We begin by watching a short film about the life of St. Dunstan.
Wonder together some:
What was your favorite part?…
What was the most important part? …
Let’s look at an image of Dunstan together.
It’s interesting to study Dunstan. He is a figure of holy folklore, a man who is said to have miraculously levitated a falling beam. But he is, too, an actual figure of historical significance – the great libraries of Britain hold manuscripts that bear Dunstan’s actual handwriting. Here is a page from a manuscript known as the Glastonbury Classbook, currently in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The big central figure is Jesus Christ, depicted as a king. But what you should notice is this little monk in his habit, down here in the corner, kneeling at Christ’s feet. This might be an actual self-portrait of, by, Dunstan. He’s known to have written manuscripts of this period, he began his career at Glastonbury, and he was an artist and craftsman. This is the image of Dunstan we keep in our icon corner at church – not an icon that makes Dunstan central, but this image that perhaps shows him the way he pictured himself: kneeling at the feet of Christ.
(What it says: Dunstanum memet clemens rogo, Christe, tuere / Tenarias me non sinas sorbsisse procellas – ‘I ask, merciful Christ, that you protect me, Dunstan; do not permit the Taenarian storms to swallow me’).
There’s a lot to say about Dunstan, who lived an interesting life in interesting times. But today I want to focus on Dunstan the reformer. Dunstan’s faith led him to a life of civic engagement that left Britain better than he found it.
The Britain into which Dunstan was born was fractured, chaotic, and dangerous. It was only thirty years before his birth that Alfred the Great had begun to unify many small kingdoms into something resembling a nation – and that work was ongoing during Dunstan’s lifetime.
Besides political divisions and frequent wars and skirmishes, for most people life was brutish and short. In Dunstan’s time the common people were uneducated, poor, harassed by bandits, cheated by merchants, and oppressed by the landed aristocracy. Rule of law and civil society were almost nonexistent.
Dunstan committed his long life to supporting the project of a unified, orderly Britain, with education more widely available; common systems for money and commerce; and a fair and equally-applied judicial system.
He is rightly remembered as a founder of monasteries & proponent of Benedictine monasticism; but for Dunstan, monasteries were a tool for reform. 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 was a consummate pragmatist. His lifetime and work spanned the reigns of eight kings. He was exiled by some, elevated to higher and higher positions of honor and influence by others. He pursued his vision with the help of friendly kings, and against the opposition of unfriendly ones. Dunstan’s life reminds us that while human political agendas and God’s agenda can overlap, those overlaps are always temporary and partial. If we can keep that in mind, then maybe our civic and political engagement can be as clear-sighted and stubborn as Dunstan’s was.
And over the course of Dunstan’s long, determined, faithful life, England did become a little more ordered, a little more just, a little safer. Something worked – and Dunstan’s role in those changes was honored, as he became celebrated as a saint within decades of his death.
I think Dunstan the reformer stands out for me right now because I think we may be tempted to think that reform, the work of making things better for more, the work – as we see it as Christians – of making the community and world around us better reflect God’s intentions of justice, mercy, peace, and wholeness, needs to start from a place of stability. It’s something people – usually people in authority – sometimes say: Now isn’t the time. Things need to be more settled before we can work for improvement.
But Dunstan and those who worked alongside him, did what they did in chaotic, violent, unsettled times. As the great rabbi Hillel once said: If not now, when?
In a few months, or weeks, we will be under immense pressure to get Back To Normal. It’s already starting, to some extent. I hope that we will demand a better Normal than the one we had before. I hope that we will have the insight and courage to be choosy about what we want back in our lives, individually and especially collectively.
What would we like to see better, on the other side of all this?
What will we to work and fight and vote and pray and give to build into the new Normal?
I’d like our new Normal to value our health care workers, from janitors to surgeons, more.
And to better respect and better compensate the work of teachers and child care workers more.
I’d like our new Normal to recognize that minimum-wage hourly work is essential work, and makes those jobs more sustainable and livable.
A society that listens when scientists tell us about the risks of how we’re living now, and responds by changing our behavior. What if we did that with climate change?….
I’d like our new Normal to extend our realization that we are connected. And that we need one another.
What would you like to see become part of the emergent Normal, friends?…