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!