Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers. This week I’m featuring Amma Melania the Elder.
Melania was known as “…having been held worthy to be seized upon by divine love,” and “…being hot as fire with divine zeal, and blazing like a flame with the love of Christ.”
Born into the aristocracy and incredible wealth, Amma Melania was widowed by the age of 22. She was also born a Roman citizen, which afforded her certain privileges in the Roman empire many did not enjoy. By the time her husband passed away, she had already spent considerable time devoting herself to intimacy with Christ. Her formative years were spent with Saint Marcella, a woman credited with founding monasticism in Rome. Marcella was herself a member of the aristocracy whose husband had passed away shortly after having been married to him.
Melania, “having been held worthy to be seized upon by divine love,” and knowing that the Emperor had plans for her to marry again in order to keep her wealth in the aristocratic class, arranged a caretaker to prepare her son for the aristocracy (of her 3 children, only her son had survived), and secretly made plans to travel to Egypt in order to study under the mothers and fathers of the desert. She never intended to return to Rome.
Upon arriving in Alexandria, she sold all of her possessions and traveled to Mount Nitria (located in northern Egypt), where she met with the likes of Pambo, Macarius (the Alexandrian), Arisisus, Serapion, Paphnutius, Isidore, and Dioscourus. All were eminent Desert Fathers, influential theologians, and church fathers. She spent six months studying and learning, and was considered by all of them “as mature in the spiritual journey and a capable theologian in her own right.”
She was known as a voracious reader with keen insight: “…she turned the nights into days in reading all the books of the famous Fathers… the works of the blessed Gregory and of the holy man Stephen, and of Pierius and of Basil also, and of other writers, more than two hundred and fifty thousand sayings.” Gregory and Basil were two of the most influential church theologians of the time, and she devoured what they had to say about Christ.
She also studied and was influenced by Origen, an early church father influential in the monastic movement. Some of his teachings were ultimately rejected as unorthodox theology, as he effectively denied the divinity of Christ (he believed divinity was bestowed at Christ’s baptism). Nevertheless, Origen was a key figure in the development of early church theology, specifically the canonization of scripture.
It was said that she would read each book seven or eight times, not reading merely for personal gain, but in order to fully understand the wisdom of the church fathers. It was said that “…she was enabled, being set free from lying doctrine, to fly by means of the gift of learning to great opinions, and she made herself a spiritual bird, and journeyed to Christ her Lord.”
She left Egypt for Palestine with Isidore around 374 and ended up in Jerusalem where she planted a monastic community for women on the Mount of Olives. Eventually, she aided Rufinus (another early church theologian and historian) in planting a neighboring monastic community for men on the same mountain.
Amma Melania spent 27 years in Jerusalem tirelessly working to expand the kingdom of God amongst the people. She funded monastic communities all around the known world with the wealth she had brought from Rome. It was said about her “…being hot as fire with divine zeal, and blazing like a flame with the love of Christ…it belongs also to those who dwell in the country of the Persians to declare it; for there was no man who was deprived of her alms and gifts whether he came from the east, or the west or the north, or the south.”
She was known for her generosity towards the fathers of the desert. Once, she gave Abba Pambo a gift of 300 pounds of silver in order to fund the work of God. She recounts in the story that she stood in front of him and naively expected acknowledgement for the greatness of her gift. But Pambo merely hung his head and instructed his servant to distribute the gift to the poorest monasteries. She then says, “So you may know, O Lord, how much it is, there are three hundred pounds”. He did not so much as raise his head, but said: “My child, He who measures the mountains knows better the amount of silver. If you were giving it to me, you spoke well; but if you are giving it to God, who did not overlook the two obols (Mark 12:42, The Widow’s Mite), then be quiet.”
Though she was humble, she was also a strong leader. While in Palestine distributing funds to the monastic movement, the governor of the region had her imprisoned in hopes of obtaining a bribe. At once, Melania wrote a letter to him and sent it. It said, “I am the daughter of (the aristocracy), and the wife of (royalty), and I am the handmaiden of Christ. Do not treat lightly my poor garb and estate, for I have the power to exalt myself if it pleases me to do so, and you have no authority either to hamper me in this fashion or to carry off any of my property. Now, in order that you may not dare to do anything in ignorance, and so fall under condemnation, behold, I send you this message; …towards senseless and foolish men we should act in a masterful manner, and with pride, even as our noble rank enables us to do, and should treat them as fools and men of no understanding.” When the governor read her rebuke and recognized her position, he released her straightaway and gave orders that she should be free to visit anyone she like at any time she like.
Once, Evagrius (another notable Desert Father) came to her in Jerusalem seeking respite from a trial he had been undergoing in Rome. He fallen in love with a certain noble woman, who had taken a fancy to him. She began sending him a large number of gifts. Evagrius implored God to help him deal with the lust of his heart. Before any action of sin had been taken, an angel appeared to Evagrius in a dream, rebuked him, and told him to leave the city. Heeding the dream, he left for Jerusalem.
Shortly after Evagrius was received by Amma Melania, he became very sick. For six months, no physicians could discover the cause. Melania approached him one day and asked him if he was harboring any sin in his heart, she had recognized that this sickness was not of a normal cause. Evagrius confessed to Melania what had happened in Rome, and that he had been struggling. Melania responded, “Promise me truthfully that from this time onward you will take care of yourself in a habitation of monks, and that you will work to God; and however great a sinner I may be, I will pray for you, and relief will be given to your tribulation.” And like anyone who has ever had a spiritual mother pray for them knows, just as Melania promised, Evagrius was restored, his body was healed, and his heart was changed.
Near the end of her life, she learned that her granddaughter and her husband had committed their lives to the monastic way. She left at once for Rome to teach them and support them. Amma Melania established her grandchildren in Christ, sold the rest of her holdings, converted some of the influential aristocracy to Christ, arranged for the sale of their properties, and brought them all back with her to teach them the ways of Christ. Just another normal day in the life of this notable Desert Mother.
God pierced her heart and she spearheaded the spread of Christian spirituality through the wealth God had bestowed on her from birth. Her granddaughter, Melania the Younger, followed in her footsteps, and continue to influence and support financially the work of the kingdom of God for many years after Melania the Elder had passed away.
Amma Melania the Elder was never to be known for the teaching she handed down (of which next to nothing exists), but was recognized as a highly influential leader and an incredible woman of God.