Orthodox America


  Saint Dunstan of Canterbury – Archbishop, Statesman and Monastic Reformer


The early history of Christianity in England is marked by sharp fluctuations. Soon after the Romans withdrew from the island, staunchly heathen Anglo-Saxons virtually obliterated all traces of the first Christian communities planted by St. Joseph of Arimathea and Apostle Aristubules and watered by the martyric blood of St. Alban and others. The vigorous missionary thrusts of the sixth and seventh centuries-effected in the north by Celtic monks from Ireland, and in the south by St Augustine and his followers from Rome----ushered in a golden age which saw the establishment of many great monastic houses and centers of learning--Iona, Lindesfarne, Wearmouth--and provided England with some of her most illustrious saints: Columba, Alden, Oswald, Cuthbert, Bede, the holy abbesses Hilda and Etheldreda. In the ninth century paganism against raised its head. Raiding Norsemen ravaged monasteries, burning their libraries; the interests of war eclipsed the interests of the Church, and spiritual life declined, hastened by the dissolution of the monastic ideal. Then, once again, the tide began to turn. It was just at this time that the Anglo Saxon Chronicle records the birth of St. Dunstan, a key figure in England's subsequent recovery of Christianity, a magnificent flowering before its unfortunate departure with Rome into schism in 1054. 

      Although the Chronicle gives 925 as the year of St. Dunstan’s birth, most historians place it somewhat earlier, c. 910, on the basis of the fact that from 940-45 he was attached to the court of King Edmund as a priest, a rank which required that he be at least thirty year old.

      St. Dunstan was born into a noble Wessex family whose property lay close by Glastonbury Abbey. Although monastic life was scarcely in evidence, Glastonbury's tradition as Britain's oldest Christian settlement still attracted numerous pilgrims, and its well-stocked library accounted for some Irish scholars in residence. There Dunstan received a good education before joining his uncle Athelm, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the court of King Athelstan. Another relative, Aelfheah "the Bald," who later became Bishop of Winchester, encouraged the youth to become a monk. Dunstan had his eyes on marriage, but he became afflicted with a skin disease which he feared was leprosy, and when he recovered he acted upon his relative's suggestion and was tonsured.

      Returning to Glastonbury, Dunstan built a small cell adjoining the "Old Church," and there he occupied himself with prayer, study and manual labor, showing a talent for fine metal work in his crafting of bells and church vessels. (In the Roman Church tradition, he became the patron saint of goldsmiths and jewelers.) His musical ability was reflected in the hymns he composed. He also spent time in the scriptorium, copying and illuminating manuscripts. Among his peers, he was considered to be a mystic. Nurtured partly in the strictly ascetic Celtic tradition, he concentrated on the inner spiritual warfare and wrestled with visible demons and heard mysterious, heavenly voices. One of his contemporaries wrote that when he sang at the altar he seemed to be talking with the Lord face to face.

       Athelstan's successor, King Edmund, recalled Dunstan to the court as a priest, but jealousy soon conspired to disgrace the monk. He was about to leave the country when the King, in a narrow brush with death while out hunting, had a sudden revelation of Dunstan's innocence. In making amends, he granted Dunstan some land and, in 943, appointed him abbot of Glastonbury, charging him with the renewal of its monastic life.

       One of Durrstan's first steps as abbot was to reintroduce monastic discipline using the Rule of St. Benedict (+ 547). He enlarged the church and other buildings and bolstered the abbey's reputation as a center of learning. Students at the school were taught by professed monks and were expected to participate in the daily monastic observances. This preparation provided a good crop of candidates for monasticism. Soon Glastonbury became a spearhead for a widespread monastic revival.

      The period of St. Dunstan's reforms coincided providentially with a change in England's political fortunes: the death of Eric "Bloodaxe" of Norway in the late 940’s opened the possibility for England's unification, and the country entered a quarter century of peace. Dunstan continued to enjoy royal patronage under Edmund's successor, Eadred (946-55) and, as one of his closest advisors, he helped to conciliate the Danes.

