The Life of Saint Melania, Author’s Preface

It has not been our intention in the following sketch to provide a complete life of Saint Melania the Younger. This is a task we willingly leave to the wiser and more skillful pens of others. We merely wish to outline, however roughly, the splendid figure of this noble Roman lady, and to summarize the authentic sources of information regarding her career. Until recently, it must be confessed, we had no record of the Saint except what was left to us in the Greek tongue by Simon Logothetes better known under the name of the Metaphrast and a few allusions in the Historia Lausiaca of Palladius. The incidental references to her which we find scattered here and there in the writings of Saint Paulinus of Nola, of Saint Augustine, and of Saint Jerome, are limited to passing allusions and particular incidents, which might be of use for the knowledge of certain details or to clear up some isolated point in dispute, but which could never constitute the basis of a biography. In the West, the memory of the Roman heroine was completely obscured and forgotten until quite late in the middle ages. The first to revive it was Peter de Natalibus, who, in the year 1382, gave a very brief synopsis of the references to the Saint found in that Latin version of Palladius’ work which was current in his time. Later historians and hagiographers, even of eminence, confined themselves, it might be said, almost exclusively either to the Latin version of the Metaphrast, which was very imperfectly rendered by Surius, or to the incomplete and interpolated text of Palladius, the source of not a few historical and chronological errors. It is also surprising to find that writers of still more recent times, whilst attaching importance to the documents which have recently come to light, have nevertheless passed over the Natale XIII of Saint Paulinus of Nola, which was discovered by Muratori towards the end of 1697, and which contains precious information regarding Melania and her husband Pinianus.

Such were, even in our own days, the only available sources of historical information, when in the October of the year 1884, during a brief sojourn in the Royal Monastery of the Escurial, we availed ourselves of the courteous permission of the Librarian to examine some codices in the important collection with which Philip II has enriched that wonderful building. Amongst the other manuscripts we came across one which at once attracted our attention. It was the Life of Saint Melania the Younger in a Latin text hitherto unknown. As we rapidly perused it, we were struck with the simplicity of the style, and the abundance of detail as well as with the authoritative information of the writer, who was evidently a contemporary of the Saint, and an eye-witness of the facts which he related. It was not an easy matter to deal with an unpublished document of the first half of the fourth century, therefore we set about transcribing it as accurately as possible with our own hand. Other anxious cares prevented us for a long time from making this copy known, and it thus remained hidden for several years. Meanwhile, in 1885, Molinier and Kohler* published certain passages of a codex in the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris, which treated of Melania’s travels in Northern Africa, Egypt and Palestine. Four years later, through the efforts of the learned Father de Smedt and his Bollandist colleagues, there was published all that remained of the Life of Saint Melania the Younger in the same codex, and in another still more ancient one in the Library of Chartres, both of them, however, mutilated. The distinguished editor supplied the gaps by falling back upon the Latin version of the Greek text of the Metaphrast. In April, 1900, the second International Congress of Christian Archaeology met in Rome. Yielding to the courteous insistence of the Committee, we communicated to the Congress a compendious notice of the whole text of the biography of the holy matron which we had discovered fifteen years before, to which we added some general observations, with the view of throwing into relief its exceptional importance. This communication was received with indulgent favour.

In our studies of the Life of Saint Melania we received much encouragement from high authorities, especially from the Bollandists, just mentioned, who were anxious to have a document of such moment printed entire. We are now in a position to correspond with this desire, and we are the better able to do so owing to the discovery of fresh manuscripts by the same Bollandist Fathers, more particularly of a copy of the Greek text of Saint Melania’s Life. These materials have enabled us to publish the text of the Escurial in a more accurate form, with the addition of a critical apparatus.

And here a few words may be said of the author of Melania’s biography. In this work he clearly reveals himself to us as the Saint’s familiar friend, the companion of her travels, and her chaplain.

In the year 404 he was living in Rome, and accompanied Melania on the occasion of her visit to the Princess Serena. He was also with her in 439, in the Monastery on Mount Olivet, where he was present at her holy death and shared in the general sorrow for her loss. He gratefully acknowledges that it was to Melania he owed his conversion from a life of worldliness, and the subsequent grace of the priesthood. He accompanied Melania in all her travels in Africa, Jerusalem, and Constantinople. He received from her the charge to build a monastery for men on Mount Olivet, and assisted her in the direction of her monastery for virgins. At her death he assumed the government of both monasteries on Mount Olivet. Now, we know for certain from Cyril of Scythopolis, a very reliable writer of the sixth century, that Melania’s successor in the direction of the monasteries of Palestine was one Gerontius, of whom Cyril wrote that he was the successor of the Blessed Melania. Saint Melania died on the 31st December, 439, and Gerontius, her successor, continued to govern the monasteries until 485, a period of forty-five years.

