Most of us have heard of the Desert Fathers, and we probably could even name some of them including St. Anthony the Great. However, did you know that there are also Desert Mothers? Well, there are. Many of them lived in the fourth and fifth centuries of the Church, and they were women who withdrew to the desert to live an ascetical life in order to draw closer to Christ.
One of those Desert Mothers is St. Melania (383 - 439). However, if you just took a snapshot of her early life, you might not have predicted that she would embrace a life withdrawn from society. Here is her story.
Born into Vast Wealth and High Society
Melania was born in Rome in the latter part of the fourth century to Valerius Publicola and Albina. Her father, Valerius was the son of Valerius Maximus Basilius and St. Melania the Elder. Melania was born into a high-ranking and wealthy Roman family. As the child of this family, she could anticipate living a life of ease accompanied by power and wealth. Indeed, as the heiress, she could expect to inherit a fortune that would take care of her for her life.
However, Melania did not have a great interest in living the lifestyle of a rich and famous Roman woman. Instead, she aspired to a religious life in which she could spend her time in prayer, conquering herself, and becoming a champion of the spiritual life.
Although, Melania had the right to inherit the family wealth, she was not able to alter her father's plans for her life. At the age of fourteen, which was not uncommon for that time, in obedience to her parents, she was married to a paternal cousin named Valerius Pinianus who was also a Roman noble. The marriage was pleasing to Melania's father because it was the type of match that would be expected of a person of his status and wealth.
Melania tried to live the life of a wealthy and powerful Roman patrician family. It was not to her taste, and we can imagine that from the start she fervently asked God for a different life. Tragically, she bore two children who both died young. During the birth of the second child, she had almost lost her own life.
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The Simple Life
It was perhaps because of her near death experience, that Melania began to step up her activity by pleading with her husband. She asked if they might shed the wealth and status in order to live a life of simplicity and, even, celibacy. Eventually, through the prayers and imploring of his wife, Pinianus agreed. The couple began to live as brother and sister and to emphasize the life of faith.
After Melania's father died, she along with her husband and her mother Albina took action on this plan to leave the life of Roman high society. In the year 408, the three settled in a simple country villa not too far from Rome where they could begin to spend more time focused on growth in the spiritual life. They were soon joined by others who also wanted to live a simpler life, and, a Christian community began to form.
At the same time, Melania and Pinianus began to give away all of their wealth. As between the two of them, they owned vast estates throughout the Roman empire, it would take many years for them to eventually give away all of their wealth.
They gave the money to the Church to help purchase items needed to celebrate mass. Melania also gave money to build new churches and monasteries other parts of the empire such as Antioch and Egypt. She also gave vast sums of money to the poor. And, over time, Melania would free her thousands of slaves.
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Heading Toward the Desert
When the Goths invaded Rome, the community moved to the island of Sicily for a short time. Then, in 410, they traveled to North Africa where they met St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Alypius. Melania was committed to living a life of piety and charity, and wherever they went, she continued to divest herself of her wealth through giving money to the poor and helping the Church. While in North Africa, she had two monasteries built for St. Augustine--one for men and one for women. Melania became the superior for the women and her husband took charge of the men.
In the monasteries, they lived lives of prayer, study, and work. Both the men and women studied Greek and Latin, and they copied manuscripts. Melania also kept her sisters in balance by avoiding extreme ascetic practices and favoring instead moderation in fasting in order to curb any pride that might occur.
After almost seven years in North Africa, Melania, Pinianus, and Albina made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. While they were there, they became friends with St. Jerome, who was busy revising the Latin translation of the Bible, and St. Paula, who happened to be a cousin of Melania. The trio then went to Egypt in order to visit different monasteries in the desert to see how they could model the lives of the monks.
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Becoming a Desert Mother
Not long after they returned to Jerusalem, Melania established a hermitage near the Mount of Olives. The hermitage consisted of individual huts for each hermitess of which there were soon many because they were attracted to Melania and looked to her for leadership. She taught them from all that she learned about living the spiritual life throughout her own life, and she provided the example of how she lived as instruction to the the others. In addition, Melania continued to distribute her wealth to the poor and to help with the building of churches and monasteries in and around Jerusalem.
Then in 431, Melania's mother, Albina, died, and a year later, Pinianus, died. After her husband's death, Melania established a monastery for men with a chapel and a church.
Before embracing the hermetical life herself, she made once last trip to Constantinople. While there, she helped with the conversion of her pagan uncle and fought against the heresy of Nestorianism.
Melania returned home and lived in one of the huts of the hermitage on the Mount of Olives. Melania never left Jerusalem. Instead, she remained at the hermitage as a spiritual athlete training herself for the Kingdom of God. She died around Christmas in 439 at the age of fifty-six.
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Feast Day (Memorial): December 31st