The Life of Saint Melania, Editor’s Preface

cover of the ebook version of 'The Life of Saint Melania', by Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del TindaroA discussion upon the literary recreations of statesmen out of office might form an interesting chapter in any new edition of the Curiosities of Literature. Mr. Disraeli and Mr. Gladstone, as we are all aware, used in turns to find solace for the reverses of political fortune by the ardour of their devotion to letters. If this devotion took very divergent forms, according to their respective and varying tastes, it none the less lent a certain impressiveness to the whole arena of statecraft in which they were the acknowledged leaders. So no one who knows anything of the history of the last Conclave can fail to realise that when Cardinal Rampolla, less than three years after his dignified submission to the veto of a hostile government, published a stately folio attesting his continued allegiance to the studies which had been his first love*, he not only set a great example of Christian fortitude, but once more justified the choice which had made him both Prince of the Church and one of its most influential administrators. As Abbot Cuthbert Butler, than whom no one more competent to pronounce judgment, has written in our leading theological review:

“That such a book should have been produced by one who for nearly twenty years had borne the burdens which now fall on a Cardinal Secretary of State, and a Secretary of State under a master so active and exacting as Leo XIII, is certainly a phenomenon. For in this volume Cardinal Rampolla shows that on the common basis of scholarship and learning he can meet on equality professional scholars.”

As for the contents of the Cardinal’s great work, it consists of an edition of the Latin and Greek texts of the Life of Saint Melania the Younger, the Latin text, as His Eminence explains, having been first discovered by himself now nearly twenty-five years ago in the library of the Escurial. But over and above the text, his volume has served as the shrine of an immense apparatus of miscellaneous learning. In the words of Abbot Butler’s notice just referred to, the book “probably contains all that can be known from extant materials concerning the younger Melania and the whole circle in which she moved.”

To translate the whole monograph in its entirety just as Cardinal Rampolla has given it to the world would require a volume of more than a thousand octavo pages, neither would the vast array of bibliographical references and the many minute points of erudition upon which the author spends so much space and learning have any interest for the general reader. Those who are keen about investigating such details are usually in a position to study the original for themselves without difficulty. At the same time the illustrious author, amid other matters of diversified interest, has incorporated in his work a straight-forward summary of the history of Saint Melania and her times, which, in the opinion of the translator and the friends whom she consulted, it was well worth while to render accessible to an English public. With the generous permission of His Eminence Cardinal Rampolla, this has been attempted in the present volume; while the author’s biographical sketch has here and there been supplemented, where an interpolation seemed feasible without interference with the sequence of thought, by sundry passages translated directly from the Latin or Greek text of the original Life. It is hoped that the result of this patchwork will be found to read not too unevenly as a piece of continuous narrative.

There are Saints’ Lives and Saints’ Lives. In no species of serious composition, as Father Delehaye, the Bollandist, has lately instructed us, have so many different types of historically worthless materials folk-lore, myth, legend, not to speak of pure fabrication palmed themselves off upon the unsuspecting good faith of the pious believer. We might almost say that the bulk of these documents, especially those belonging to certain specified epochs, are devoid of any touch of human individuality. They are like the portraits of Holy Doctors or Virgins, painted according to the canons of Byzantine art. We might shuffle all the names and almost all the dates, and the new arrangement would be just as near the truth, as much or as little instructive as the old. Miracles abound in such records, together with virtues and moral reflections of the most approved quality, but there is nothing for the memory to lay hold of. To have read one is to have read them all.

Still, there are some few remarkable exceptions to be found in this incredibly weary waste of banality and tediousness. Here and there, the searcher, in turning over the leaves of old lectionaries and passionaries, whether Latin or Greek, will light upon some really human document, which will well repay him for the trouble he has taken. It may be a set of Acts of some martyrdom in Rome or Asia Minor, embodying fragments of the official interrogatories of the prisoner, or the description of an eye-witness. It may be the brief memoir, dictated by some hermit in the desert, full of vivid touches, breathing the very atmosphere of those strange surroundings. It may be the narrative of the life of some great teacher or religious foundress, written down according to the faithful memory of a disciple, one who is far too impressed with the holiness of his subject to tamper with the truth, or alter in one tittle the facts of which his eyes and ears were the witnesses.

