Dunstan vs. Maryam of Qidun

Hey, look! It's a saint a lot of people have heard of! But, as history would suggest, that means nothing in this annual clash of saints. Nonetheless Dunstan squares off against Maryam of Qidun (we were referring to Dunstan, obviously) in today's Lent Madness battle.

Yesterday, Marianne Cope erased Bartolomé de las Casas 65% to 35%, but only because we couldn't think of a saint whose last name was also a liturgical vestment. Believe us, there's no one named Charles Chasuble. We looked.

The history of the church in England, like that of the church worldwide, is not a story of continual growth but of constant invention and reinvention. Saint Dunstan’s great ministry was to preside over the reinvention of monastic life in England when its flame had nearly been extinguished by Viking invasions that began in the late eighth century.

Born to an influential family and raised in the household of his uncle, an Archbishop of Canterbury, Dunstan took a vocation to monastic life in 943, living at Glastonbury as a hermit within a five-foot by two-and-a-half foot cell. According to legend, he worked as a silversmith, a scribe, and a musician. Yet even as a hermit, his stature rose, and he became a fixture within the courts of Anglo-Saxon kings. Upon receiving two large inheritances, Dunstan used his newfound wealth for the restoration of monastic life in England. A political exile to Flanders proved to be transformative, as Dunstan encountered the Benedictine monastic revival.

When he returned to England after only a year of exile, Dunstan was ordained bishop of Worcester, then translated to be bishop of London, and ultimately in 960, he became Archbishop of Canterbury. He used his new influence and favor with the king to reform and restore abbeys at Glastonbury, Bath, and Westminster, among many others. Dunstan’s monastics were “contemplatives in action”—particularly focused on the immediate concerns of church and state. They regulated liturgical worship, revived monastic life for women, sought education and discipline among the clergy, and brought the church into closer alignment with the royal power instead of the power of local lords. The revived monasticism also valued the arts, scriptoria, and workshops within monasteries.

Soon after his death, Dunstan’s cult rose and grew to great prominence and was perhaps foremost in England until eclipsed by Thomas Becket in the thirteenth century; they shared a common site of pilgrimage at Canterbury Cathedral, where each was archbishop. Goldsmiths, jewelers and locksmiths claim him as their patron. Dunstan’s work to revive monasticism would be a defining work of the tenth century in England; that same century would prove to be the cradle of the next five centuries of English history.

Collect for Dunstan
Direct your Church, O Lord, into the beauty of holiness, that, following the good example of your servant Dunstan, we may honor your Son Jesus Christ with our lips and in our lives; to the glory of his Name, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

—David Sibley


Maryam of Qidun
Maryam of Qidun was a monastic woman with a story easily transformed into legend bordering on hyperbole. The scant, subjective information about her life leaves much to the imagination. Nonetheless, even when you remove all embellishment, we’re left with a woman worthy of our deep contemplation.

Maryam’s parents died when she was seven, and she went into the care of her uncle, Abraham, of Qidun, a desert village outside of Edessa, Turkey. Abraham was a monastic who gave his considerable wealth to the poor and lived the life of a hermit, entirely devoted to God. He raised his niece as part of his monastic cell, with him in an inner room and Maryam in an outer space. A small window between the rooms allowed Abraham to teach Maryam scripture and a rule of life, and they lived this way for twenty years.

One day, a man described as a monk “in name only” began to visit Abraham but set his intentions on Maryam. After a year of visits, the man convinced Maryam to leave her cell, at which point he “immediately contaminated and polluted her” due to his lust. Maryam immediately berated herself, believing herself unworthy of forgiveness. Considering her life over, she fled to a place where no one knew her and lived as a prostitute.

Abraham had two dreams that showed Maryam’s fate. After two years, he finally discovered her location, borrowed the clothing of a soldier so that he would not be recognizable, and set out to find Maryam. Once Abraham found her, he asked to meet with her and ultimately went to her bedroom. Abraham then revealed himself to her as her uncle, lamented her leaving, and begged her to return. Abraham convinced Maryam that she could confess her sin and God would forgive her, and they returned to their cell.

