The life of the blessed MELANIA
I have thought it necessary to mention in this book some strong and virtuous women to whom God has given rewards equal to those of the men who have lived virtuously, and who have been awarded the crown due to all those who please him. Their gentleness and tenderness should not be used as an excuse for labelling them as unenterprising, or lacking in the strength needed for the battle to develop a virtuous and honourable life. And I met many pious and religious women, and even more virgins and widows of great virtue, among whom was the most blessed Melania of Rome, the daughter of the consul Marcellus, and the wife of a man in a very important position whose name I cannot remember.
When she was widowed at the age of twenty-two, she was found worthy of being filled with the love of God. She found someone who would take care of her children, without telling anyone (for this was forbidden at that time under the Emperor Valens), took with her what luggage she could and took ship for Alexandria, together with some servants and maids. There she realised her assets [suas res vendidisset] into small gold pieces [aurum minutum] and went into Mount Nitria where she met the holy fathers Pambo, Arsisius, Serapion the great, Paphnutius of Scete, bishop Isodore the Confessor of Hermipolis, and Dioscuros. She travelled around among them for about six months, visiting all the holy people in the desert.
Afterwards Augustus of Alexandria exiled to Diocaesarea in Palestine Isidore, Pissimius, Adelphius, Paphnutius, Pambo, Ammonius 'Parotius' or 'one-eared', together with twelve bishops, priests, clerics and anchorites to the number of a hundred and twenthy-six. Melania followed them there, and defrayed out of her own money the expense of supplying the necessities of them all. I visited the holy Pissinius, Isodore, Paphnutius and Ammonius, and they told me that she was then prohibited from exercising this ministry, but she bravely dressed herself as a slave and continued to take some food to one of them. When the consul of Palestine heard of this he arrested her in the hope of terrorising her and filling his own purse. He threw her into prison, unaware that she was a free woman. But she soon disabused him of this idea.
"I am the daughter of Marcellus and was married to a man in a very important position," she said, "but I am now the handmaid of Christ. Don't be misled by the way I am dressed; I am perfectly at liberty to dress otherwise should I so wish. You can't terrorise me or take any of my money without unwittingly getting yourself into real trouble, which is why I am telling you who I am." Against stupid men it is sometimes necessary to act with a strong mind, like a hound or a bird of prey, and swoop down on their self importance. The judge believed her and apologised most obsequiously, and gave orders that she be allowed to visit the holy men without any hindrance.
The life of the priest RUFFINUS
When the exiles were allowed back home Melania built a monastery in Jerusalem where she lived for twenty-seven years with a convent of fifty virgins.
With her was the most noble and capable Ruffinus who was of a like mind with her. He was from Aquileia in Italy and was later found worthy of being ordained priest. You could not have found a more learned or more gentle man anywhere. So for twenty-seven years they welcomed all those coming to Jerusalem on pilgrimage [voti causa, 'for the sake of a vow'], bishops, monks, virgins, married people, private citizens and those in public life, and they provided for them all at their own expense. They also took care of about four hundred men leading a monastic life who were followers of the schismatic Paul [of Samosata, a notable heretic of that time], and also heretics among the Pneumatomachi who played down the divinity of the Holy Spirit. They persuaded them to come back into the Church. Without causing any offence to anybody they transformed the lot of the local clergy by gifts of food, and indeed brought help to everyone from whatever part of the world they came.
I have already talked briefly above about the wonderful holy woman Melania. I would also add a few words about her other gifts, especially what I can remember of her virtues. I could not begin to describe the generosity of this most religious woman. By her labours she has woven a blessed garment of incorruptibility, and by her almsgiving an unfading crown of glory for her own head, which she now wears since departing to the Lord, faithful to the end. Time fails me to say what I know, as I begin to tell of the deeds of this blessed woman.
Completely filled with love of God she expended so much material goods on the needy that I think that the bonfire could not be constructed big enough to consume them all. It is not only I who can say this but everyone from Persia to Britain and the distant isles. From East to West, from North to South, all benefited from the generous almsgiving of this immortal woman. For thirty seven years she carried out this work of hospitality, using her money to help with the expenses of churches, monasteries, guesthouses and prisons. Let me say once and for all she never failed to share some portion of her wealth with everyone who came to her. She was supported by her family, especially her son, and by her stewards who administered her income as if they were providing oil to produce a shining light. Indeed, by lighting a flame of such burning brilliance she illuminated everyone by the generosity of her almsgiving.
And even as she persevered in her work of hospitality, it was not only an earthly reputation she was seeking. Not even the needs of her son could distract her from her love of solitude. Indeed, she did not make any distinction between the needs of her only son and her love of Christ. By her prayers this young man became deeply imbued with Christian teaching which showed itself in the exemplary way he lived his life. He made a brilliant and distinguished marriage and was showered with worldly honours. He had two sons who were a living witness to how good his marriage was.
Many years later news came to her that a granddaughter of hers in Rome had married but wished to renounce the world in order to avoid falling into false teaching or heresies or an evil life. Although an old woman of sixty she immediately took ship from Caesarea and after twenty days arrived at Rome.
There she converted to Christ her niece Avita's husband Aproniamus, and initiated him into the catechumenate. He was a gentilis [= member of the same gens or clan], a most blessed and lovely man of the highest reputation. She persuaded them to live in continence. She persuaded her granddaughter Melania and her husband Pinianus likewise, together with her daughter-in-law Albina to sell all they had and leave Rome with her and enter the haven of a tranquil and virtuous life. This plunged her into a bitterly fierce controversy with the order of Senators and their wives who were totally against the idea of anyone giving up to others their family shrines.
