December 31 – Melania the Younger

Melania the Younger (ca. 383–439) was a member of the famous Valeri family, one of the richest, Roman patrician families, or the richest, depending on whom you asked (somebody from the family or outside of it) and who was asking (a doting plebe or a tax collector). They had honors granted no other Roman family, and supplied no fewer than six emperors.

Melania was granddaughter to (St.) Melania the Elder, whose influence caused our Melania to desire a monastic life. Being the last of the Publicola (“The people’s soda”) line, however, she was forcibly married to her cousin, Pinianus (I am not going to try to gloss that). They were 13 and 17, respectively. Melania tried to convince Pinianus to lead a life of virginity, promising to give him her inheritance in exchange (which says something about women’s rights vis-à-vis inheritance), but he insisted on having two sons first. As it turned out, they had first a daughter, who died young, and a son, who died within days of birth. Melania went into post-partum depression and looked like a goner. “I don’t think I can take any more of this,” she said, and Pinianus, who loved her more than progeny itself, agreed to toss in the reproductive towel (so to speak). Melania recovered.

Pinianus then turned the reins over to Melania. My most conservative Orthodox source says (I quote directly lest you think I’m making this up), “Blessed Melania, the Lord’s wise handmaiden, kept a careful watch over both herself and her husband, for she was his teacher and guide, always taking the initiative as she led him on the way of the Lord.” (Not unlike Macrina the Elder and her hubby (May 30).) Together they took care of the sick, the dying, the indigent, the poor, prisoners, and people raising teenagers.

After Melania’s father died, she and Pinianus began giving away their money in earnest. This proved difficult, as their joint land holdings rivaled many smaller modern European countries (and we’re not talking San Marino here). They endowed monasteries, churches, hospitals, orphanages, and internet cafés across the Empire. They had a particularly hard time selling the family’s house in Rome, as it was so expensive that nobody could afford it, even at fire sale prices (figuratively speaking). When the city was sacked by the barbarians and the home was burned, the literal fire sale price became affordable.

They fled down the length of Italy just ahead of the barbarians, and lived for a time in a Sicilian monastery while they sold off their holdings there. They then headed for North Africa, but their ship, of Italian registry, foundered in a storm. They washed ashore on an island with Gilligan, the Skipper too—wait, sorry—an island that had been captured by barbarians, who were preparing to sell the inhabitants as slaves. Melania redeemed them all (at this point in the narrative Pinny’s name drops out until near the end), and there was much rejoicing. They sold off their holdings around Carthage, gave the proceeds to local churches and charities, met Augustine, increased their asceticism, and, after seven years, set sail for Jerusalem.

In the Holy Land, Melania commissioned her mother to found a monastery near Mount Olivet, then took a tour through the desert. She tried to give money to the desert fathers and mothers, but they refused it. As one said, not unreasonably, “We’re in the middle of a desert. Where are we going to spend it?” Melania returned to Jerusalem, gave the last of her coin away, and attempted to live as a hermit, seeing only her mother and her husband. But women (and men) flocked to her wisdom, so out of compassion she became a spiritual guide (and wonderworking healer) to many, although she refused to be abbessified.

After burying her beloved Pinianus, Melania converted a pagan uncle, fought Nestorianism, met Paula and Jerome, and died. Her last words were: “May the Lord’s will be done.”