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Catholic Heroes… St. Dunstan

January 17, 2023 saints No Comments


Before St. Thomas Becket, the saint most likely to be invoked by an Englishman was St. Dunstan. He was successively appointed the abbot of Glastonbury, the bishop of Worcester, the bishop of London, archbishop of Canterbury and later, the bishop of Winchester. Additionally, he was related to at least one archbishop and three bishops; perhaps being a priest and confessor was in the blood. He would be an adviser to kings and the first to invent the coronation process as it exists today.
Born around AD 909, he was an apt scholar, who learned from Irish monks in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. He dreamt of restoring the abbey, which one day he indeed would do. But before that would occur, many things would happen first in his young life. His mother, Cynethryth, had a sign while he was still in the womb that he would be special. At Mass on Candlemas Day, suddenly all the lights went out. Then her candle miraculously relit, and the flame was used to then relight all the other candles present.
This, according to New Advent, symbolized that her child would be a source of “eternal light” to the Church.
His father was Heorstan, an Anglo-Saxon noble. While a boy, Dunstan nearly died but survived . . . also miraculously. Then he and his parents determined he would enter the minor seminary. At a young age therefore, he received his first tonsure. After this, he was asked to join the court of King Athelm, but jealousy caused some to mount an attack on him, accusing him of witchcraft. He was then ordered to leave and some threw him into a cesspool. Somehow, he crawled out and escaped, and instead went to serve a relative, St. Alphege, the bishop of Winchester.
The bishop asked him to consider instead the life of a monk. Not sure whether a life of celibacy was suited for him, he was suddenly visited by an eruption of nasty tumors all over his body. He took this to mean he should not have delayed, and promptly took Holy Orders. Ordained in 934, this was done by his uncle. Returning to Glastonbury, where he would next live for a time, he dug out his own hermit’s cell, a mere 5 x 2.5 feet in size. At Glastonbury he was famed as a metalworker, as an illuminator, and as a musician. The bishop’s niece and then his father, respectively, both died, making St. Dunstan their heir. He would use their estates to improve monastic life in the country.
Before this could happen, King Edmund succeeded Athelm to the throne and summoned him to court. As with his predecessor, again Dunstan was faced with the envy of others. Providentially, the king appointed him the abbot of Glastonbury, which was a dream come true. He restored the Benedictine Rule to the monks’ daily life and began rebuilding the abbey. He started by building the church, then the cloister, so their life might be enclosed, then the irrigation system and so forth. His brother assisted him, by focusing on the children and the building of a school.
Within two years, King Edmund was assassinated, and King Eadred ascended the throne. Now Dunstan was summoned again and this time he was needed without question, serving as de facto prime minister. He said he would not leave as long as he was needed, in between being appointed variously as bishop of Worcester, London and archbishop of Canterbury. He turned down being bishop of Winchester twice and after being given the pallium in Rome, was able to eventually pass the offices of bishop on to other men. This enabled him to have more time to focus on his duties. Besides royal duties, he did not shirk ecclesiastical ones, however, as he continued to reform the life of religious.
This included enforcing celibacy, priestly chastity, self-mortification, ending simony (the selling of ecclesiastical offices), and building great edifices for the church, defending against marauding Vikings, all the while. Vikings aside, many of these areas of reform are still in need of renewal today. It gives one hope, as the more things change, the more they stay the same. Dunstan restored monastic life in the Church at that time; the Church and we are in constant need of spiritual renewal.
King Eadred’s successor was Eadwig, who despised the saint for condemning his lifestyle. Dunstan fled to Flanders while his property was confiscated, but returned when a rebellion put Eadwig’s brother, Edgar, on the throne. At this time, St. Dunstan would initiate a coronation ceremony such as exists today for the king in England. It is still the archbishop of Canterbury who crowns the king of England during the coronation ceremony. Though it has been a great many years since the last coronation ceremony, we will be experiencing a coronation this year, with the crowning of King Charles III. All of this began a more than a thousand years ago with St. Dunstan.
Edgar, in turn, was succeeded by King Edward “the Martyr,” who was assassinated. As one can see, to be a king was neither a steady nor secure position. The next leader was King Aethelred “the Unready.” When this king was crowned, St. Dunstan gave him a warning: End the violence or he would only reap further misfortune. At this point, St. Dunstan did retire from the political sphere, albeit in no way from his religious duties. He would himself be made the Bishop of Winchester at this time.
As we know, he kept very busy with the spiritual works mentioned, but adding still more, from tending to theological libraries to helping the poor; widows to orphans. Even one thousand years ago, long before there was any form of aid from the state, the Church was aiding the hungry, the friendless, those with no home or parents to help them. Then, four years later, Dunstan had a vision on the eve of the Ascension.
The saint was warned that he would die in three days. He chose to use this allotted time to preach three more times: at the Gospel, at Benediction and before the Agnus Dei. He then took to his bed, becoming ill as predicted. Mass was said in his room, and he received the Viaticum and Last Rites. Though this may be a legend, it is said that the saint paraphrased or quoted the 111th Psalm, verses 4-5 as his final words:
“He hath made a remembrance of His wonderful works, being a merciful and gracious Lord: He hath given food to them that fear Him.”
Additionally, there are some rather fine legends of St. Dunstan associated with the Devil. The first is that St. Dunstan caught the Devil and held his face with hot tongs.

St. Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pull’d the Devil by the nose
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard three miles or more.

Another is that he shod the hoof of the Devil with a horseshoe, whereupon the Devil had to promise that wherever the shoe was mounted over a door, he could not enter. This is supposedly the origin of why we treat horseshoes as lucky objects! But truly “lucky” or blessed are his relics.
These relics were intact for roughly five hundred years, until the Reformation under King Henry VIII. Then, like so many holy objects of the Church, they predictably disappeared, being hidden or most likely destroyed, and have not been found since.
Because of his talents, St. Dunstan is the patron saint of jewelers, armorers, and even gunsmiths. His feast day is May 19.

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