"My children," the handmaid of the Lord then said, "it is written that the last days will be upon us in forty years time. Why should you cheerfully want to stay any longer amidst the vanities of this life? The days of the Antichrist may soon be upon us when you will no longer be able to enjoy your possessions or the customs of your ancestors."
These words freed their minds and she was able to lead them into a monastic life. She gave a course of instruction to the younger son, Publicola, and took him to Sicily. She sold the rest of her possessions and took the money with her to Jerusalem, where she shared it all out. After forty days she died serenely in a good old age. Her memory is venerated for the abundance of the legacy which she left to the monastery at Jerusalem and its upkeep.
After all those whom Melania had introduced to the catechumenate had left Rome a sudden barbarian attack fell upon the city, as had been prophesied. The bronze statues were ripped out of the forum which was defiled by all manner of barbarian degradation. The Rome which for twelve hundred years had been the most beautiful and sought after of cities lay in ruins. It was a desert. As the Sibyl had said, it was now no longer Rome but Ru-me, that is, a village. Then all those who, without very much hesitation, had joined the catechumenate praised their God who had drawn them from unbelief into a changed life. Whereas all the other families were reduced to slavery, their family alone were saved as a sacrifice to the Lord because of the zeal of the blessed Melania. Along with those who turned with them towards salvation, they were protected from the punishment which fell upon the others.
The life of MELANIA THE YOUNGER
Since I have promised to tell the story of Melania's granddaughter I must redeem my promise. It would not be right to have mentioned the life of a younger Melania and pass over in silence the great virtues of this granddaughter of Melania the great, who surpassed many prudent and proficient people much older than herself.
Her parents then gave her in marriage without her consent to one of the leading men in the city of Rome, when she was still very young in years but old in piety and wisdom. Tales of her grandmother had so inspired her that she had not really wanted to get married at all. She gave birth to two sons but they both died. This so turned her against marriage that she complained to her husband, Pinianus the son of Severus.
"I know you are my lord and my whole life lies in your power, but if you want to continue living with me let it be in continence. As a young man you may find that hard to bear, but you have all my property for your own use. Just leave my body free that I may fulfil the longing which God has given me to be the inheritor of the virtue given by God to my grandmother, whose name I bear. If God has wished us to continue living in this world and enjoy the things of this world he would not have taken away our sons so prematurely."
They argued about this for a long time, until God at last had pity on the young man and inspired him with a religious eagerness to turn his back on all the material goods of this world. Thus was fulfilled what was written by the Apostle, 'Wife, how do you know that you won't save your husband?' (1 Cor.7.16).
She had been married at the age of thirteen and had lived with him for seven years, so she was twenty when she renounced the world. The first thing she did was to dedicate all her silken outer garments to the service of the altar (which is what the venerable Olympias did - see Chapter CXLIV). The rest of her clothing she cut up to make various other pieces of church linen. Her silver and gold she entrusted to the care of a certain Paul who was a priest-monk of Dalmatia. He took it by sea to the East, distributing ten thousand shillings to Egypt and the Thebaid, ten thousand to Antioch and the regions roundabout, fifteen thousand to Palestine. She gave money in person to churches in the West, and also to monasteries, guesthouses and the poor. She freed eight thousand of her slaves if they so desired; the rest who did not want freedom she left with her brother. She distributed the proceeds of the sale of her possessions in Spain, Aquitania, Tarraconensis and Gaul, but kept what she owned in Sicily, Campania and Africa in order to help monasteries and the needy. These are the wise things that Melania the younger did first of all. Her attitude towards money was one of great maturity.
The way of life she developed was as follows: She ate only every second day, though at the beginning it was only every fifth day. She was the means of bringing many of her maids into the way of salvation, turning them into athletes of God. She kindled a divine ardour in many of her relations, so that they sought God in the same religious way as she did.
She had her mother Albina with her who lived in much the same sort of way. She also had given away her own money. They lived in the country, sometimes in Sicily, sometimes in Campania, with fifteen eunuchs, virgins and maids.
Pinianus likewise, her former husband, is now of one mind with her in striving to acquire the virtues. He has thirty monks with him and studies the Holy Scriptures. He works in the garden as well as giving conferences. These monks honoured us greatly when we came to Rome to visit blessed John the bishop, giving us hospitality, providing us with food for our journey, and offering a picture of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the way this best kind of life is lived.
One of his relations was a man of the proconsular class called Pammachius, who after renouncing the world lived this best of lives. He gave part of his wealth away while still alive, and at his death left the rest to the poor.
Constantius also, who had been assistant to the prefects of Italy, made one of these eminent and learned en, who achieved the heights of piety and religion. I believe they are still at present alive, living the best kind of life imaginable, looking for the life of bliss and the avoidance of destruction.
PAULA OF ROME
Paula of Rome was one of this company, the mother of Toxotius and the wife of N.She was very highly advanced in a spiritual way of life, but Jerome of Dalmatia was a great hindrance to her. For she could have been a leader over many, not to say everyone, as she was very skilled and knowledgeable about leading the life of virtue. But for sheer envy Jerome prevented her, drawing her into his own sphere of influence.
I did meet Venerea, however, the daughter of Ballomecus of the imperial court. She gave away enough to break the back of a camel and so freed herself from the wounds which can be caused by material goods.
Her sister Adolia also lived a life of virtue, not in order to demonstrate the dignity of such a life, but to demonstrate with the exercise of all her strength that she lived in zeal for God.
Photina was an exemplary virgin, the daughter of Theoctistus, a priest in Laodicea.
In Rome I also met Asella, a most exemplary virgin of God, who lived to an unblemished and gentle old age in the monastery. She also conducted a school where I met several men and women whom she had recently inducted into the catechumenate.
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