Such is the Life of Saint Melania the Younger which Cardinal Rampolla was the first to give to the world entire. He has edited it with a wealth of erudition which few of those who used to discuss the Cardinal Secretary of State so freely would have dreamed of connecting with his name; but valuable as are the introduction, notes, and dissertations which form the bulk of his handsome volume, the most precious part of all is the text itself, emphatically a human document, belonging to one of the most interesting periods of Christian history. Saint Melania was born in A.D. 383, and died in 439. She spent her early life, of which a full account is given, in Rome, travelled all over the Roman world, and finally settled in Jerusalem, where she met Saint Jerome in his declining years. The Life consequently belongs to that extraordinarily interesting period of the break up of paganism and the early incursions of the barbarians, the last days of Roman greatness before Constantinople became the permanent centre of empire. The narrator writes as one who had been the devoted servant of the Saint, who had accompanied her and her husband in some of their wanderings, and who finally became a priest and inmate of an affiliated religious establishment in Jerusalem, the association embracing both monks and nuns (like the double monasteries of England a few centuries later), of which Saint Melania was both foundress and Superior. The general features and even the details of the story have long been known through the redaction of the so-called Metaphrast, belonging to a much later century. But the stilted and characterless phraseology of the Metaphrast leaves a very different picture from the vigorous if rude language of the contemporary who had lived with the Saint and loved her. We should be inclined to consider it one of the most deeply interesting hagiographical documents which the early Church has preserved to us.

The living interest of the narrative strikes us from the very first sentences of the biographer’s quaint dedication, addressed to some unknown Bishop:

“Blessed be God,” he says, “who prompted thy honoured person, O most holy priest of God, to write to my insignificance, encouraging me to tell the story of the life of our most blessed mother Melania, now dwelling with the Angels. At first I resisted thy Holiness because I was not equal to such a work. But just as God, when Moses demurred about governing His people, did not yield to him, but gave him his brother to help him, so thou, O priest of Christ, hast lent thy prayers in order to aid me in my task. For me even this is not assistance enough, for I think that surely no one would be able to tell her virtues, the glowing heat of her renunciation, her faith or her benefactions or her watchings; or again, her death, her patient endurance, or her abstemiousness, her gentleness, her humility, or the scantiness of her apparel. It is true that Holy Scripture says: ‘Give the wise man opportunity and he will become wiser yet’; but, I fear lest, while wishing as I do to declare her praises, I should rather do her an injury through telling my story ill. Still, I have likened myself to the fisher-folk casting their lines into the water, who know well that they cannot fish up all the fish in the sea, and that, not even if all the fishermen in the world assembled together, could they do it any the better, but yet each of them doing his utmost as well as he is able, gathers in the end a goodly store.”

How living and real is the personal interest of the narrative, despite the biographer’s many apologies for his shortcomings, may best be illustrated by a passage which has accidentally escaped transcription in the pages which follow, but which well deserves to be preserved. Melania, the great Roman heiress, was married, as we shall see, at the age of only fourteen years, and much against her will, to one Pinianus, a noble young Christian, who was destined later on to become, through his wife’s influence, the sharer of all her ascetical practices. At the very outset of their married life, Melania made a desperate effort to persuade her husband to live with her merely as a dear brother. To this Pinianus would not at first consent, but eventually, when he had learnt to see an indication of God’s will in the premature death of the two children that were born to them, he assented to his wife’s desire in this matter, though in other things he still clung to the world, and more particularly to the style and dress suited to his senatorial rank. Some years passed in this fashion, years marked no doubt by his bride’s unceasing prayers in secret that he, like herself, might become enamoured of the poverty of Christ. But, as we learn from the Latin text of the Life

