19 May 2019

Our father among the saints Dúnstán of Canterbury

Saint Dúnstán of Canterbury

Today in the Orthodox Church we venerate one of the best-known saints of Old England and one of the greatest Archbishops that Canterbury has ever had, a figure of nation-wide veneration in all the great apostolic Christian traditions, and a noteworthy champion of the monastic tradition, Saint Dúnstán*.

The year of Saint Dúnstán’s birth is not quite certain. (Most Orthodox sources I’ve seen list it as 909, but as a circa figure. Some sources, including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, list it as late as 925.) However, we do know to whom he was born: a noble West Saxon þegn named Heorstán and his pious wife Cyneþrýð; and we also know where he was born: on their lands at Baltonsborough near Glastonbury in the far English southwest. Similarly to Saint Willibrord, the hagiographical accounts state that Saint Dúnstán’s mother was, during her pregnancy, given to understand in a dream her child’s future holiness.

Dúnstán was something of a wunderkind: bright, eager and aflame with interest in all fields of learning. This being so he caught the notice of his uncle, Saint Ælfhéah ‘the Bald’ of Minster, who was then serving as Bishop of Winchester. Ælfhéah directed his bright young nephew’s enthusiasm toward the church, and tonsured him a priest. His uncle then tried to persuade him to become a monk, but he was not convinced he was capable of leading a celibate life. (Note that priests in the Western Church at this time were not celibate!) After suffering from a painful tumorous disease of the skin which he briefly but erroneously thought was leprosy, and from which he wondrously recovered, he seems to have had a conversion experience. He took his uncle’s advice, turned toward the contemplative life and became a monk at Glastonbury Abbey – a site which had been revered both by the heathen and by Christians for its associations with Saint Joseph of Arimathea, King Arthur and the Holy Grail.

With his abbot’s permission, he built a small cell within the monastery precincts, lived as a hermit, and devoted himself to studies of all kinds. He absorbed the book-learning of the Irish monks who had there preserved and transmitted much holy writ from the Danish raiders. He also studied music, painting, manuscript illumination, calligraphy, engineering and the arts of blacksmithing, bronzesmithing and silversmithing, and, excelling in all these technical arts, became a leading light in the Church for both restoration and the commission and construction of new works of sacred art. Similarly to Saint Bernward in Germany, Saint Dúnstán was regarded in mediæval times as the patron of smiths, and now as a patron of machinists and metallurgists! Indeed there is a story in Dúnstán’s hagiography of how, while in his monastic cell, Saint Dúnstán was visited and tempted by the Devil – and he took a pair of blacksmith’s tongs and pinched the Devil by the nose with them.

According to the church tradition, it was Éadmund Æðeling who summoned his monastic kinsman to the royal court to act as the royal chaplain, only later to dismiss him unceremoniously. Éadmund had a hunting accident shortly after that nearly killed him. In gratitude to God for his life, Éadmund – remembering his ill-treatment of the man of the cloth – beckoned Dúnstán back and appointed him Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey. Once there, Dúnstán swiftly began regularising and rigorously enforcing the Rule of Saint Benedict among the monks of that house. In addition, he directed the monks to undertake both the useful and artistic endeavours he had taken the time and effort to master for the glory of God. Under the vigorous guidance of Saint Dúnstán, Glastonbury Abbey became a centre of both learning and material culture, and germinated a whole class of educated priests and monks.

Éadmund Æðeling therefore was responsible for the beginning of the great tenth-century Benedictine reform movement in England, of which Saint Dúnstán and Glastonbury Abbey were the vanguard. He was murdered in a political assassination not long afterward, though, and he was succeeded by his brother Éadred. Saint Dúnstán apparently also enjoyed a fairly close relationship with the new king of England, as Éadred continued to support the Benedictine reforms. Dúnstán was also responsible for helping Éadred king negotiate a lengthy period of peace with the Danes, leaving the Saxon kingdoms with some time and space to rebuild.

Éadred reigned for nine years and was succeeded by Éadmund Æðeling’s son Éadwig in 955. An infamous story that is often repeated in Saint Dúnstán’s hagiography is that of Éadwig’s coronation. At the feast where all the high and great among the English were gathered to witness and feast Éadwig’s crowning, Éadwig himself refused to show up. Saint Dúnstán took it upon himself to seek him out, and going into the young king’s bedchamber, found him enthusiastically making love with his third cousin Ælfgifu and with her mother Æþelgifu, with the crown of England cast idly onto the floor at the foot of the bed. Incensed, Dúnstán attacked the two women, rebuked his young kinsman harshly, grabbed him bodily and forced him back to the hall where his own feast was in full swing. The new teenage king did not take kindly to this reproof: he later had Saint Dúnstán cast out of Glastonbury Abbey and banished to Ghent, where he took up residence at the Abbey of Saint Peter.

