A pretty common question around here, from new members and sometimes not-so-new members, is: Who was Saint Dunstan? Dunstan was a 10th-century English monk and bishop, who was deeply involved in the religious, civic, and cultural rebirth of England after some dark and violent decades. He was born around 910 to an upper-class family in the western town of Glastonbury. Dunstan became a monk as a young man, and was named Abbot of the monastery at Glastonbury in 943 (that’s when we like to say he really started irking the Devil). During a year-long political exile, after one of many disagreements with one king or another, he encountered the revival of Benedictine monasticism that was underway on the Continent at that time. King Edgar called Dunstan back to England in 957, and eventually appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the English church. In that capacity he spent the rest of his long life striving to renew and develop monasticism in England, based on the Benedictine rule and including both monks and nuns. This work had an impact far beyond the church, which was Dunstan’s intention. He was an immensely important figure in the process of cultural and political stabilization and centralization in tenth-century England. He is said to have been an artist and craftsman, and known to have been a writer of manuscripts. The image of St. Dunstan that dwells with our crowd of saints around the baptismal font is from the Glastonbury Classbook, an Anglo-Saxon religious text that may well have been written (and drawn) in part by Dunstan himself. It is possible that the monk kneeling at the feet of Christ in that image is a self-portrait by Dunstan’s own hand.
For the past couple of years we’ve done a really delightful little poem-pantomime about Dunstan’s legendary encounter with the devil. It’s good fun, but it’s basically fiction. What I love about Jane Maher’s play, that we are doing this year, is that it actually gives you some history and a little sense of Dunstan’s significance.
I think Dunstan’s life and witness are especially instructive to us in the seasons when politics are on our minds. He lived his life and vocation at the intersection of faith and politics. That’s why I chose this Gospel for our celebration of his feast day. The recommended Gospel for Dunstan’s feast is a text from Matthew, about the faithful steward who keeps watch while the master is away, and that’s nice too. But in the “Render unto Caesar” story, Jesus calls our attention to the distinction between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s; between human political agendas and God’s agenda. And that is the core of Dunstan’s life. Let me offer two brief points for reflection, on this feast of St. Dunstan.
First and most fundamentally, the witness of Dunstan’s life points us towards faithful engagement with the public issues of our time and place. Dunstan’s commitment to monasticism wasn’t a retreat from the world; far from it. In Dunstan’s time the common people were uneducated, poor, harassed by bandits, cheated by merchants, oppressed by the landed aristocracy. Rule of law and civil society were almost nonexistent. Dunstan and the other great bishops of his time believed deeply that the flourishing of the English people would be best served by the cultivation of monastic centers, whose prayers, teaching, and care for the common folk would be a stabilizing and improving force.
Dunstan lived in a very different time than ours, but maybe it’s not as different as we think it is. And despite all the talk about the decline of religion in America, churches – and nonprofits and volunteer agencies full of church folks – play a huge role in support and advocacy for the most vulnerable folks of our era. Dunstan’s insight – that effective, well-ordered, engaged religious communities can be the foundation and watchdog of a just society – is just as true today as it was in the tenth century. Organized religion still has a huge role to play in American civic life, if we step up to it.
Second, the witness of Dunstan’s life calls us to reflect on just how much God’s agenda can be pursued through human politics – and how much God’s agenda has to be pursued by faithful people regardless of the ups and downs, the rights and lefts of our political processes and institutions. Dunstan was a consummate pragmatist. He pursued his vision and calling with the help of friendly kings, and against the opposition of unfriendly ones. He had to find ways to advance his agenda under all circumstances. He had to work with the system as it was as in order to inch it closer to the system he hoped it could be.
Civic engagement doesn’t mean we forget the difference between God and Caesar. We’re most likely to forget that difference when someone we really like is on the ballot. But no human election will ever usher in God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, and peace. Human political agendas and God’s agenda can overlap, for sure; but those overlaps are always temporary and partial. If we can keep that in mind, and keep our eyes on God’s purposes for the world, then maybe our civic and political engagement can be as clear-sighted and stubborn as Dunstan’s was.
May the spirit of Dunstan, that wise and pugnacious bishop, guide and inspire us in this season and in all highly-charged political seasons. May his life remind us to be mindful of the difference between God and Caesar, and yet, to work and pray faithfully for the good of the city, the nation, and the world where we dwell. Amen.