Tuesday, May 19, 2020

He “filled all England with light.”

In order to grasp the significance of S. Dunstan, we have to remember how, beginning with the merciless sacking of Lindisfarne in 793, the Danish invasions of the 8th and 9th centuries resulted, not only in the widespread destruction of monasteries and churches, but also the violent massacre of many clergy. The civilisation that had developed in Britain perished.

Raids for the purpose of plunder and robbery eventually gave way to the seizing of land for settlement. But the impact of the invasions, together with the other crises being experienced in Europe meant that during the last two centuries of the first millennium, many thought in apocalyptic terms that the end of the world was near.

In 878 Alfred (849-899), King of Wessex, gathered his remaining few warriors in the marshes at Eddington, and, to everyone’s surprise, conquered the Danes, becoming King of all England. He was educated and devout, dedicating himself to the restoration of peace, the revival of learning, true holiness and the renewal of the Church. So Alfred founded schools, and personally translated many books (including Bede’s History) from Latin into the English of the day. He also began the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in English. At a time when there were almost no local vocations to the religious life, he founded monasteries and filled them with men and women from the Continent. The provision of bishops for the vacant sees and the creation of new ones was accomplished just after his death.

Building on this foundation, three significant leaders in the reigns of King Athelstan (c. 894-939) and King Edgar (c. 943-975) led a turn-around in the 10th century. They were Dunstan (909-988), Ethelwold (908-984), and Oswald (d. 992).

Dunstan received his schooling at Glastonbury, and as a youth belonged to King Athelstan’s court, which was itself a rich source of education, for there were many contacts with the Continent, Wales and Scotland. Dunstan became a monk of Glastonbury, and then Abbot of Glastonbury (940-957), Bishop of Worcester (957-960), Bishop of London (958-960), and finally Archbishop of Canterbury (960-978). He established many of the great monasteries of England, ensuring high standards of religious devotion and obedience. He inspired spiritual renewal and a higher level of education among the clergy generally; he promoted celibacy as the norm for the clerical life. He also brought artists from the Continent to beautify England’s churches, and he introduced great music to the people. Above all he is remembered as an educated, saintly man who established a standard – even an “ethos” – of worship which was to dominate the life of the English Church for centuries. When he died, it was said of him that he had “filled all England with light.” As well as his attendance at Mass and the Divine Office, Dunstan’s last ten years in retirement at Canterbury saw him spending long hours, day and night, in prayer.

Dunstan was a scholar, a holy priest, a mystic and a practical man. Angels are reported to have sung to him heavenly canticles. He improved the spiritual and temporal well-being of his people; he built and restored churches, established schools, judged suits, defended widows and orphans, promoted peace, and enforced respect for purity. He practised his crafts, made bells and organs and corrected the books in the cathedral library. He encouraged and protected European scholars who came to England, and was active as a teacher of boys in the cathedral school. 

On the vigil of Ascension Day 988, it is recorded that a vision of angels warned Dunstan he would die in three days. On the feast day itself, Dunstan said Mass and preached three times to the people: at the Gospel, after the Agnus Dei, and at the blessing. In his final address, he announced his impending death and wished the people well. That afternoon he chose the spot for his tomb and went to bed. His strength failed rapidly, and on Saturday morning, 19 May, he assembled the clergy. Mass was celebrated in his presence, then he received the Sacrament of Anointing and Holy Communion, and died. His final words are reported 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.”

The collect from today's Mass:
O God, source of all gifts,
who raised up the Bishop Saint Dunstan
to be a true shepherd of the flock,
a restorer of monastic life
and a trusted counsellor of kings;
grant at his intercession, we pray,
an abundance of your Spirit to all pastors,
that with wisdom and truth
they may offer worthy service to Christ
and to his people.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit
one God, for ever and ever. 


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