Stories of Saints and Martyrs - Jetta S. Wolff

St. Dunstan

May 19; A.D. 988

One of the noblest and one of the greatest of our Archbishops of Canterbury was St. Dunstan.

I dare say you have read his name in your English history, for he lived through the reigns of six of our old Saxon kings, and was very much mixed up with all that went on in England in his time.

St. Dunstan was born in the county of Somerset, not very far from the old Abbey of Glastonbury, of which the ruins are still to be seen. His family was of high, perhaps even of royal, rank. It was a Christian family, and from his earliest years St. Dunstan had been taught to love JESUS, and to make it his aim "to follow the blessed steps of His most holy life."

While still very young his father took him to the monastery at Glastonbury, to be brought up under the care of the good and clever monks

who there gave themselves to teaching, for this was one of the greatest schools of the day. The boy worked well, and learned much. He loved music, and learned to play the harp. He also became very clever in writing out manuscripts with beautiful coloured letters, illuminating, as it is called. Many of these fine old writings, the very same that were written by St. Dunstan and the monks of his time, are still to be seen in our museums and libraries.

We have seen when reading about St. Columba how important a business was the writing out of books before printing was invented, and when the Gospels, or the books of prayer, or other sacred writings were copied, the monks would try to make them look as beautiful as ever they could. St. Dunstan took great pains with all the copying that was given him to do, and indeed with everything he learned. As a boy at school, as a grown man at the court of the king, as a Priest and Bishop in the Church, St. Dunstan always threw his whole heart and his whole energy into whatever he did.

While still a lad he used often to be called by King Athelstane to spend weeks, and sometimes months at a time at the court. He was not very happy there, for he was unlike the other boys of his day and age. He used to have strange dreams, and believe he saw visions. When he told these he was laughed at, and looked upon as a foolish child. Often he would pass hours in prayer, at which also his comrades jeered; and at last some of the people about the court begged the king to send this strange boy away.

One day a party of lads, angry with him for being so different to themselves, took St. Dunstan, bound his hands and his feet together, and threw him into a muddy pond. The poor boy struggled out, but as he did so some dogs rushed upon him. Instead of showing fear, St. Dunstan called the dogs and caressed them; then they fawned upon him, licked away the mud, and tried to show pity for his state. But a fever followed, and his life was in great danger for some time.

When he got better he was still more earnest in his prayers, and more given to dreams than before. He had gone to live with his uncle Elfege, Bishop of Winchester, and by him he was now persuaded to give up the world and to devote himself as a Priest to GOD'S service. So he retired to the Abbey of Glastonbury, and, as was his wont, threw his whole heart and soul into the work he had undertaken. He was very stern towards himself, and would allow himself no bodily comforts. He lived in a cell five feet long and only two and a half feet wide, and he never spent a moment idly.

By-and-by he was again called to the court. Edmund was now king. But he was no happier there at this time than he had been as a boy. People were envious of his great learning and of his power, for he was wise, and had a calm, clear judgment, and the king was glad to listen to his advice. Yet after a time his enemies so gained the ear of Edmund, that he behaved unjustly to St. Dunstan, and he was again driven from court.

But his absence now was short. The king went out hunting in the forest a few days after he had sent away St. Dunstan; the deer he was following rushed over the edge of a deep chasm, some of the dogs followed, and at the same moment the reins of the king's horse broke in his hands. The animal was frantic, the precipice was before him—Edmund thought he was lost. Face to face with death, he remembered the wrong he had done to St. Dunstan, and he made a vow that if his life should be spared, he would at once try to make that wrong good.

"I cannot think of any one else whom I have injured in these past days," he said, as he prayed earnestly to GOD to forgive his sins, and to save him from death, "but only Dunstan; if I live I will at once recall him, and try and make up for the ill I have done."

The horse stopped on the edge of the cliff, and the king was saved.

When he reached home he instantly sent for the Priest, and rode with him to Glastonbury to pray for forgiveness for his past injustice, and to give thanks to GOD for His mercy in sparing his life. He made St. Dunstan Abbot, and gave him a great deal of money to build another monastery, and to carry on the good works he had in hand.

In the reign of Edwy his troubles began again, for the king was not a good man, and he had married wrongly. His wife was beautiful, and Edwy seems to have been very fond of her, but she was a near relation, and he had no right to marry her.

St. Dunstan went to the king, rebuked him for his sin, and begged him to give up his wife. Edwy would not listen. Then the Priest spoke out very boldly before all the court, for he thought it a shame that the king of the land should set so bad an example to his people. But nothing could turn Edwy from following his own will. He was very angry with Dunstan, and banished him from the country.

He went over the sea to Flanders, where he spent a year in learning how some of the great convents abroad were arranged, and in thinking out plans for the improvement of the schools and monasteries of his own land.

When Edgar came to the throne of England St. Dunstan was recalled from his exile, and was begged by the king to become Bishop of Worcester. Some time later he was made Bishop of London, and then Primate or Archbishop of Canterbury.

Through all his life St. Dunstan never ceased to speak out boldly what he thought, and to rebuke sin wherever he saw it. There were at this time a great many customs among the clergy which he thought wrong, and indeed many of the monks, and even the Priests of those days, had fallen into idle habits and led evil lives. St. Dunstan tried hard to make them better, and to raise the Church in England to a high and noble standard of Christian life. He did much towards this, but as so often happens when any one tries to make what we call reforms, that is, to alter what is not good and arrange things in a better manner, St. Dunstan was hated by all those who loved their own way best, and who did not care about what was right so long as they could live at ease. So his life was one of struggle and conflict, but he was strong and firm to the end, and he did a great deal to bring learning as well as purity of life into the Church in England.

In the spring of the year 988 the Archbishop began to fail in health. He was not much over sixty years of age, and he had kept up bravely through his many trials, but now he was worn out. He knew that his term on earth was closing in. On the Feast of the Ascension he went into the cathedral to preach, and he knew it would be for the last time. Lovingly he bade the people around him good-bye. "GOD be with you!" that, indeed, was his most earnest desire—what he had striven and struggled for through all his life, to bring the Church and the people near to GOD . Now his work was done. "I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course."

Tears fell from the eyes of all present as the old Archbishop spoke, sobs were heard throughout the whole building. As he ended he bade the clergy and the brethren of the school and chapter come together in his room, with them he received the Holy Communion, and so died.

"A little while to patient vigil-keeping,

To face the stern, to wrestle with the strong,

A little while to sow the seed with weeping,

Then bind the sheaves and sing the harvest-song."

Church Hymns