Peter the Iberian, who was at one time a fervent Catholic and a devoted client of Melania, was a contemporary of Gerontius. After the Council of Chalcedon, he allowed himself to be drawn into the Monophysite heresy by Theodosius, who had thrust himself into the Bishopric of Jerusalem. Peter the Iberian was consecrated Bishop of Majuma, near Gaza, in Palestine. He had lived for some years in the Saint’s Monastery, together with a certain John, who came with him from Constantinople. Peter had intimate relations with Melania’s chaplain, from whom he received the religious habit.

Now, the anonymous biographer of Peter the Iberian tells us definitely that the priest who was superior of Melania’s monastery at Mount Olivet was no other than Gerontius, a native of Jerusalem, who, on account of his noble and virtuous disposition, had been brought up from childhood by Melania and Pinianus, adding that his virtues merited for him ordination to the priesthood. But the whole passage is of importance and deserves to be quoted in full. The exact words of Peter’s anonymous biographer are as follows:

“This Gerontius, originally from Jerusalem, who enjoyed very wide renown, received when a child all that was necessary for his maintenance from Saint Melania and her consort. Having been piously brought up in their house, he was judged worthy to receive the holy habit of the monks, for he was remarkable for his irreproachable conduct. Therefore they both took him to the Holy Sepulchre of our Lord, and gave him the habit on the mountain, and thus he was, so to say, invested with it by the hands of Our Lord Himself, after he had prayed that God would bestow upon him with the habit the three gifts of right faith, of holiness, and of tears. He was, indeed, favoured with these three gifts, especially with the gift of tears; so that being the priest and the superior of the monasteries of Mount Olivet, he often on the same day of the week celebrated three masses, one on the holy mount, a second in the monastery for men, and the third in the monastery for women. During the remaining time, he celebrated in private for Saint Melania, according to the custom of the Church of Rome; and at each of these assemblies, from the beginning of the mass until the end, he shed tears so copiously, accompanied by such expressions of sorrow and of contrition, that the whole congregation could not refrain from bursting out into cries, groans and lamentations.”

Further testimony regarding Gerontius is afforded by John, Bishop of Majuma, who was a native of Southern Palestine. During the administration of Severus, the Patriarch of Antioch (512-518), he wrote a work of considerable importanice, entitled the Plerophorice, consisting of anecdotes favourable to the Monophysites, which were mostly contributed by Peter the Iberian. These have been preserved to us in a Syriac codex, now in the British Museum, which was written in 875, and of which F. Nau, in 1898, published a French translation. Now in the XLI chapter of the work Bishop John relates that in consequence of a grave nocturnal scandal which had occurred in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre through the behaviour of an unworthy deacon, the whole city was seized with terror, and that Peter the Iberian told his monks that “Gerontius, the deacon of Blessed Melania’s monastery, from that day fasted twice whenever he had to take part in the evening office.” After this clear testimony from such varied sources, from writers both in the Catholic and in the Monophysite camp, we are forced to the conclusion that Gerontius is without doubt the priest to whose care Melania confided the direction of her monasteries, and that he is consequently the author of the Life of which we are now treating.

Gerontius regarded Melania as his spiritual mother, and during her lifetime was devotedly attached to her as one from whom he had received so many benefits. He was her constant companion, accompanying her to Africa, to Jerusalem, and to Constantinople. He does not mention that he was also with her on the occasion of her second visit to the monasteries of Egypt. He seldom speaks of himself, but even these brief allusions reveal to us his modesty, his piety, and his zeal in co-operating with Melania for the welfare of the monasteries which she founded. We have striking proof of this zeal in the beautiful Monastery of the Ascension, which was erected under his direction about the year 436, in an incredibly short space of time. His kindliness and his strict veracity are also clearly discernible.

He does not, indeed, seem to have been a scholar conspicuous for literary culture. He was rather a simple, God-fearing man, wholly devoted to the monastic life and the offices of religion. Melania, who had educated him, and thus knew his virtue, esteemed him so highly that she admitted him to her intimate friendship and reposed the utmost confidence in him. The fact that the Saint regarded him as worthy to be entrusted with the care of her monasteries is an indisputable proof of the excellent qualities of Gerontius. He gives us no indication in his writings of the exceptionally fervent piety and the gift of tears which the author of the Life of Peter the Iberian attributes to him. His practice of sometimes saying three Masses on the one day was not contrary to the discipline then prevailing, which allowed a certain liberty in that respect. It only proves that Melania had but one chaplain to provide the religious services of her monasteries. What the author of the Life of Peter the Iberian tells us is confirmed in Saint Melania’s own biography at least with regard to her last years on earth. Of the three Masses said by Gerontius on the same day, one was for the monks of the Ascension monastery and one for those of the monastery erected near the graves of Pinianus and Albina. The third Mass was celebrated in the monastery in which Melania resided, and to which an oratory was attached, where the Holy Sacrifice was offered on every Sunday and Friday, as well as on festivals. Saint Melania’s biographer tells us that she communicated every day, according to the practice in Rome. It would seem therefore that she assisted at the Mass which was said daily for her by her chaplain.

