Two and a half weeks ago I had no idea who Melania the Elder was. (Hint: The Patriarchy) As best I can tell, she doesn’t appear in any of the sanctoral calendars for the Episcopal Church, but she was described as a fourth century Desert Mother, so I had to learn more.
The Desert Fathers are well-catalogued and remembered (Hint: The Patriarchy). This collection of early Church ascetics headed into the desert as Christianity was at the cusp of social and political acceptance. Anthony, the greatest of the Fathers, taught that asceticism (intentional deprivation for spiritual purpose) was a fitting alternative to martyrdom as an ideal for demonstrating faith. Together their influence on Christianity and eventually on monasticism cannot be overstated.
However, shocking nobody, the Fathers weren’t alone in their ascetic spirituality. The women who went to the desert eventually became known, in a boon for obvious marketing phraseology, Desert Mothers and contributed as meaningfully to the development of our faith. Melania the Elder was among these.
A Spaniard by birth and very wealthy, Melania was widowed at 22. She converted to Christianity, left her sole surviving son to the care of a guardian, and moved to the Nitrian Desert to follow a physically ascetic lifestyle while financially supporting the other desert monastics. Eventually she built a convent and her life inspired her granddaughter (named, in ANOTHER boon for obvious marketing phraseology: Melania the Younger) to enter monastic service as well.
The name “Melania” comes from the Greek word “melas” which means “black, dark.” (This is where we get the name for the pigment found in our skin “melanin.”) Apparently, Melania was a proponent of Origen’s controversial theologies, which still keep him out of many sanctoral calendars including the Episcopal Church’s. Because of this, the historian-saint Jerome of Stridon hated her so much he attempted to delete her from his histories and called her “cuius nomen nigredinis testatur perfidiae tenebras” (“black in name, black in nature”).
As we stew in present-day outcomes of four hundred years of anti-black white-supremacy in America, I wonder if Melania has something to teach us. While it’s important for us to remember that anti-black racism had not yet been invented, Jerome’s attempt to diminish Melania stands out. (Dr. Ibram X. Kendi argues forcefully in his historical tome Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America that the sub-human racializing of people with black skin didn’t happen until the Portugese needed to explain their specific exploitation of black bodies in their burgeoning 15th century slave trade.)
When the White, Cisgendered, Straight, Ableist Patriarchy is threatened, it attempts to silence. It talks-over, it ignores, it deletes, it controls, it kills. The diverse voices who have been telling White America what it means to be marginalized must not be silenced. When a verbose, popular and well-published man takes time to defame and erase a woman because of her ideas, we should be all the more interested in what she did and said.