Beams, Bells and Healing Balms

May 23, 2019 Length: 10:10

Fr. Emmanuel Kahn speaks about St Dunstan, a 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury.


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The gospel reading today from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of St John tells how a man who had been paralysed for 38 years was healed by Jesus Christ. This gospel is important both for us and for the saint whose life we celebrate today, St Dunstan, a 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury. Let’s consider the saint first. He was born near Glastonbury about 909 and died in Canterbury in 988. The Synaxarion, The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church concludes that he was the most important person in “the ecclesiastical and [the] political life of the 10th century”—that is, the most important person in both the Church life and in how England was governed during that century [19 May, Vol 5, p.216].

Now, we might think that what happened more than 1,000 years ago is no longer important today. However, that’s not true. One of St Dunstan’s most important acts was to anoint King Edgar, Alfred great-grandson, as king in a coronation ceremony in Bath in 973 “using a liturgy that remains the basis of English coronations to this day.” The historians Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger point out that “if Archbishop Dunstan or any of his clergy officiating in Bath had found themselves in Westminster Abbey in 1953, they would have [immediately understood and been at ease with] the rituals of the coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth the Second” [Lacey and Danziger, The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, p. 35].

Five years later in 978, the Royal Council of the King was meeting in a newly constructed manor house which was one of the first buildings in England that was more than one storey high. Unfortunately, the construction techniques at that time were poor. The floor collapsed; and many members of the Royal Council were injured or killed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that “while some of England’s [strongest and most famous] secular figures fell [in great pain] to the floor [below] ‘the holy Archbishop Dunstan alone was left standing up [safely] on a beam’” [Lacey and Danziger, p. 36].

This image of the holy Archbishop Dunstan remaining safely on a wooden beam, while the floor collapsed under him and his colleagues is a good image not only for the 10th century but for the 21st century. We, as Orthodox Christians who seek to live holy lives are surrounded now by people and events that are not holy, people and events that are not blessed by the Lord, people and events that can draw us and others into suffering and sin and evil and death. If we wish to find the beams—the structural parts of our modern cultures that are strong enough to hold us up and guide us into the Lord’s will for each of our lives—then we need to understand how St Dunstan became a saint in the face of many challenges.

The Synaxarion tells us that St Dunstan’s father Heorstan was “noble” and that his mother Cynethrith lived “a holy life.” That’s a good start—a father who is strong in character and morality, as well as a mother who prays often for her son [Synaxarion, 19 May, p. 214]. Note that the father and the mother have different traits, different strengths and different weaknesses, but they are part of a family that seeks to be holy and seeks to raise their children to the best of their ability. That is where sainthood begins—within the family, with the model that the mother and the father set for their children, and with how the children respond to the holiness they experience around them.

The prayers of parents are a good start toward sainthood, but next comes education. In 10th century England, if you wanted your children to be educated you turned to monks for help. In a largely illiterate culture—a society in which few people could read or write—it was the Orthodox Christian monks who guided children to knowledge. The Synaxarion tells us that the parents of Dunstan, entrusted him “to Irish monks living in Glastonbury for his education. [There] he showed a desire for study in all areas of learning, but especially an ardent piety”—that is, respecting and seeking to draw closer to God [19 May, p. 214]. 

Now that is quite important for all of us today. The young Dunstan is showing two traits that are good guidelines for each of us in our younger years: be interested “in all areas of learning” and seek to draw closer to God. As we grow older, we decide on which particular areas of learning are of greatest interest to us and precisely how we would like to draw closer to God—in prayer, in Holy Communion, in service within the Church and to those in need. We learn to focus our interest on particular subjects and particular goals. However, in the Western world today, on average, many people have seven different kinds of jobs throughout their lives, so knowing a little about many subjects can often be helpful later in life. This broad interest in learning was certainly to become important for St Dunstan as he faced many unexpected challenges. When any of us face challenges in our lives, we have a choice. We can deny there is a difficult problem, or we can pray and say, “OK, this is a difficult challenge, Lord. Guide me. Give me strength to face this challenge.

At the age of 34, Dunston was made Abbot of “the monastery at Glastonbury, … and he founded a school [there]. Dunstan organised the monastery according to the Rule of St Benedict, and had the church and the monastic buildings rebuilt.” At the age of 36, Dunstan was summoned to be Prime Minister. In this position, he strengthened “the authority of the Crown, [eliminated] the remnants of paganism, rebuilt [many] churches … and was an inspiration [to many].” Then at the age of 50, Dunstan became Archbishop of Canterbury, enabling him and King Edgar to plan “and carry out a thorough reform of Church and State” [The Synaxarion, 19 May, p. 215; and for the dating of St Dunstan’s life and his work as archbishop, F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church, Hendrickson Publishers, 1997, p. 514].

At the age of 70, Dunstan withdrew to the monastery and spent the remaining nine years of his life “in prayer [and] encouraging the founding of schools and monasteries and teaching in the Cathedral School when he was not busy [making bells] in the bell foundry or copying manuscripts” [The Synaxarion, 19 May, p. 216]. That is important, isn’t it? St Dunstan chose in his later years to be a school teacher rather than a prime minister. We could use prime ministers and presidents today who have the humility to wish to be school teachers.

Now, Dunstan became a saint, because that was the Lord’s plan for his life. Saints are not made by human effort, but they do need to cooperate with the Lord. As far as I can understand, there were four important influences in Dunstan’s life: his family, his education, his prayer life and his humility. Dunstan was born into a culture that had become paralysed by the weaknesses in family life, in education, in prayer and in humility. Therefore, he sought healing for himself and for others.

The paralysed man in the Gospel from St John was seeking healing for himself, just as Dunstan sought healing. The paralysed man had come to the Pool of Bethesda because that was where the Jewish priests killed the lambs that were then to be sacrificed in the Temple. St Theodore of Mopsuestia, the 4th century founder of the Antiochian school Biblical exegesis, explains: [People came to the Pool Bethesda because “they believed that the waters … [which contained the intestines] of the sheep offered as victims to God were washed in them … [and] were moved by divine power [that could give] the grace of healing” [Commentary on John 2.5.2-5]. St John Chrysostom asks: “What kind of cure is this [at the Pool of Bethesda]? What mystery does it signify to us?” St John continues: “A baptism] was about to be given [by Jesus Christ] that possessed much power. It was the greatest of gifts, a baptism [removing] all sins and making people alive instead of dead… And this miracle [of the healing of the paralysed man] was done so that those [at the Pool] who had learned over and over … how it is possible to heal the diseases of the body by water might more easily believe that water can also heal the soul,” concluded St John [Homilies on the Gospel of John 36.1].

Unlike the situation at the Pool of Bethesda, it is not only the first person that goes into the waters when they stir who is healed, but all of us are healed who have been baptised and receive the forgiveness of sins and unity with Christ and the Holy Spirit.” So be it for each of us, as it was for the paralysed man and for St Dunstan.