As the end of the calendar year approaches, many Americans think about their charitable giving. In order to receive credit on the year’s tax return, contributions must be made by December 31, so those of us who have left this until the last minute now make decisions about what charities should receive our checks. Our mail is full of requests – from Public Radio and the Red Cross to International Orthodox Christian Charities and our Orthodox seminaries. We are greeted by the Salvation Army bell ringers at every grocery store; if we are behind in our pledged offerings to our parish, we now try to catch up.
While most of us have a limited dollar amount to spread among the various charities, there is a saint of the Church whose wealth seemed endless and whose desire to be benevolent was boundless: St. Melania of Rome.
Melania was the daughter of a wealthy Roman senator, Valerius Publicola, and his wife, Albina. When their daughter was only fourteen, the couple betrothed her to a cousin, Valerius Pinianus, expecting that she would live the life of a normal Roman matron and provide them with grandchildren. The family were Christians (Albina’s mother, called Melania the Elder, is also honored as a saint) and Melania was a devout young woman who would have preferred the monastic life, but she dutifully accepted her parents’ decisions.
Melania’s life did not go according to her parents’ plans. Early in her marriage, she had two children, one of whom died shortly after birth and one who was stillborn. After this disappointment, rather than becoming despondent at the loss of her children, Melania’s desire for the monastic life was strengthened. She and her husband agreed to lead celibate lives thereafter, devoting themselves to prayer and fasting.
When her father died, Melania inherited his great wealth and discovered that she now owned land all over the Roman Empire – in Italy, Spain, the islands of the Mediterranean, and as far away as Britain. She sold much of this land, giving the money to the poor wherever she could and endowing churches and monasteries.
To escape the invasion of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, Melania and her husband and mother fled to Numidia, where they became friends with Bishop (St.) Augustine of Hippo. Here they founded a monastery for women with Melania as the Abbess and a cloister for men with Pinianus as Abbot. More of Melania’s wealth was distributed to monasteries in Africa. St. Nikolai of Ochrid tells an amusing story of the difficulties that this sometimes presented:
When St. Melania visited the hermits in Egypt with the intention of giving them some financial help, she was astounded at their utter scorning of goods and wealth. Thus, she visited one hermit, Ephestion, and saw nothing in his cell but mats, a bowl for water, a little dry bread and a salt pot. Discovering in advance that the elder would not take money from her, she seized the opportunity to hide several gold pieces in the salt pot. But, as she was on the way back, she heard the elder running after her and calling her to stop. She stopped. The elder held the gold out to her on his palm, saying “I don’t need this; take what’s yours.” Melania said to him: “If you don’t need it, give it to someone else.” He replied: “No-one around here would have any use for it.”
In 417, the couple and her mother went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and stayed in Jerusalem, where they became friends with another of the great saints of the Church, St. Jerome, who lived in a cave in Bethlehem. When both Pinianus and Albina died within a short time of each other, Melania carried on the work of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving alone. She founded another monastery at the Mount of Olives and gave more money to establish orphanages and for the upkeep of churches in the land of our Lord’s earthly life.
At the suggestion of her spiritual father, Abbot Gerontius, Melania traveled to Constantinople to visit an elderly uncle who might help her in distributing the remainder of her fortune. The nun discovered that her uncle Valusian, while wise in financial matters, was in spiritual peril as a staunch pagan. He had also known Bishop Augustine who had been unable to bring Valusian to the Church. But the example of his very determined, very devout niece brought the old man to knowledge of the love of Christ and he, too, became a Christian. The two shared each other’s company until the uncle passed away, and Melania returned to the Holy Land for her last days.
On December 31, 438, after a lifetime of prayer, fasting, and giving of her wealth to help others, St. Melania fell asleep in the Lord with her only worldly possessions a few articles of clothing. As we determine the extent of our charity, may we remember the example of St. Melania and may she intercede for us in Heaven.
Sources: Orthodox Saints, Vol. 4 by George Poulos; Prologue From Ochrid by St. Nikolai Velimirovic, articles on Wikipedia and Orthodox Wiki.