Éadwig’s rule in England was tumultuous and brief. He married Ælfgifu, but was later forced to annul the marriage on account of the Church’s stand on consanguinity. He faced a large-scale insurrection in Northumbria. He also gave away an immense number of royal lands to both the nobility and the Church, particularly Abingdon Abbey. And he died only four years after taking the Crown, under circumstances which are still not particularly clear. (Naturally, neither sæcular nor churchly historians have been particularly kind to him.) Éadwig was succeeded by his brother Éadgár ‘the Frithsome’, one of whose first acts was to recall Saint Dúnstán from his lowland exile and name him, with the help of Archbishop Saint Oda of Canterbury, Bishop of Worcester.

Dúnstán took to his new charge as Bishop of Worcester with his usual energy and fervour, and was soon elevated to the Archbishopric of Canterbury. He was sent to Rome in the year 960 to claim his omophor; on the way there he was so generous in giving alms to the poor that the retainers sent with him objected, and Éadgár’s steward rebuked him for lavishness. Saint Dúnstán merely replied that they trust in Christ. Their prayers were answered, for they were given shelter and provisions that very night by a Benedictine abbot who resided on their road. On Saint Dúnstán’s return, he advised Éadgár to appoint Benedictine reformers to key positions within the Church hierarchy, and also to implement a vigorous defensive strategy against the Danes. In the years of peace which followed, by which Éadgár earned his byname, monasteries were reëstablished; churches were rebuilt; holy orders were rectified and the licence with which monks and priests behaved was sharply curbed. (Dúnstán was insistent that monks in particular take up useful and productive work within the cloister.) Saint Dúnstán even composed a coronation Liturgy for Éadgar in 973, of which the full text still survives, and which has served as the Liturgical basis for all English and British coronations ever since.

Saint Dúnstán also played a certain rôle in the events which led up to the coronation and martyrdom of the saintly Éadweard King, having taken the young king’s side against the evil machinations of his wicked and murderous stepmother Ælfþr‎ýð. At the coronation of Éadweard’s half-brother, Éadgár’s and Ælfþr‎ýð’s son Æþelræd, Saint Dúnstán was the one to prophesy that on account of Éadweard’s death many troubles would beset his rule. After that, his influence over kings was at an end. He retired to Canterbury where he would spend the rest of his life in monastic prayer, labour and contemplation.

Saint Dúnstán spent long hours in his devotions, and kept the Hours and the Liturgies regularly as the Rule dictated. He cultivated particular devotions to the local shrines of Saints Augustine and Æþelberht. He worked tirelessly at his handicrafts, writing and smithing, for the betterment of the monastic communities in England, and gave without reserve to all those who asked of him, having a particular love for the needy and the destitute, widows and orphans. (It needs to be remembered that this is more than mere hagiographical flourish. Dúnstán and his whole reform movement hearkened back to a time when the Benedictine houses were wayhouses for the sick, travellers and the needy, as they were intended to be.) Having a forevision of his death in 988, he made all due preparations and made peace with all of his fellow monks before receiving Unction and the Gifts for the last time. His last words were said to have been: ‘He hath made a remembrance of His wonderful works, being a merciful and gracious Lord; He hath given food to them that fear Him.

Saint Dúnstán was buried in the Cathedral, and his tomb was a popular destination for pilgrims and the ailing throughout the Middle Ages. Until the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket, Saint Dúnstán enjoyed the distinction of being England’s most popular saint. Holy Father Dúnstán, inspired craftsman, rectifier of monks, lover of Christ’s poor, we ask you intercede with Him today for the salvation of our souls!
By thee, O Dúnstán, hath the whole land of England been wondrously adorned,
For thou didst labour unceasingly to restore all the monastic houses laid waste by the heathen,
To people them again with zealous monks and nuns,
And to provide them with strict rules of pious order wherewith to govern their lives.
Wherefore, the Church of Christ doth ever praise thine all-honourable name, O holy bishop.
* A brief orthographical note here, as I was asked this question specifically by fellow-blogger Chase Padusniak over at Patheos Catholic: why do I use acute accents when rendering Old English names like Dúnstán? I try to – but don’t always consistently – mark long vowels according to modern orthographical convention. For the same reason I still use the letters æsc, eð and þorn, but not ƿynn for ‘w’. At the same time, though, I follow the slightly-older usage of acute accents rather than macrons in marking long vowels because: a.) I did take a little bit of Icelandic first, and b.) I’m too lazy to symbol-insert macrons instead of keystroke-inserting acute accents in Word. (By the way, that’s the same reason I use circumflexes instead of macrons when transliterating Arabic or Japanese – but not Greek or Aramaic where these diacritic marks serve different orthographical purposes.) Even a near-miss obsessive-compulsive like yours truly has his limits.

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