Abraham put Maryam in the inner room and himself in the outer enclosure. Her weeping and cries of penitence inspired people to visit her to cry out to God alongside her. Many people were blessed by her salvation.

Most of us are unwilling to publicly repent for our sins, let alone be willing to confess and submit our lives to God. Maryam reminds us that the repentance of others can help us in our need to be forgiven. Her greatest lesson and gift: no one is devoid of sin except for God.

Collect for Maryam of Qidun
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and restore them again like your servant Maryam, that with penitent hearts and steadfast faith they might embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

—Miriam Willard McKenney


Dunstan vs. Maryam of Qidun

  • Dunstan (68%, 4,749 Votes)
  • Maryam of Qidun (32%, 2,214 Votes)

Total Voters: 6,963

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Dunstan: Randy OHC / CC BY (
Maryam of Qidun: Unknown


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173 comments on “Dunstan vs. Maryam of Qidun”

  1. I will not vote today. Maryam has my heart, but I cannot support the way she was characterized in the description. I am deeply saddened that such an interpretation has been published.

  2. My job supports Catholic lay people who go into mission overseas, but we are closely associated with a group of Sisters and one of Fathers and Brothers whose primary calling is also serving overseas. As the religious orders get older and older, I have to wonder what the future holds for these organizations. I have been exceedingly blessed by getting to know them, one sister even set me on the contemplative path, which has particularly enriched my life. They are the kindest, most considerate, and most highly evolved in spiritual matters of anyone I have ever met. So for Dunstan's efforts at reviving this lifestyle I am grateful, and in thanks I cast my vote for him.

  3. Are you kidding?
    Indeed listen to the voices of many women responding here. Maryam is a rape victim in need of justice and compassion, not redemption.
    Your write up of her here perpetuates and justifies her victimization .
    Calls to mind Maria Gorretti who “died defending her virginity” when attacked by a rapist. And so was canonized as a model for Christian women.
    You could have presented her and reframed her persona to correct this injustice done by the church. But you chose to perpetuate the dominant narrative.
    No vote today
    And I may be done with Lent Madness

  4. /Users/patriciatempleton/Desktop/IMG_3943.jpg

    Dunstan, the Archbishop of Catterbury and official greeter at St. Dunstan's in Atlanta, says the choice here is obvious. Dunstan all the way!

    1. Well, Dunstan's servant, the rector of St. Dunstan's, is technologically challenged and unable to post the Archbishop of Catterbury's picture. Be assured it was a great one. And the message is still clear. Vote Dunstan all the way.

  5. I don't think Maryam was appropriate for Lent Madness, although I do feel deeply for her story. Dunstan, on the other hand, got my vote because he saw the need to rehabilitate and expand the monastic communities when those pillars of learning were in danger of disappearing.

  6. I was excited to learn about a woman of the Eastern church, but I am revolted by her story. She was sexually assaulted, and her foster father reproaches her for not telling him that *she* had sinned? He raised her to believe that once “polluted”, she had no recourse but prostitution? It was her wails of shame and distress that inspired people to penitence?

    St Mary of Qidun, you deserved better.

    I’ve never criticized the SEC before, but I’m appalled that you chose to include a saint with such a story.

  7. I am a pyrate, yes I am
    My sins of the past I must claim,
    To be forgiven, no gift greater, my thanks
    that I be blessed by the Lord, same as Maryam.

  8. I was surprised and delighted to recognize the story of Maryam as the basis of one of Hroswitha's plays!

  9. At the risk of being thrown into deepest darkness I have tried to vote. First time after 3 minutes the 'wheely thing' just keep spinning so I baked out and waited an hour to try again and did vote. I believe it was your issue not mine as I had no problem on other sites. Thank you.
    Go Dunstan!

  10. I had to go with Dunstan. When I lived in Michigan I went to a church called St. Dunstan for a while.

  11. Fascinating responses to today's match-up. Fascinating in that we are viewing Dunstan and Maryam through 21st century lenses. After reading and re-reading their stories, I'm casting my vote for Dunstan, who at least DID something to earn sainthood. Sorry, Maryam, I prefer my saints with a little more substance to their stories.

