinianus. In doing so, she challenged the Roman Senators and their wives, for whom notions of asceticism within marriage, chastity, and virginity were deeply scandalous. Palladius records her prophetic response: Little children, it was written over four hundred years ago, it is the last hour. Why are you fond of the vain things of life? Beware lest the days of the Antichrist overtake you and you not enjoy your wealth and your ancestral property. Prophetic, for Rome was soon sacked Alaric in 410, the year of her repose.

Prior to her repose, St. Melania disposed of all her wealth, sending it to Jerusalem.

Understanding Her

St. Melania and her social network was one of the most important in the fourth and early fifth century Christianity. Fluent and well read in both Latin and Greek, her geographical connections reached from Spain to Persia. She grew-up as a member of the first generation in which members of the nobility and social elites were expected to take Christianity seriously, and lived to see it become the official religion of the Empire. This she did without hypocrisy or compromise in her way of living, first becoming both an icon of repentance and then an evangelist to her social peers, urging them to understand the way of salvation through a life in Him upon whose shoulders rested the government of the universe.

Her connections to Hellenistic Christianity of Alexandria, Origen and Evagrius, is no more a basis for skepticism than the use of these important authors by most of the great Church Fathers. Indeed, both the breadth of her reading and her political savvy is reflected in her opposition to Arianism, and how personally she understood the Psalmist when he said Jerusalem is builded as a city which its dwellers share in concord. (Ps. 121, LXX) and again Behold now, what is so good or so joyous as for the brethren to dwell together in unity?...For the Lord commanded the blessing, life forevermore. (Ps. 132, LXX). In age which saw both the apostasy of Julian, the destructiveness of Arianism, and proclamations of the Council of Nicaea, providing erudite hospitality at the center of Christian pilgrimage was no plain piety.

Making Jerusalem, and not Alexandria, the center of her activity during the difficult period between the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, St. Melania and her community on the Mount of Olives were profoundly important to the sifting of ascetical wisdom and liturgical expression (that is theological) synthesis that based Palestinian monasticism.[3]

Humbling herself by submitting all her wealth, erudition, and daily activity to the hosting of Christ, acquiring poverty by elevating those poor in body and mind, she acquired a mature Christian soul, thus, in Palladius words, became a female Man of God. The comparison to St. Alexis, the Man of God is instructive, for both profound saints, the highest reality is the anticipation of fully unity with the true Bridegroom, Christ God. Her life gives no room for effeminate sentimentality, let alone then, as now, contemporary sociological agendas: St. Melania the Elder's asceticism is as needed as it is uncompromising.

Odes of Solomon: Ode II

I am putting on the Love of the Lord.
And His members are with Him,
And I am dependent on them; and He loves me.
For I should not have know how to love the Lord
If He had not continuously loved me.
Who is able to distinguish love,
Except him who is loved?
I love the Beloved and I myself love Him,
And where His rest is, there also am I.
And I shall be no stranger,
Because there is no jealousy with the Lord Most High and Merciful.
I have been united to Him, because the lover has found the Beloved,
Because I live Him that is the Son, I shall become a son.
Indeed, he who is joint to Him who is immortal,
Truly shall be immortal.
And he who delights in the Life,
Will become living.
This is the Spirit of the Lord, which is not false,
Which teaches the sons of men to know His ways.
Be wise and understanding and vigilant.

translated by James H Charlesworth, Scholars Press, ©1977

Troparion and Kontakion

Troparion for St. Melania the Edler, in the Eigth Tone

Scorning perishable riches and worldly dignity, thou sought heavenly glory through self-denial and toils. By humility, thou made noble rank noble in heaven. Thou didst build a holy house in Jerusalem, where thou guided souls to salvation. O Mother Melania grant us the alms of thy rich prayers to God.

Kontakion for St. Melania the Elder, in the Fourth Tone

O wise Melania in using thine earthly to comfort and help the poor, together with the riches of thy mind, thou led many of noble rank to the joy of poverty in spirit for Jesus' sake.

[1]cf. Tim Vivian, "Introduction" to Four Desert Fathers, SVS Press, ©2004 for an informative discussion of St. Melania's relationship to the Egyptian desert.

[2]Some modern biographies, including official ones, wrongly claim she had three sons, two of which died. While understandable, this is a confusion with her granddaughter, St. Melania the Younger, who, according to both Palladius and Rufinius in Apology Against Jerome, Book 2 (in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series vol. 3), had two children, both of which died prior to the parents entry into asceticism.

[3]For a useful introduction, cf. John Binns, Ascetics and Ambassadors of Christ: The Monasteries of Palestine 314-631 Oxford University Press, 1996/©Binns, 1994.