Amma Melania The Younger
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Amma Melania?
Amma Melania the Younger had for her inspiration her grandmother, who was her namesake, Amma Melania the Elder. Melania the Elder’s influence had far reaching effects, and her granddaughter was to live her life to similar effect.
Born in 383AD to wealthy and influential parents, Melania the Younger’s marriage was arranged at the young age of 13 to Valerius Pinianus, a 17 year old whose father held one of the highest ranks in Rome. Even at such a young age, her desire was for Christ. Later in life she would say that from her childhood she had dedicated her life entirely to Christ. She was described as…
“having a heart burning with divine fire.”
Like her grandmother, she came under the influence of Amma Marcella, an influential woman in Rome training others in the spiritual life. Melanie the Younger dedicated 7 years of her life to fulfilling the role of a wife and mother. She gave birth to two children, but by the age of 20 both had died.
After the death of both of her children, she was even more convinced that she was called to the monastic life. Soon after, she told her husband…
“If you choose to practise asceticism (fasting, prayer, etc…) with me according to the fashion of chastity, then I recognize you as master and lord of my life. But if this appears grievous to you, being still a young man, take all my belongings and set my body free, that I may fulfil my desire toward God and become heir of the zeal of my grandmother, Whose name I also bear. For if God had wished us to have children, He would not have taken away my children untimely.”
Her goal was not freedom from her husband, but rather dedication to Christ. She was willing to give up everything she had to gain Christ.
After struggling together for a time, her husband joined her in the monastic life and dedicated himself to God. It was said that God put a zeal in his heart for the spiritual life, and he became an influential monk and life-long companion of Melania. Together they planted monasteries, taught others about God, and funded the building of monasteries across the known world.
A NEW Life of Freedom
She and Valerius distributed her vast wealth across the East and West, giving through a trustworthy monk…
“…10,000 pieces of money to Egypt and the Thebaid, 10,000 pieces to Antioch and its neighbourhood, 15,000 to Palestine, 10,000 to the churches in the islands and the places of exile, while she herself distributed to the churches in the West in the same way.”
Melania was very much the inspiration for the spiritual life they practiced, she established the method of spiritual discipline they were to practice in the monasteries they planted. Valerius, Melania’s mother, and Melania soon left Rome to enter into the solitary life at a villa in the countryside. The villa became known as…
“…a centre of hospitality, of charity and of religious life.”
Many slaves joined their community, and their kind treatment of the slaves attracted widows, young women, and families to them. It was said that Amma Melania “freed 8000 slaves who wished freedom,” allowing for each a few pieces of gold.
They travelled to Africa, where she established a monastery for men and one for women on her family’s land. She released the slaves that were employed by her family and many chose to join the monastic lifestyle. Her daily work consisted of…
“…the transcription of books, in both Greek and Latin, and five hundred years later manuscripts were still in circulation that were attributed to her hand.”
After having spent 7 years in Africa supporting the monasteries there, in the year 417, Melania, her mother, and her husband travelled to Jerusalem and Amma Melania set to work planting monasteries and supporting them financially, continuing the work her grandmother had begun years prior.
Melania and Valerius travelled to Egypt to study under the fathers and mothers of the desert. She found herself so inspired, upon returning to Jerusalem, she redoubled her efforts to advance in the knowledge of God, and to have her heart lifted to Him.
Standard of Living
In a time when austerity of life was celebrated in monastic communities, Melanie was rather soft in what she expected of the disciplined life in those she mentored. She held herself to high standard, and was just as disciplined as the most severe ascetics of her time, yet she did not hold those of her community to her same strict standard. She seemed to recognize the temptation to pride when it came to fulfilling spiritual disciplines, and relaxed her expectation of discipline. She even established a bath as part of the monastic community in order to look after the health of the monks, something nearly unheard of at the time.
She taught them to pray together.
“The community prayed together several times each day. They prayed in anticipation of dawn, an office that consisted of three psalms, three readings, and fifteen antiphons as the sun rose. They prayed together again at the third, sixth, and ninth hours.”
She was known for her incredible humility.
Once, while being a praised by a queen she was visiting, it said of her,
"And the servant of God, listening to these things, was not puffed up by the praise, but the more the Queen exalted her, the more she humbled herself, fulfilling the word of the prophet : ‘All the glory of man is as the grass of the field. (1 Peter 1:24)’”
Her approach to humility was practical. When asked once whether she was ever tempted by pride she responded by simply stating,
“To say the truth, I am not, indeed, conscious of any good in myself.”