“One day the Saint, taking Pinianus aside, began tenderly and respectfully to question him. What she asked was whether carnal love had still any place in his heart, whether it ever occurred to him now to think of her as a wife. Pinianus, with a smiling face, and full of the joy of the Lord, answered her cheerily, ‘Happy art thou to love thy husband after such sort. Be satisfied on my account, quite satisfied in our Lord, that ever since we made together our promise to God, I have had just the same feeling for thee as for Albina, thy saintly mother.’ On hearing these words Melania kissed him upon the breast and upon the hands, and gave glory to God for this firm resolution. But a few days afterwards, anxious that he should always advance in perfection, she said to him again; ‘Pinianus, my lord, listen to me as a mother, as thy spiritual sister; lay aside these costly Cilician robes, dress thyself in more sober fashion.’ Like the boy that he was, Pinianus, on hearing this, was rather cast down, but in order that he might not see her look unhappy, and knowing that all was done for God and for his own eternal welfare, he assented with a good grace, and began to dress in the cheaper garments of Antioch. But Melania, like a busy bee, was eager to add flower to flower on his behalf. She pressed him to adopt an even coarser dress, and this in fact he did. Eventually his clothes cost no more than a gold piece, or two thirds of a gold piece, and Melania fashioned them for him herself out of the cheapest natural wool without dye of any sort.”

There is something wonderfully delicate and natural about the flavour of all this. Perhaps some such touch of what we might almost call a sweet playfulness, if it were not for the earnest purpose which underlies the whole, was needed to relieve that sterner impression which Melania’s apostolate of asceticism could hardly fail to produce. In any case there can be no two opinions as to the lifelike character of this peep into the domestic relations of these noble souls. For this reason alone I should find it hard to believe that the incident, which appears in this form in the Latin text only, had been recorded by any other hand than that of the chaplain who knew them both so intimately.

In the elaborate apparatus of introduction, notes and appendices with which Cardinal Rampolla has equipped his edition of the texts preserved to us, the view is defended that the Latin redaction is the older, and that it may be regarded as representing more accurately the original, penned probably in that language by Gerontius within a few years of the Saint’s death at Jerusalem. As might be expected of a work of such importance, which more than any other document of the period abounds in local colouring, the Cardinal’s monograph has been freely discussed. In particular M. 1’Abbe Adhemar d’Ales, Professor at the Institut Catholique of Paris, after two very appreciative articles in the Etudes, has contributed to the Analecta Bollandiana a minute and painstaking study of certain significant passages in the Latin and Greek texts of the Life. In his opinion, which in this respect runs counter to the views of the illustrious editor and those of Professor Diekamp, the original was written by Gerontius in Greek, and the Latin text which we now possess offers only a later and somewhat unintelligent adaptation of that original by another hand. The dispute is not one which could be reviewed in any detail in a popular work like the present, but I may, perhaps, he permitted to record here my own theory, already advanced in the Month that the biographer himself was responsible for both redactions. Granted that he posessed a sufficient knowledge of Latin, which seems to follow from the fact (mentioned by Peter the Iberian) that he always used the Roman liturgy in Melania’s own oratory at Jerusalem, it would seem natural enough that he should himself tell his story twice over, with variations, for different audiences. To my thinking, this supposition presents less difficulty than the theory of a Greek original, which no longer survives, modified first of all by a Greek editor and then by a Latin one, neither of whom had any scruple in departing from or rearranging the text of the prototype. Abbe Adhemar d’Ales assigns our existing Greek text to about the year 47, and he believes the Latin to be of somewhat later date. Cardinal Rampolla, on the other hand, regards the Latin as the original language in which the prototype was composed, our present Latin text having been written down in the lifetime of Gerontius, the author, while the Greek recension belongs to the next century. But the dispute is in any case of little practical importance, and I may follow the example of M. Georges Goyau who, in his admirable article in the Revue des deux Mondes, afterwards expanded into a complete biography in the series “Les Saints,” has utilized the details furnished by both texts as contributions of equal value for the history of the Saint. Indeed, this has been the course followed in practice by all who have written on the subject, and M. 1’Abbe d’Ales himself, in his more popular articles in the Etudes, has not hesitated to draw largely upon the data which are furnished by the Latin recension alone. In conclusion, I can only express a hope that the modified and much curtailed presentment of Cardinal Rampolla’s work contained in the pages which follow may not be hindered by its incompleteness from affording some indication of the importance of his researches, and in particular may not fail to convey a truthful impression of the Saint whose figure stood out so grandly in the midst of a decadent and corrupt age not too dissimilar from that in which we live.

Father Herbert Henry Charles Thurston, S.J.