“It is easier,” said Our Lord, “for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” His disciples asked him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus replied, “For God all things are possible.”
St. Melania the Younger illustrates what He meant. She was a fabulously wealthy person, but under divine guidance she lived in poverty and devoted all her riches to good causes.
Melania belonged to a patrician Roman family. While most of the early Christians were not well-to-do, she fell heir to vast properties all over Italy and North Africa. As she grew up, her disposition was to live the life of an ascetic. However, her father, Valerius Publicola, a Roman senator and socialite, insisted that she marry his cousin, Valerius Pinianus. The two children she bore to him died. Pinianus, seeing in this that God favored his wife’s desire for the ascetical life, agreed to live with her henceforth as brother with sister.
Now she got permission from Emperor Honorius to dispose of her great real estate holdings. Her house on the Appian Way she converted into a hostel for pilgrims. Adopting the simplest type of clothing (and eventually persuading the “stylish” Pinianus to do the same), Melania fled with him to Sicily when the Goths invaded Italy. Later on, they crossed over to North Africa.
In both places she promoted the current movement towards Christian austerity and devotional practices.
She established monasteries, one for men; and one for women populated by her former slaves. (Part of her wealth had been a huge number of slaves, but in Christian spirit she had freed at least 8,000 of them. The present day market value of each slave could have been $200; so by liberating all of them she gave up the equivalent of a $1.6 million investment.) She herself lived in this women’s monastery, and being a literate woman spent her working hours copying Greek and Latin books. It is said that these copies were still in circulation five centuries later.
Finally, in 417, St. Melania and her family went to Jerusalem. She and Pinian then took off for Egypt to visit the great desert monasteries of the Nile Valley. Inspired by the devotion of the Egyptian monks, she returned to Jerusalem intent upon a life of still profounder solitude and prayer. At Bethlehem she met St. Jerome, the great hermit and scriptural scholar. He was the spiritual director of a group of devout Roman women who had come east to seek his guidance. When her husband died, St. Melania buried him outside the walls of Jerusalem and established nearby a large convent of nuns over which she presided for the rest of her days.
On Christmas Eve, 439, Melania went to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of Jesus. After Mass she told her cousin St. Paula that she was about to die. On the feast of St. Stephen, December 26, she read to her nuns the scripture story of the death of this first Christian martyr. Afterwards she said, “You will never again hear me read these lessons.” She died on December 31 at the age of 56 – a Christmastide saint.
Melania the Younger had shown how a person of great wealth could still be saved. God made it possible by giving her an extraordinary gift of detachment from the things of earth. She considered herself not the owner, but the distributor of the property entrusted to her.
Melania was so detached and humble, in fact, that she never allowed herself the luxury of bearing a grudge against anybody. In her last conversation she said to her nuns, “The Lord knows that I am unworthy, and I would not dare compare myself with any good woman, even those living in the world. Yet I trust that Satan himself will not at the last judgment accuse me of ever having gone to sleep with bitterness in my heart.”
Had she chosen a motto, it might well have been: “Give and forgive.” That’s a sentiment especially appropriate in the Christmas season.
–Father Robert F. McNamara