Saint Melania was born in Rome into a devout Christian family. Her parents, people of property and wealth, hoped that their daughter would marry and have children who would inherit their wealth.
At fourteen years of age Melania was married to the illustrious youth Apinianus. From the very beginning of their married life, St Melania asked her husband to live with her in chastity or else release her from the marriage. Apinianus answered, “I cannot agree to this right now. When we have two children to inherit the property, then we shall both renounce the world.”
Soon Melania gave birth to a daughter, whom the young parents dedicated to God. Continuing to live together in marriage, Melania secretly wore a hairshirt and spent her nights in prayer. The second child, a boy, was premature and had severe complications. They baptized him, and he departed to the Lord.
Seeing the suffering of his wife, Apinianus asked the Lord to preserve St Melania’s life, and he vowed to spend the rest of their life together in chastity. Recovering, St Melania stopped wearing her beautiful clothing and jewelry. Soon their daughter also died. The parents of St Melania did not support the young couple’s desire to devote themselves to God. It was only when St Melania’s father became deathly ill, that he asked their forgiveness and permitted them to follow their chosen path, asking them to pray for him.
The saints then left the city of Rome, and began a new life completely dedicated to the service of God. Apinianus at this time was twenty-four years of age, and Melania twenty. They began to visit the sick, to take in wanderers, and to help the indigent. They visited those who were exiled, and mine-convicts, and the destitute, there in debtor’s prison. After selling their estates in Italy and Spain, they generously helped monasteries, hospitals, widows and orphans in Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, Phoenicia, and Palestine.
Many churches and hospitals were built with their assistance. Churches of both West and East benefited from them. Leaving their native land, they set sail for Africa, and a strong storm arose while they were at sea. The sailors said that this was because of the wrath of God, but St Melania said that it was not God’s will that they should go directly to their destination.
The waves carried the ship to an island on which barbarians had landed. The besiegers demanded a ransom from the inhabitants, or else they threatened to lay waste the city. The saints supplied the necessary ransom, and thus saved the city and its people from destruction.
Resuming their voyage, they landed in Africa and helped all the needy there. With the blessing of the local bishops, they made offerings to churches and monasteries. During this time St Melania continued to humble her flesh by strict fasting, and she fortified her soul by constantly reading the Word of God, making copies of the sacred books and distributing them to those who lacked them. She sewed a hairshirt for herself, put it on, and continued to wear it.
The saints spent seven years in Carthage, and then decided to visit Jerusalem. At Alexandria, they were welcomed by the bishop, St Cyril, and they met in church with the holy Elder Nestorius, who was possessed of the gift of prophecy and healing. The Elder turned to them and told them to have courage and patience in expectation of the Glory of Heaven.
At Jerusalem, the saints distributed their remaining gold to the destitute and then spent their days in poverty and prayer. After a short visit to Egypt, where the saints visited many of the desert Fathers, St Melania secluded herself in a cell on the Mount of Olives. Only occasionally did she see St Apinianus.
Later, she founded a monastery, where eventually ninety virgins lived in obedience to St Melania. Out of humility, she would not consent to be abbess, and lived and prayed in solitude as before. In her instructions, St Melania urged the sisters to be vigilant and to pray, to disdain their own opinions and cultivate first of all love for God and for one another, to keep the holy Orthodox Faith, and to guard their purity of soul and of body.
In particular, she exhorted them to be obedient to the will of God. Calling to mind the words of the Apostle Paul, she counselled them to keep the fasts “not with wailing, nor from compulsion, but in virtuous disposition with love for God”. By her efforts an oratory and altar were built in the monastery, where they enshrined the relics of saints: the Prophet Zachariah, the holy Protomartyr Stephen, and the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. About this time St Apinianus fell asleep in the Lord. St Melania buried his relics and there spent another four years in fasting and unceasing prayer.
St Melania wanted to build a men’s monastery on the Mount of the Ascension of the Lord. The Lord blessed her intent by sending a benefactor who provided the means for the monastery. Joyfully accepting it, St Melania finished the great work in a single year. In this monastery, saintly men began to lift up unceasing prayer in the church of the Ascension of Christ.
Having completed her tasks, the saint left Jerusalem for Constantinople, hoping to save the soul of her pagan uncle Volusianus who had traveled there from Rome. Along the way she prayed at the relics of St Laurence (August 10), at the place of his martyrdom, and received auspicious signs. Arriving in Constantinople, the saint found her uncle had fallen ill. Her demeanor and her inspired discourses had a profound influence on the sick man. He gave up pagan impiety and died a Christian.
During this time many inhabitants of the capital were deceived by the heretical teaching of Nestorius. St Melania accepted anyone who turned to her for proper explanation, converting many of them to Orthodoxy. Many miracles were worked through the prayers of the saint.
Returning to her own monastery, the saint sensed the approach of death, and told this to the priest and the sisters. They listened to her final instructions with deep sorrow and with tears. Having asked their prayers and commanding them to preserve themselves in purity, she received the Holy Mysteries with joy. St Melania peacefully gave up her soul to the Lord in the year 439.