Homily, May 21

Saint Dunstan was a Benedictine monk, and a big part of his life’s work was establishing Benedictine monastic communities. Let me explain what all that means! 

A monk or a nun  is a person who has chosen to devote their life to God by living in a special place called a monastery or convent, with a group of other monks or nuns, and following a very set pattern of prayer and work in daily life. 

Usually, monks and nuns don’t have families of their own, and they live at least somewhat apart from the community around them. They usually have a special way of dressing – like the brown robe that Benedictines wear.

Each monastery has a specific schedule of daily prayer times, meals, and work times. The work depends on the season, on what each monk is good at, and on what they do at that particular monastery. At monasteries and convents, people would usually grow their own food, care for livestock and bees, weave cloth, make candles, beer, or wine, make Bibles and books of prayer and spiritual readings, and much more. 

About 500 years after the time of Jesus, a man named Benedict started a monastery in Italy. The way of life that developed there became a movement that spread all over Europe and, eventually, all over the world. 

To become a Benedictine monk or nun, you had to make three vows. A vow is like a great big promise that you plan to keep for your whole life!

The vows were: Poverty – you had to give away everything you owned, and have nothing of your own. 

Chastity – which meant that you wouldn’t seek out romantic relationships or get married and start a family. 

And obedience – you had to vow that you would obey the leaders of the church and of your monastery. 

But those vows were just the beginning. Once you joined the Benedictine order, you had to live under the Benedictine Rule.  

That’s Rule with a capital R and it’s actually lots of rules all bundled together, to describe how these Benedictine monks were supposed to try to live. 

A monastic Rule of Life is a set of guidelines that cover everything from prayer to meals to sleep to work to prayer again. It lays out how to live in community and how to focus your life on God. The Benedictine Rule is only one Rule of Life; there are other monastic traditions with their own Rules that have developed through history, and still follow their patterns of prayer and work together. 

The Benedictine Rule is long – more than seventy chapters! It covers a lot of things. 

Some parts of the Rule have to do with helping people keep their focus on God. 

For example: There could be as many as SEVEN daily prayer times, depending on the community. Some of them were named after the hour, using the Latin names for numbers – like Terce, recited at 9 a.m. or “the third hour”; sext, read at noon or “the sixth hour”, and None (nohn), read at 3PM or the ninth hour. The Benedictine Rule says that those times of shared prayer are to reverent, pure of heart, full of honest feeling, and SHORT. Otherwise how would all the work get done? 

There’s a rule about not talking after Compline, the prayers late in the evening before bedtime, so that after Compline everybody can just wind down for rest. 

There’s a whole chapter on the practice of humility – how to focus on God, not your own will or desires, and not setting yourself above others. 

And monks weren’t supposed to have their own possessions, to help them not get too attached to objects instead of God. Each monk should have their own robe and shoes, that are comfortable and fit them well, and a mat, blanket and pillow for sleeping. But that’s about it! 

Some other parts of the Rule have to do with the strains of living in community with other people! 

There are rules about “restraint of speech” – not talking a lot in daily life – talking gets us into trouble sometimes, doesn’t it?

Instead of conversation at mealtimes, somebody reads out loud and everybody is silent and listens. 

Monks are discouraged from drinking more than half a bottle of wine per day.

Monks are supposed to be obedient to the abbot, the head monk, but the abbot is also supposed to lead with patience and understanding, not by bossing everyone around. 

Everyone’s needs should be provided for within the community, respecting that some have different needs and capacities. 

If a rich family sends their child to become a monk or nun, they have to understand that they can’t secretly send their kid extra clothes or other luxuries. He has to live like all the other monks.

What do you think of all that? 

Would you be interested in living like that?… 

There are some things about it that I like and some things that I think would be really hard! 

Dunstan lived in a difficult time. Most people were very poor and there was a lot of illness around that nobody knew how to treat. There were bandits who would raid and steal, and there wasn’t really a stable government to look out for people and make things better. Ordinary people’s lives were pretty hard and uncertain. 

Dunstan wanted to help make things better. He did that partly by being an advisor for a lot of different kings, encouraging them to do things that would improve life for the people.

But he also believed that founding more Benedictine monastic houses could be a tool for making things better. 

Even though monasteries and convents keep some separation from the community around them, they can have a big influence. People who were sick or starving, or in trouble in other ways, could come to the monks or nuns for help. Monastic houses were like hospitals, in Dunstan’s time. Most people couldn’t read, so they might come to the monastery to learn and study, or for help with a legal document. 

Hospitality is an important value for Benedictines and other monastic traditions too. All guests are to be received with prayer and generosity, and with special care for the poor and for pilgrims making a holy journey. 

The monasteries also trained monks who went out to be priests in local churches. Before that, a lot of the priests were just somebody who was picked out for the job by the local rich family. The monk-priests were better trained and more committed to God, and they could do more to teach, help, and guide the people of their congregation. 

The changes Dunstan worked for did help things get better for ordinary people. That’s why people started honoring Dunstan as a saint, not long after his death. 

Now, a church like our church is really different from a monastic community. We don’t live together all the time. We don’t have a Rule of Life that tells us how to spend each hour of our days. 

But I think even in the few hours we spend together, week by week, we are training ourselves and each other to be people who can make a difference in our communities too. Sharing worship and learning, and the ways we practice generosity and kindness and caring for one another here –  and the ways we play together and create and celebrate and share our gifts too – I hope, I believe, that all of that helps shape us into people who can do good for our neighbors and in the world around us. 

And I’m sure that it makes Saint Dunstan proud! 



A website with some info about medieval monasticism for interested kids: 


A nice abbreviated overview of the Rule of Benedict: