The Communion of Saints: St. Melania the Elder

So far, most of these Desert Fathers and Mothers have come from Egypt or thereabouts, but as we’ll soon see, this radical witness of simplicity and prayer was very attractive to Christians seeking to deepen their faith after it had become legalized.  The movement soon began to influence the world outside Egypt as well.

St. Melania the Elder was one of those combinations of the East (Egypt) and West (Rome).  She was actually born in 325 in one of the Roman colonies in Spain to a Roman noble family called the Valerii.  This is important background information, because the Valerii were one of the most ancient and wealthiest families in the Empire, and several emperors had even come from the family.  Melania married a man named Valerius Maximus Basilius at the age of 14, and moved to Rome, where he became the Praefectus Urbi – essentially the mayor or city administrator of Rome, a very influential position.

Of course, wealth and power doesn’t ensure immortality.  Valerius died, followed quickly by two of her three sons as disease spread through the city.  Overwhelmed by her grief and loss, Melania ensured the care of her remaining son, and much to the disdain of her wealthy family, went off to Alexandria in Egypt to mourn and learn the ways of the Christian monks.

St. Melania spent her time praying and learning from the Desert Fathers.  However, there was a period of upheaval in Egypt, and many of the monks were deported out of the desert to Palestine.  Melania secretly went with them, disguising herself as a slave and caring for their needs.  After about five years, when she was free to live her faith openly again, she joined some of the other monks in establishing a monastery on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

After so many years, Melania rejoined her family, bringing her new ascetic spirituality to them.  She cared for her son and his new wife, and became a big influence for her granddaughter, who was also named Melania after her.  In fact, the granddaughter was so inspired by St. Melania the Elder that she took up the same calling and herself became a saint, known as St. Melania the Younger.

St. Melania the Elder lived a happy and complete life close to the Lord, and near the end of her life, moved back to Palestine, where she died in 410 in Jerusalem.  Her life gives us a great lesson in priorities.  She forsake the wealth and influence of her family to be consoled by Christ and to embrace the Gospel, then spreading that to her family and the world.  St. Melania the Elder, pray for us!

The Communion of Saints: St. Syncletica

www-St-Takla-org--St-Syncletica-03I got to thinking recently: so far, I might have given you the impression that all these people who went off to the desert were crazy men. But in reality, this was a large movement that attracted all number of people, both men and women.

After a while, these hermits became widely known as spiritual leaders, and even spiritual fathers and mothers. Thus, most of them acquired the title of “Abba” (father) or “Amma” (mother). Many people wanted to keep and treasure the spiritual counsel and advice that these mothers and fathers had to offer, so they jotted them down. These were all compiled into the Apophthegmata Patrum – don’t worry about the pronunciation, just call it the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers).

This book was a compilation of advice, anywhere from small sentences to whole paragraphs on a number of spiritual topics, mostly having to do with simplicity, prayer, and the life of a hermit. Of these sayings, 47 of them are attributed to the Desert Mothers, and a historian named Palladius mentioned that almost 3,000 Christian women were living in the desert at one point, choosing to live a life of simplicity in the desert.

One of these was St. Syncletica of Alexandria, born around 270. Amma Syncletica was blessed with both beauty and wealth as a young woman, but even from her childhood, she was drawn to the things of God, and desired to dedicate her life completely to him. After the death of her parents, for whom she had cared for many years, she received all their property and affairs. She chose to give it away to the poor, and left everything behind to live the life she had longed for in the desert.

She lived in an ancient Egyptian tomb in the desert, and quickly gained the attention of many locals, gathering many more women who came to live with her as disciples of Christ. In all her sayings, it is very clear that Amma Syncletica was blessed with the gift of discernment and counseling. Although many of these women came to her enthusiastically and authentically desiring the monastic life, she was able to encourage them to direct their gifts and desires in other ways if they were not yet prepared to take on the rigorous life of the desert.

After a life of service to God through her asceticism, she died around the year 350. St. Syncletica is an example of many virtues, but one that stood out to me in reading her sayings was her humility. May we all imitate her gift of self as we strive to follow Christ!

“Just as one cannot build a ship unless one has some nails, so it is impossible to be saved without humility.” –Saying 26 from Amma Syncletica

Updates Coming!

So for those who read this who aren’t members of my parish, I have received a new assignment from His Excellency, the Lord Archbishop of Saint Louis.  Because of that, my time has been soaked up a lot lately with the business of moving.  However, I am going to try to get current, at least with my saint bios on the Desert Fathers.  Also, because I don’t know the practice of my new parish, I might be changing the way I do some things on here (audio maybe?!?).  I also might have to take a break from the saints until I get settled in.  Please stay tuned, pray for me, and keep the faith!