Discerning vocation

Daily Reading for May 19 • Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, 988

Dunstan went to school in Glastonbury Abbey, but in 923 he joined his uncle who had been translated from the See of Wells to that of Canterbury. This brought him close to the court of King Aethelstan, and over the next few years he was to spend much time there. . . . Dunstan enjoyed the court, and responded readily to its artistic influences, learning drawing and metalwork, how to write poetry, singing and playing music. But he was bookish and withdrawn, preferring the company of old men who could tell him the heroic tales of the struggles against the Danes to that of his contemporaries. He was also a great dreamer, prone to nocturnal visions to which he attached great significance, and which (like many another) he could not resist communicating to those around him. The young and boisterous hunting, shooting and fishing set of Aethelstan’s court found him very odd, and slowly the rumours grew. He was, they said, undoubtedly a witch.

The situation grew steadily worse, until Aethelstan acceded to the majority view, and sent him away from the court. His enemies followed after him and rolled him in the mud, and kicked him until they were tired. They had settled his hash for him, they thought, and that was the end of the matter.

Dunstan was 24, and returning home a failure, quite literally covered in disgrace. He wondered whether or not to become a monk: it was at that time no inviting prospect. The Danish invasions had hit the monasteries hardest of all, and though Alfred had worked hard to promote recovery, monastic life was petty, feeble, and corrupt, bearing little relation to the way of life St. Benedict had established. The very fabric was crumbling: at the time of his vocation, Dunstan was nearly killed by a falling stone from the roof of the church in which he was praying. . . . In 936 Dunstan entered Glastonbury as a monk, and began the work of reestablishing true monasticism that is known to historians as the “tenth-century Reformation.”

From “St. Dunstan” in Who’s Who in the Middle Ages: From the Collapse of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance by John Fines (Barnes & Noble, 1970).

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