Homily, May 22

It’s not a very nice story, is it?  For the story, the Devil is the embodiment of evil, who is always trying to trick and hurt human beings… so the story thinks it’s OK to trick and hurt the Devil. Maybe we would want to try to solve this problem another way!

This is an old story – but it’s probably not as old as St. Dunstan himself. Dunstan lived about 11 hundred years ago. He lived in a place that we call England, now… though then it was a group of little kingdoms that had just begun to think of themselves as being a country, together. It was an unstable, uncertain time, with a lot of violence and poverty. 

When he was a young man, Dunstan became a monk. That means he committed his life to serving God, living simply as part of a community of other monks. Later on he became a bishop, a leader in the church – and then Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of ALL the churches in England. He also served in the court of several English kings, helping and advising them – if they would let him. 

We know a fair amount about Dunstan’s life, from historical documents and other evidence. He died on May 19 in the year 988. Soon after his death, people began to honor him as a saint, and to tell stories meant to show how holy he was – like this story about Dunstan defeating the Devil! 

When the church calls someone a saint, it usually means that we think they followed God in ways that mattered to the people of their time and place. Let’s look at a couple of images – historical documents – to remember Dunstan today and think about his sainthood. 

Dunstan was one of the leaders in the English Benedictine Reform movement of the tenth century. Monasteries and convents – places where monks and nuns lived lives of prayer and study, devoted to God – were a really important part of society back then, as centers for for faith, education, medical care, and more. But centuries of war and struggle made it hard for those places to thrive and do what they were meant to do. 

Dunstan and his colleagues wanted to fix that. To make monasteries centers of true faith and learning again – and to start MORE monasteries, where they could train priests to serve God and God’s people.

This is a page of the Rule they used in their monasteries, based on the Rule of St. Benedict.  The Rule was a document that told the monks and nuns how they should live in community, with a balance of daily work, study, rest and prayer. 

The most important thing about this page is something you might not notice right away. Back then, not very many people knew how to read or write. And all the books were handwritten… Does everybody have the same handwriting?

Have you ever seen somebody’s handwriting that was hard for you to read? Maybe they had bad handwriting, or maybe they had GOOD handwriting but you just did’t know how to read it?… 

In Dunstan’s time, if you wanted to study and read about religion or science or travel or philosophy or poetry, anything – well, first, you had to be able to read the language it was written in, often Greek or Latin. Latin was the language of the Roman Empire. And long after the Romans were gone, it kept being used as the language of scholarship and literature and church, in lots of places. 

But even if you could read Latin, you also had to be able to read the handwriting, the script style, that the text was written in! It was hard for a lot of people, even educated people, to read books that came from previous centuries or from other places, because of those problems. So it was hard to study and learn and build up new knowledge. 

But starting not long before Dunstan was born, there was a movement across Europe to start using one form of writing, called Carolingian Miniscule. People wrote new books in this script, and they also rewrote older books in this script. So suddenly a lot more knowledge and culture could be read and shared! It was a big deal!

Scholars think they know Dunstan’s handwriting, from parts of a book called the Glastonbury Classbook. He wrote in his own version of Carolingian Minuscule, with some influence from the Irish monks who first trained him. 

Dunstan didn’t write this page. But it is in the Carolingian style. It’s hard for us to read – and the text is in Latin – but you can notice that the letter forms are very clear and regular. And if you look closely, you’ll see some other words on the page, written in between those nice neat lines. The written-in part is the same thing in Old English, the language ordinary people spoke. 

Those words were written in to help monks and nuns who didn’t know Latin, or only knew a little bit – so that they could also read this important text about how they were called to live. 

So both that Carolingian script – and the written-in Old English – show us that for Dunstan and other leaders of this movement, having more people be able to read and learn and understand was really important. I think that’s really cool! And it’s one of the ways Dunstan’s work mattered to the people of his time and place. 

Dunstan did the things he did – even when they were hard! – because he loved God and wanted to follow God’s will. Here’s the second image we’ll look at today. You may have seen it before. 

This is the icon of Dunstan that we like to use here.

It’s an image from that book I mentioned, the Glastonbury Classbook, and – here’s the part I think is really cool – it’s likely that Dunstan drew it himself. He was an artist, as well as a scribe, a writer of books. 

Usually our icons, our holy images, put the person we’re honoring right in the middle.  But in this picture Dunstan drew himself kneeling at the feet of Jesus Christ, on a throne. That’s how Dunstan drew himself so that is how we honor him – as a servant of Jesus. 

Look: you can see that he’s dressed as a monk, in a robe, and with his hair shaved on top – that’s called a tonsure. 

The words above him are a prayer: “I ask, merciful Christ, that you protect me, Dunstan;  A medieval drawing of a seated Christ, robed, with a monk bowing at his feetdo not permit the storms of the Underworld to swallow me.”

I learned about that prayer a few years ago, and I think it’s a really good prayer. 

It’s a prayer asking Jesus to help us feel his presence and love when we feel overwhelmed – when we feel like chaos or anxiety or struggle might just swallow us up. 

Praying a prayer like that isn’t like flipping a switch; the struggle or anxiety doesn’t just go away. But maybe it reminds us that we’re not alone with it. And that it won’t last forever. And sometimes pausing to pray can help us catch our breath, and unclench our fists, and notice that the earth is still under our feet, and there is still breath going in and out of our lungs, and that we are loved. 

This week when I read that prayer again, it came with a tune. Dunstan was a musician too – so maybe it was a little gift from our saint. 

Here’s how it goes… in Latin first: 

Memet clemens rogo, Christe, tuere / 

Tenarias me non sinas sorbsisse procellas.

Now in English: 

Kindly Christ, I pray thee, save my humble soul;

Let me not be swallowed by the storms of the netherworld! 


Merciful Christ,  Protect us, each and all; when the world feels like a storm that batters us, like waters rising to swallow us up, calm our hearts and give us peace. Amen.