Readers who are not familiar with the customs of the early centuries may also regard it as very improbable that Gerontius should have received the monk’s habit from Saint Melania, as described by the biographer of Peter the Iberian. But if we bear in mind that everyone was free in that age to put on the religious habit how and when he pleased, that it was a purely private act, which was performed without the intervention of any authority, and unaccompanied by any form of ritual, we shall not feel surprised that Gerontius should have received it from a woman. We have an example recorded, belonging to the same period which proves how worthy of credence the biographer’s statement is in itself. When the famous Evagrius Ponticus fled from the allurements of Constantinople he went to Jerusalem, where he was entertained by the elder Melania. Upon his recovery from illness he was drawn to embrace the monastic life, and, we are told, received the religious habit from his hostess.

The monasteries founded by Melania continued to flourish under the direction of Gerontius for twelve years after her death, until the promulgation of the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon (November, 451). Whether owing to the esteem of the Empress Eudoxia for the Saint’s foundations and the generosity she showed them, or on account of the celebrity which Melania herself had acquired and the universal veneration in which she was held, Gerontius, as we shall see, occupied a position enjoying considerable prestige amongst the other monks in the Holy Land. Suddenly, an unexpected whirlwind burst over the flourishing churches and monasteries of Palestine, and overwhelmed them in destruction. Melania’s foundations did not escape the general ruin, as unfortunately their superior, Gerontius, was one of the principal victims.

The doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon with regard to the heresy of Eutyches was the cause of the disaster. This forms a sad page in Palestinian History, and is well worthy of elucidation in the light of certain documents only recently discovered.

Upon the termination of the Council of Chalcedon, in November, 451, Theodosius, a monk from Alexandria, who had supported the cause of Eutyches, went to Jerusalem, where, by misrepresenting the meaning of the definitions of the Council, he succeeded in confusing the simple and little cultivated minds of the monks in the Holy Land. He created disturbances amongst the people, who broke out into deplorable excesses. They regarded the Fathers of the Chalcedon Council as contravening the teaching of the Synod of Ephesus, which had condemned the errors of Nestorius. By skillfully fanning the flame, Theodosius managed to create a general revolt against the new decrees of the Council. Very soon this agitation, to which other important causes contributed, produced the gravest results. On Easter Sunday, 452, Theodosius, having driven away Juvenal, the rightful bishop, installed himself in the episcopal seat in the Church at Jerusalem. Juvenal, meanwhile, repaired to Constantinople. The orthodox bishops having been expelled from Palestine, their sees were filled by the adherents of Theodosius. Amongst these was Peter the Iberian, who was appointed to the See of Majuma. All the monastic communities in the province, and the number was very large, together with ten thousand other monks, withdrew from Juvenal, and unanimously submitted to the usurper, Theodosius, who ruled alone, and held all under his authority. One monastery only, through the means of Saint Euthymius, remained faithful. Saint Euthymius had been correctly informed by his pupil Stephen, Bishop of Jamnia, who had taken part in the Council, of the intention and the real belief of the Fathers. Hence the Saint, with all the monks of his laura at Faran, adhered to the Chalcedonian doctrine. With this exception, in a short time, Palestine became the stronghold of Monophysite error.