  12. "When he returned to England after only a year of exile"! Dunstan was clearly a highly privileged mover and shaker. He reminds me of "Sherlock," who having been banished to Siberia for murdering the Master of Mind Castles, is recalled after six minutes to solve a political crisis for the Crown. As his brother Mycroft tells him, "I certainly hope you've learned your lesson." Dunstan doesn't seem to have had any lessons to learn, for his punishment upon completion of exile was to be . . . installed bishop. Sad! It's like having to write on the blackboard 100 times: "I will not pull Suzy's pigtails anymore and will spend this $6MM inheritance wisely." Apprenticeships in silversmithery, scribery, and music were highly technical and required a long education in letters and access to expensive tools, so there seems no risk of asceticism or poverty in Dunstan's story. And I look with a skeptical eye on Dunstan's political choice to "bring the monasteries into closer alliance with the crown"; that may have been a smart political strategy (until the Tudors!), but it militated against feudalism and made the church an agent of a centrist state. Not very saintly. Feudalism may have been "inefficient" (from the point of view of market capitalism), but one could argue that it might have allowed parishes and monasteries greater independence. I say "might"; I'm only speculating about the tenth century CE. I voted for Dunstan because he "rocked the cradle of monasticism" and set it on its course as a way of life for five centuries. May Henry VIII, instigator more of the Via Cruenta than of the Via Media, never darken the doors of Lent Madness. I was impressed by Dunstan's cross-cultural education in Belgium, encountering the Benedictine revival. And by David Sibley's noting that the church is always reinventing itself to respond to the pressures of the times. May we reinvent ourselves today to heal a planet in mortal danger and to offer succor and visibility to the movements of mass migration that are the human lot in a time of crisis. I do want to say of Maryam of Qidun that though her story seems to dissolve into so many other nearly anonymous stories of women inhabiting some undefined borderline between prostitute and monk, I nearly voted for her on the basis that her story rung so true as the account of rape victims everywhere. The rape victim blames herself for the violence committed against her, and the negation of her autonomy, and then "acts out" in self-destructive ways. I don't know that her uncle's advice to "confess her sin" is theologically how I would articulate it, but I do think that he is on to something: speak one's story to God and talk to others about the experience. Embrace a full human life in return. I feel that Maryam's story is an early effort to come to grips with the experiences of victims of sexual violence and to find a way to shape them within the larger Christian story. I'm not sure it quite captures the story as I would hope to see it expressed in contemporary Christian terms, but it feels like a step toward a path of narrative healing.

    1. I’m glad you voted for Dunstan! I had the same thoughts about his centralizing the church, but I like to think that in doing so, Dunstan weeded out some unsavory practices in the boonies and enabled Mother Church to look after her small parishes better.

  13. Maryam's story reminds me of how unwed girls and women in Ireland who became pregnant, whether by a lover or a rapist, were isolated from society, forced to live in prison-like homes, and had their babies taken from them. Her story and theirs is tragic in every dimension.

    Though I find the write-up of her life offensive and agree that she had not sinned, I am voting for her on behalf of all women shamed for unwed sexual activity whether consensual or not.

    Few men receive such scorn. More likely, they get an "attaboy." Within the last 20 or so years, it was learned that a longtime elderly Illinois legislator from a nearby district had fathered a child with his mistress. This was labeled "a youthful indiscretion" despite the fact that he was forty at the time of the affair. Later, a state park bearing his name was established in the area that had elected him repeatedly.

  14. I think her uncle comes across as the hero in this story. Rather than disowning her (even were she assaulted, as seems probable, my understanding is that her uncle might have blamed her for it), he does not give up on her, but leaves his comfort zone of his hermit's life to go and find her, assure her of her worth, and bring her home.

  15. I knew the story of Maryam before reading this. My first encounter with it was through a beautiful and graciously portrayed mime piece years back. This write-up differs slightly (perspective, wording, etc) and I find myself relying on my memories of the beautiful and gracious story I first knew and voting for this young woman...

    1. interesting

      I was not going to vote today because of match up.

      but you clarified for me.