She then went on to say that anytime the enemy tempted her to pride, she would remind herself that others had done more than her. If pride for her fasting, she reminded herself that others had fasted for longer and more effectively. If pride towards the life of poverty she had adopted, she would remind herself that others had lived with greater poverty. Of if it was pride towards the poverty of her dress, she would remind herself that others were worse off then her. She said,
“So if the enemy suggested to me to be proud of my poverty, I, trusting in the Divine Power, would strive to confound his malice.”
So perhaps, when our thoughts accuse us of being unworthy, the greater discipline is not to contradict the thought with greater theological principle, but rather to agree with the thought and recognize the depth of our need for Christ.
The Spiritual Teachings of Amma Melania
Submission to authority was a vital key to her approach to the spiritual life. If a subject cannot be loyal to a king, all manner of confusion would break out. She would often tell the story of an Elder who was approached by a young man wishing to be his disciple. The Elder told the young man to hurl insults and strike a nearby statue. The young man did so three times. Each time the Elder asked him if the statue reacted to the abuse. The young of course answered that it had not. Then the Elder said,
“If you can endure the same abuse without answering back, just like this statue, which withstood all the offensive treatment you inflicted on it, proceed in confidence and take advantage of the training you will receive from us; if not, do not undertake to spend your life with us.”
To the Desert Fathers and Mothers, submission was not only about honouring authority, it carried the deeper element of teaching us submission to Christ. If we cannot submit to the authority he has placed in our lives, how can we hope to submit to the presence of Christ. Submission involved the heart, and was fundamental to abiding in Christ. If an insult could move the statue from its place of complete rest and incite inner turmoil, then an insult could move it away from that peace and rest of Christ.
The two pillars of her teaching were charity and chastity. The monk was to protect purity of heart, and be moved by love of God to serve others.
Her mission was to instruct those she mentored in the life of virtue and spiritual works. She taught them to…
“…warily guard against all bad thoughts, not allowing their minds to wander, but fixing their attention upon the Psalms.”
Purity of thought and purity of heart were vital to the spiritual life…
“…let the sanctification of soul and body be dear to us, for without this no one shall see God.”
But purity of heart should not stop at interior peace, it should be moved to exterior action.
“Instructed by the Holy Scriptures, and directing our gaze upon Christ our Lord, we should mutually observe sincere charity, for without spiritual charity all religious practice of virtue is vain…”
The internal gaze of the heart upon Christ should move the heart to works of charity.
She taught that we should consider the brevity of life.
If we were to consider our actions in light of eternal consequences, how would that change what we dwelt upon?
When it came to relationship with Christ, it was nearly our obligation to serve him.
“Consider, sisters, how the subjects of earthly and mortal princes wait upon them with all fear and attention, and with what fear and trembling ought we to fulfil our Divine Office in the presence of the tremendous Heavenly King.”
If we take for example the way people serve a prince, we ought to serve our Heavenly King with even more fervour.
As she was in the final days of her life, those that surrounded her were filled with grief at the thought of losing the one they cared so dearly for. Her mother and her companion Valerius had passed away years before. Her last prayer was recorded by her biographer, Gerontius. She lifted her voice with tears in her eyes, and prayed in her final hours.
“O Lord, the God of the holy martyrs, who knows all things before the beginning, You know that from the beginning I chose to love You with my whole heart, and that my bones have cleaved to my flesh from fear of You, for You formed me in my mother's womb, and I consecrated my body and soul to You, and You, holding me by Your right hand, have led me with Your counsel, but as I, being clothed in humanity, have many times sinned both in word and deed against You, who alone are pure and without sin, accept, therefore, my prayer which with tears I offer You…purify me, Your handmaiden, that departing to You…I may pass to You without stain, escorted by Your holy angels, and may be made worthy of Your heavenly marriage feast, after hearing that blessed greeting of Yours which those in whom You are well-pleased shall receive from You: ‘Come, blessed of my Father, take hold of the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ For ineffable are Your mercies and the fullness of Your compassion, and You save all those that trust in You.”
Shortly thereafter she retired to God in 56 in 439 AD.