Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dunstan (c. 909-988): The Contemplative Monk In Action

Dunstan, born c. 909, appeared destined from greatness from his youth. He was schooled by the Irish monks who occupied the Abbey of Glastonbury, and even as a youth Dunstan optimistically envisioned its future restoration.

He eventually became a monk at Glastonbury. Full of enthusiasm, he was instrumental in initiating the rigorous Benedictine Rule there and also in getting the scriptorium reopened so that studies could again begin. He himself was artistically talented, in lettering, pictures, and as an illuminator. He also had expertise working with metal and casting bells. At length, he was made Abbot of Glastonbury.

His monastic successes naturally drew attention to him. He was swept up into English politics at a time when the Church and country were war-ravaged and decaying, serving as Royal Treasurer under King Edred, and then as Bishop of Worcester and London, and Archbishop of Canterbury, under King Edgar. In time, he was responsible for a much more peaceful England, spiritually, socially, and economically.

Dunstan and two of his former pupils, both Bishops also, became "contemplatives-in-action". Theirs was the spirit which, many years later, Thomas Merton would express in A Letter On the Contemplative Life, written in 1967 as a response to Pope Paul VI's for "a message of contemplatives to the world": "...The contemplative life is...the search for peace not in an abstract exclusion of all outside reality, not in a barren negative closing of the senses upon the world, but in the openness of love...The message of hope the contemplative whether you understand or not, God loves you, is present to you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and light which are like nothing you ever found in books or heard in is the intimate union in the depths of your own heart, of God's spirit and your own secret inmost self, so that you and He are in all truth One Spirit..."

On Saturday morning, May 19, 988, Dunstan gathered his clergy. The Mass was celebrated in his presence, after which he received the Last Rites, and died. Dunstan's 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 English people accepted him as a saint shortly thereafter. He was formally canonized in 1029, and later that year, at the Synod of Winchester, Dunstan's feast was ordered to be kept solemnly throughout England. 

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