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”


    MONASTIC, 4th c.

    "Maryam was orphaned at the age of 7 and so then lived a life as an achorite with her uncle Abraham, a hermit, for 20 years. When she was a young woman, one of the monks who followed Abraham desired Maryam. After a year of attempts, they finally had sex. Upon losing her virginity, she fell into despair and, rather than confess her sin to her uncle, she moved to another town, and established herself as a tavern prostitute.

    In a dream, Abraham realized that Maryam had been taken captive by a life of sin. He searched for her for two years. When he finally heard of her whereabouts, he put on military garb, mounted a horse, and set out to the town where she resided. He entered the tavern and requested that he take a meal with her. They shared a lavish meal together and finally retreated to Maryam's room, where Abraham said, "My daughter Maryam, don't you know me? Whatever has happened to you? Why did you not just tell me when you had sinned? I would not have been angry with you, for who is without sin, except for God alone? I would have done penance for you myself, yet instead you have left me all alone in unspeakable sadness and grief."

    Together they returned to Qidun. Once there Maryam pleased God more by her sincere repentance than she ever had by her virginity."

    I liked this source better.

    1. This tells a different story--one of consensual (if unmarried, disapproved) sex rather than rape or abuse. It reminds me of a presentation I once heard by Lutheran pastor and biblical scholar, Dr. Rev. Niveen Sarras, about how the story of Dinah in Genesis 34 may be a story not of rape, but of premarital sex.

      Then the story is about the over-valuation of virginity, and the sense of no path forward that could involve marriage (if it were even desired) between these two monastics. Who knows what other nuances abounded, whatever circumstances generated Maryam's sense of shame for publicly disapproved sex?

  3. OH MY GOODNESS! Same old story. Crazy teaching of an uncle. raped, trafficked and then SHE'S THE SINNER. Please give me a break. The victim is the sinner. Please vote for Maryam

  4. Wow! I am stunned and, frankly, appalled, at so many of the comments on Maryam! Read some history, people! Back in those days, women were chattel, and generally sold off by their parents for fortune or favor. Single females, unless they were filthy rich in their own right (A rarity, to be sure!) were most often cast off by their families, as they were considered a burden, and this included widows and orphans. Read the stories of women in the Bible. Many of them turned to prostitution in order to survive. They absolutely had no other choice. And the idea that it was their fault was inculcated in them from the get-go, as they were being groomed for marriage meat market. Maryam managed to turn her feelings of being a worthless sinner into compassion, and brought that to others. For all of this, she got my vote (I can afford it - my brackets are toast, anyway!). Dunstable had oodles of money, and plenty of friends in high places, and, most important, he was a man, so he can afford to wait for another few years and try again...not that he will have to!

  5. Deeply troubled by Maryam's story. She is worthy of great compassion. I hope that she found it, but the weeping that drew others to her suggests otherwise. I voted for Dunstan, have served in the diocese of Worcester, and for his work reviving monasticism for women.

  6. Perhaps this may help us think more about Maryam’s story:

    Her story can be found in “The Life of St. Mary the Harlot, Niece of the Hermit Abraham” by St. Ephraem of Edessa, included in books of translations from the Desert Fathers. It is well worth reading there (only a few pages). Quotes below are from The Desert Fathers, trans. Helen Waddell (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1957). I have no idea whether certain aspects may or may not be clearer in the original language. I do think that the story shows more nuance than the summary provided above.

    All stories of this type are troubling, partly for their insistence on the superiority of virginity, and partly because female victims are blamed. I do, however, find this author, Ephraem, to be far less critical of Mary than one might assume without actually reading. Although her opening the window and going out to the man is considered sin, she is nevertheless shown clearly as a victim—not just of the “monk in profession only” but also of the devil, who is only bothering to attack her in order to distract the mind of her uncle, the holy Abraham. The harshest language about her comes from her own mouth, and the reader feels pity that she is so ashamed she sees no choice but to leave Abraham. Going to another city, she takes “refuge” in a brothel without further comment from the author. (Presumably she needs to support herself and is too ashamed to go to the Church for charity.) Abraham, when he is finally able to find her, asks her “Who was it destroyed thee?” (p. 197) and she does not answer, but his real concern is with her running away and her life since then: “Why, when thou didst sin, didst thou not tell me? Why didst thou not come to me then and there? And indeed I would have done thy penance for thee, and my dear Ephraem too … For who is without sin, save God himself?” (p. 197). Because of what Abraham has already done we know these are not empty words. Indeed the story is about Abraham and his kindness just as much as it is about Mary; it includes touching (yet also somewhat humorous) scenes showing the old hermit dressing up like a soldier and forcing himself to joke with the innkeeper, eat meat, etc., in order to gain access to his niece, checking his tears in order to keep up the pretense. Ephraem ends the story with lamentation for his own sin and prayer for God’s mercy. (Compare the ending of the story of St. Pelagia: “This is the story of a harlot, this the life of a desperate sinner…” (p. 188).

    The story (at least in this translation) seems a little fuzzy about responsibility. The evil monk, who is certainly portrayed as predatory, tries for a year to seduce her. The fact that she finally gives in and goes out to him seems to imply that she is consenting to something at least (going away with him, or whatever he lied about, maybe?), yet the statement that “forthwith he debauched and defiled her” (p. 192) seems to mean rape, and he obviously deserts her after the act. I suppose the tricky aspect in this particular story is that she “opened the window of her cell and came out to him”—which in the context of the story she should not have done, and in the context of the story seems to make her responsible along with (but certainly not instead of) the man who “lay in ambush about her” (p. 192) for a year.