      As a statesman, Dunstan's zeal for moral reform and his promotion of monastic interests were resented by some of the West Saxon nobles, and they were only too glad when he was exiled by King Eadwig, although the king's motive was hardly political: the 16 year-old monarch had slipped away from his coronation banquet and was severely chastised by Abbot Dunstan--no respecter of persons--when he found him sequestered in a room with two women, mother and daughter, both making overtures with an eye to marriage. Resentful of such a reproof, Eadwig deprived Dunstan of his property and forced him out of the country, casting uncertainty over the future of England's monastic revival.

      Dunstan found refuge in a monastery in Ghent, where he scarcely had time to observe the reformed type of continental monasticism before he was recalled to England by Eadwig's half-brother Edgar ("the Peaceable", 959-75), who had been elected ruler by the Mercians and Northumbrians. It was Edgar's ambition to restore all the great monasteries of England, and the partnership of these two ardent reformers shifted the monastic revival into high gear. Dunstan became successively Bishop of Worcester and London, and, in 960, after Eadwig's death, Archbishop of Canterbury.

      Monarch and hierarch were assisted in their' campaign by two very able and saintly men: Ethelwold and Oswald of York. It was Ethelwold who was primarily responsible for drawing up the Regularis Concordia (c. 970), a common rule for monasteries. The English reformers were not innovators; the rule followed closely that of St. Benedict. From it there emerges a picture of the rigorous daily life of a tenth-century English monk: in winter he was roused at 2:30 AM for the first service of the day; two hours each morning were occupied in manual labor, the rest of the day was devoted to the cycle of services; five hours a day were spent in prayer, psalms singing and scriptural reading; the day ended at 6:30 PM. In summer the day was extended by an hour at each end.

      There were, however, some unique features in the English rule: prayers were offered daily for the king, and an attempt was made to integrate monasteries into the life of the people. It was Dunstan's aim that the monastic reform should encourage personal piety among the laity as well, and he attached great importance to the monastic schools.

      As Edgar's advisor, Dunstan persuaded him to defer his coronation until he reached the age of thirty. Dunstan himself composed the rite, shifting the emphasis from the crowing to the anointing, which gave it a sacred character and suggested strong parallels to the consecration of a priest, forging a mystical link with the ancient Hebrews and cementing the relationship between Church and Crown. It is said that Dunstan attended to all the details of the service, down to making the crown, its four equal sides representing the City of God. The form of the rite is still used in the coronation of England's kings

       After Edgar's untimely death, Dunstan continued as advisor to his teen-age son Edward. But resentment at the Crown’s extensive land grants to the Church inspired a certain anti-monastic faction of nobles to support Edward's more malleable younger brother Ethelred. Edward was viciously murdered and Dunstan withdrew from the affairs of state to concentrate on his pastoral duties there at Canterbury and his personal service to God. Even as he grew old, it was his delight to teach the boys of the cathedral school. He was, it seems, a gentle master. and after his death the boys would invoke the aid of their "sweet Father Dunstan" to mitigate the corporal punishment which was so readily meted out in those days.

       After celebrating the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of Ascension, 988, St. Dunstan preached a sermon in which he foretold that within the next three days he would die. He indicated the place he wished to be buried and, on the second day, May 19, after having communed of  the Holy Mysteries, his soul departed to the Lord. His last words, according to tradition, were those of the Psalmist: The merciful and gracious Lord hath made a remembrance of His marvelous works; He hath given food to them that fear Him.

       In the Chronicle, the entry for 988 says simply "In this year...the holy Archbishop Dunstan departed this life and attained the heavenly." 

      This glorious chapter in England's Orthodox heritage, in which St. Dunstan figured so prominently, gives the impression "of a religion of the sprat rather than of the letter, of a church not noted for its rigid enforcement of ecclesiastical discipline and. given its heritage from the Celtic Church and the size of its still not fully assimilated Scandinavian population, retaining much el that pastoral character of a missionary church whose first duty was that of patient conversion" (LC.B, Seaman, A New History of England: 410 1975)

[OA/_private/oabot.htm]