  16. Maryam "sainthood" is ascribed to her calling others by her wailing. She created fallow ground in the hearts of many who otherwise might not have been open to confessing their own sin. Her stolen innocence, violent existence, and imprisonment reminds us that we all have something to confess and be forgiven. If even she had things to confess surely all of us have things to mourn and cry to God for repentance for in this life. It is a miracle that hearts were made contrite by her own cries of confession. For me this far outshines Dunstan's actions seated in a life of privilege.

  17. Maryam for me. I see Abram as doing the best he could with the resources he had. What "proper" home could Maryam go to ? In those times, I do not see children who have lost their parents going to the modern version of an orphanage. They would have starved on the streets. Guard against the assumption that our modern solutions to Maryam's situation even existed back then. Also, Abraham did not "reproach" his niece when he found her, but pleaded with her to return to him. He could have tossed her out just like society did. Also any woman of that time - be she rich or poor - would have been raised to believe that a misstep, no matter what the circumstances, would mean "debasement". An attitude still in force today. I stand with Maryam and all women in her situation in the hope that attitudes will finally change.

  18. Once again Lent Madness gives us a choice between someone we actually know a lot about from historical record and a shadowy figure of legend. Maryam of Quidun's story, if there is any truth in it, makes her worthy of pity, but I'm glad to vote for a saint whose service to Christ is really known. I dislike it when Lent Madness proposes to us vague legendary figures about whom we know basically nothing.

  19. Maryam lived in the front cell her uncle in the back cell. I wonder who did the washing , ironing , cooking and cleaning?

  20. Maryam's story is certainly thought-provoking, especially when seen from a 21st-century perspective.
    However, as a long-time ringer of handbells, I voted for Dunstan, no disrespect of Maryam intended.

  21. I voted for Dunstan partly because he is mentioned in Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol”.

  22. For all of the reasons previously posted, add me to the list of Lent Madness participants who are greatly distressed by the inclusion of Maryam of Quidun as one of today’s nominees. I’m not voting because this is a juicy orange vs. dried apricot match-up - not fair for either one of them.

    To the SEC: It’s time for more voices to be included in the selection of future Golden Halo nominees. I strongly urge you to a) increase & diversify your membership &/or b) create a separate, diverse committee to review your choices before announcing the final bracket.

  23. I think I have to decline to vote today. Maryam is a saint in the same manner as the rest of us. You can't even say she she chose to live her life in a particular way - she was a victim, physically and mentally. Dunstan was a swell guy, but talk about white male privilege!! These two were never on equal footing, and never could be.

  24. I had decided to read comments BEFORE I cast a vote thinking they might lightheartedly sway my vote; however, even after I remove all embellishment from Maryam's story, I was indeed left with a woman worthy of my deepest contemplation in the wake of which I abstained from voting knowing how the essence of her legacy reverberates profoundly to this day in a way that leaves Dunstan's silvery contributions sadly tarnished.

  25. I'm disturbed by the portrayal of Maryam as a sinner; she appears to have been the victim of sexual violence, hardly committed of her own volition.

  26. I voted for Maryam and I guess I read the story different than many this morning. Dunstan is a man of many gifts who got to choose him MO and rose to become Archbishop of Canterbury. He had a full life, traveled (if in exile), and worked at various crafts and then became an administrator. Maryam, like many who experience child sexual abuse or sexual assault as adults, blamed herself and condemned herself to a life of prostitution. Her uncle/closest family member sought her out and encouraged her to see herself anew. She did. Am I crazy about the literal details here, like that she was brought up in or returned to a hermit's cell? No. But that's true for so many of these earlier saints, male or female, and is especially true for many female saints (it's my problem with St. Claire vs. St. Francis; he roamed around Italy she and her order had to live shut up at San Damiano). But if we set these details aside, I guess I feel more strongly for the woman who feels like she's garbage (which is what so many children who've been sexually abused, for example, feel about themselves) because of someone else's assault and then finds her life reclaimed -- albeit in a way we don't specifically feel so happy about. Dunstan is a big success story; but what about reclaiming the dignity, self-worth and humanity of the oppressed? People who dont' look successful on the outside. People who've been harmed and damaged? That's why I voted for Maryam.