    The reader is left knowing that both Mary and Abraham would have suffered less if she had dared to tell the truth to Abraham instead of running away. (Perhaps this is supposed to encourage the reader to confession?) Another “what if” in the story is “What if Mary had told Abraham right away when the man kept coming around trying ‘by the softness of his words’ to seduce her?” (p. 192). Still, one assumes that the sad reason for her fear to tell Abraham both times was more the general cruel attitudes toward women than her own lack of courage.

    A sad story, though it does end not only with the reunification of Abraham and Mary, but with God giving Mary the gift of healing others. One of the best parts of the story is that Abraham and Mary seem to love each other. In the background there is also Abraham’s friend, “our dear Ephraem,” who, Abraham tells Mary, was “grieving sore for thee, and for ever pleading with God for thee” (p. 198). I find something hopeful in the mutual love and support among them.

  7. A vote for Maryam. A side vote to SEC for choosing to include her story and to David S for putting his version together from available sources. Maryam would have been welcomed by Jesus so surely she has a place here. Soo much more to say about silencing voices who tell stories we don't like to hear, but I'll leave it there.

    Lent Madness is as silly or as serious as we choose to make it. Seriously. It's silly for us to be ranking our fellow sinner/saints by perceived level of holiness - but fun. (Been fun for a long time, too, as Our Saviour knew - Luke 18:9ff). Today especially I appreciate the comments that lead us from judgements toward constructive action in our own spheres of influence, inspired by the story of the saints' lives. THAT is the work of a saint - done by both contenders today.

    (create beauty, bring order, work with government for the greater good, listen to a survivor's story, seek the lost, leave a self-destructive path behind...)

  8. Just had to say that according to the Roman Catholics the Mother of Jesus, Mary is said to be totally free of sin. Consider the ejaculation, "Oh Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee." EITHER the collect is in error or Mary is God incarnated as well.

    1. "The ejaculation." Just going to leave that right there. Remember that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary's conception and birth, not to Jesus'. Many theologians have objected to that dogma, as it seems to suggest that if God wanted, God could have given us ALL an immaculate conception, and if so, why NOT? That's the problem with pronouncements ex cathedra. Upon closer scrutiny, they start to look . . . fallible . . .

      1. Yup, ejaculation. Of course we were too young to know any other meaning. Jesus! Holy Mary, Mother of God! Short, exclamatory prayers for which so many days in purgatory could be removed from your spiritual account (indulgences). Makes me laugh in a bemused kind of way. I kept an account in my mind. I was only 9.
        Yes, ofcourse, I am aware of the implication of the Immaculate Conception but it went further than that. Mary never sinned. Ever. She was assumed into heaven for her goodness sake. I love Mary to this day but my theology has room to view the mother of God, as the feminine aspect of God, as in Holy Mary! Mother (of) God! Now that's an ejaculation!

  9. Meager beginnings, orphaned early
    And raised by an uncle in a monastery cell, mistreated by a stranger
    Ran away in shame
    Yet still received God's graces through her uncle
    Abraham who carried her home to herself

    (St. Mark's ABQ Members and Friends)

  10. This is the first time I have read every single comment, right to the end. And I still can’t decide who gets my vote: the white male privilege, or the female victim of a rape? Sorry Lent Madness, I decline my vote.

  11. A women raped even while living with a monk and then blaming oneself vs white male privilege who gave up his money.

  12. I have read all the comments. Which took awhile. I at one point mentioned in a reply tossing a coin to determine how to vote, but I have recalled something I saw earlier today elsewhere online that today is International Sex Workers' Rights Day.

    So I will vote for the woman who was forced into some of the only work a woman who had been taken advantage of in that way at that time could do. And my vote is also in honor of groups like Rahab's Sisters, here in Portland, who minister to women working the streets.

  13. Just wondering if Maryam really CHOSE prostitution. Judith wonders, above, "who did the washing, ironing, cooking and cleaning?" These are things a girl learns from her mother. Or maybe her aunties. Add carding, spinning, weaving, and sewing, and you have the jobs that an unaccompanied woman in a strange city might possibly earn a living at. A young woman raised by an uncle in a cell would not have any of this training. So there she is, wandering strange streets and probably weeping: likely someone else chose HER for prostitution. "Come with me, my pretty, I'll see you're taken care of."

  14. Can I vote for Abraham? He's the one who figured out a way to raise Maryam and be true to his calling, then sought her out and convinced her to forgive herself enough for her 'sin' (not sin - enough has been said about that above) to come back and inspire others. Dunstan underwhelmed me. However, there's something about Maryam's story that doesn't quite work for me either. I think it's the lack of acceptance of Christ's love even after she got back. Seems like the wailing and gnashing of teeth continued.

    1. Mary W, sadly I don’t agree with you. Her uncle Abraham was obligated to care for Maryam, as her surviving closest male relatives. He most likely received her inheritance from his brother, her father. He surely must have known about the “suitor” who pursued Maryam. He didn’t stop it. Then she left his care. I’m guessing due to feeling shamed by her uncle, or being pregnant, or both. Why did it take Abraham two years to find her? I think it was because society condemned him, eventually, for continuing to collect her inheritance but not helping her. Whatever the reason, he clearly fond her and brought her home. I think his village demanded he put an end to her prostitution and bring her home.

  15. Karin:

    It was thoughtful of you to share portions of the writings by by St. Ephraem of Edessa... very much appreciated.

    Still... in my view, all of these disclosures about the story of Mariam/Mary -- together with the shared opinions of the other readers of Lent Madness -- are not bringing to me the kind of closure that I crave!