We cannot doubt the good faith of the greater number of these monks who were deceived by the astute Theodosius. When the Emperor Marcianus asked them to submit to the decrees of Chalcedon, they replied that they certainly condemned the heresy of Eutyches, who maintained that Christ’s human nature was wholly absorbed in the Divine; but, on the other hand, they rejected the doctrine of the two natures in Christ. Their intelligence was too uncultivated to enable them to distinguish between person and nature. Hence they maintained that to admit two natures in Christ was tantamount to admitting two persons, and thus reviving the Nestorian heresy. The error of the monks of Palestine was in effect a species of monotheism which must be distinguished from the heresy of Eutyches. Meanwhile, the Pope, Saint Leo, treated the rebels with the utmost benignity. At first he was not accurately informed of their theological position, and hence he called their resistance insanam imperitiam monachorum. Later it came to his knowledge that, through the exertions of some ignorant or malicious person, a false Greek translation of his famous letter to Flavianus, upon which the decrees of the Council were based, had been circulated amongst these monasteries. This translation, by altering his meaning, had been the cause of serious scandal. The Pope, on learning this, addressed a paternal letter to the monks, which was at once doctrinal and admonitory. He hoped to afford them an easy retreat from the false position in which they had placed themselves. But the great Pontiffs apostolic solicitude had not at once the desired effect. In this sad revolt from authority, Gerontius’ part was by no means a secondary one. It is easy to perceive that he was regarded as one of the most influential of the cenobites of the Holy Land. As a proof of this, Cyril of Scythopolis relates that the usurper, Theodosius, wished to procure the submission of the only monastery which rejected his submission, namely that of Euthymius, situated a short distance from Jerusalem. Finding himself unable to secure an interview with Euthymius, he sent an embassy, consisting of Elpidius and Gerontius, of whom one was the successor of the great Passarion, and the other the representative of the Blessed Melania, to dispute with him and to convince him. To be employed on such an errand these two monks must have enjoyed: much prestige and authority amongst their brethren. Unfortunately it so happened that whilst Euthymius succeeded in convincing Elpidius of the orthodoxy of the Council of Chalcedon, although he preferred to remain in communion with Theodosius, Gerontius held firmly to his previous opinions, in which he never wavered, until the year 485, when he finally resigned the direction of the monasteries entrusted to him by Saint Melania.

Various causes seem to have contributed to the obstinate resistance of Gerontius. Foremost amongst these was his intense hatred of the Nestorian heresy which he had inherited from Melania. In fact, the Saint, in her burning zeal for the true faith, had exercised, during her life time, a real apostolate in defence of Catholic teaching and against Nestorianism.

It was this ardent defence of the truth which strengthened the bonds of friendship which united Saint Melania to the great champion of the Council of Ephesus, Saint Cyril of Alexandria. When she afterwards visited the court of Constantinople she converted, by her eloquent words, many of the nobility who had been drawn into the heresy of Nestorius. It was impossible that Gerontius, who had been a witness of all this, should not be filled with the same ardent feelings as his saintly benefactress. To this must be added the falsification of the documents of the Fathers which had taken place in Palestine, by means of which the conviction that the Council of Chalcedon had betrayed the faith as defined by the Council of Ephesus, had taken deep root in the minds of these imperfectly educated ascetics. But there were also two other very definite motives which probably even more strongly urged Gerontius to resistance his personal relations with the Empress Eudoxia and with Peter the Iberian.

Upon the nature of the influence exerted by these two distinguished personages it does not seem necessary to dwell. It can only be said that the motives which weighed with Gerontius in this obstinate resistance to the decrees of Chalcedon do not seem to have been altogether unworthy. Both the Empress and also Peter the Iberian, whose romantic career shows him to have been a far from ignoble character, had been numbered by Saint Melania amongst her more devoted friends. Peter in particular, like Gerontius himself, had entered one of Melania’s monasteries while she was still living, and must presumably have been regarded as her spiritual son. In any case the particulars above rehearsed help to throw light upon the part taken by Gerontius in the revolt of the monks of Palestine. The close friendship existing between him and Peter the Iberian, combined with the great prestige of the latter and his eminent personal gifts, undoubtedly contributed to strengthen both in their obstinate adherence to their opinions. These two souls were dear to Melania’s heart. She had received both with a mother’s tender love. What a sorrow for her could she have foreseen their fall! Perhaps it was some prophetic instinct which caused the Saint, when investing Gerontius with the religious habit at the Sepulchre of Our Divine Redeemer, to pour forth such fervent prayers that he might receive the gift of true faith. Alas, through the mysterious obstacles sometimes opposed by the will of man to the action of Divine Grace, the Saint’s prayers were ineffectual.

And now in closing this brief account of Melania’s biographer, we may invite the reader to peruse the summary, in which we have tried to collect and sift the scattered materials for the life of the Saint herself. It is our earnest wish that this study of fourth century history may succeed in throwing fresh light upon the times in which, and the persons amongst whom she lived.

Melania being the central figure in our narrative, it was meet that we should spare no effort which might tend to throw that figure into greater relief. To this end we have laboured, by tracing the Saint’s footsteps throughout the varied events of her career, from her birth amidst the royal splendour of her father’s palace to her saintly death close beside the ever-living memories of the Passion of her heavenly Spouse. No example, it seems to us, is likely to prove a more profitable antidote to the spirit of the age in which we live than the story of the splendid renunciation of this noble lady.

Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro