Ampleforth Abbey

13 December 2017

Fr Dunstan.jpg

Homily preached by Abbot Cuthbert Madden OSB for the Funeral Mass of Fr Dunstan Adams OSB on 22nd August 2013.

Fr Dunstan was a shy and an intensely private man – a glance at his official curriculum vitæ would tell you that because it is brief or, better, it is a spare document:  there is, I suspect, nothing of significance missing from the three pages of typescript, but it is amazing how little it really tells one about its author.  Let me illustrate what I mean:  This account of his life begins by telling us how Anthony Adams was born in Barnet, Hertfordshire in 30 March 1926, and how at the age of 19 he took an Intermediate BA course at University College London for one year, before going on to work as a Temporary Assistant Librarian at the National Central Library in London.  We then find the second precise date in his account of his life: 12 June 1947 – the date when he was received into the Church by Fr Joseph Christie at Farm Street.  Odds and ends picked up over the years tell us a little more.  We know for example that his full name was Anthony Kenneth Brian Adams – and we know that he came from a family of seven siblings.  He outlived all of them.  We know that at least two of his brothers died suddenly – that was something that worried Dunstan for himself.  But the fact remains that Fr Dunstan’s account of his life story is very terse.  And I wonder if, perhaps, he is not trying to force us to make our assessment of him on the basis of what we knew of him: knew from our own senses.  We were not to judge him on the basis of his family or his academic qualifications: we were to judge him, if we judged him at all, on the basis of the life we shared with him, seeing him as the Catholic monk-priest that he had vowed himself to be all the days of his life from the moment of his reception into the Church until the moment of his death.

Dunstan first put his monastic vocation to the test in 1950 at Downside Abbey.  He persevered for four months and then left.  He taught for a while at Worth and then went into the world of Merchant Banking until in 1953 he put his monastic call to the test again at Ampleforth.  This time he persevered making his first vows in 1954 and his Solemn Profession in 1957.  He undertook his philosophical and theological studies in the Abbey, studied English at St Benet’s, and as soon as he had obtained his degree in 1959 he began teaching in the school.  He was ordained to the priesthood three years later on July 22, 1962.

I only knew Fr Dunstan after he had finally retired from teaching in 1985 – but I have always found it difficult to imagine him enjoying the life of a teacher of boys.  It certainly was not that he did not know how to teach.  Early in my time as a teacher, when I was finding it very difficult to inspire my students to work consistently and well, he gave me some excellent advice on how to persuade boys to compete with each other – which suggests that he knew something of the art of teaching, but at the same time he clearly regarded himself as a failure in this regard.  It was, perhaps, unfortunate that he developed an overactive thyroid which was only diagnosed in 1969 and that he then had a distinctly adverse reaction to the radioiodine treatment which he received.  For four or five years his health was fragile and he spent time in the Scilly Isles and in South Africa – both of which he loved.  The last eighteen years of his life were dogged by coronary artery disease; the final two years being especially difficult as his short term memory started to fail him – a fact of which he was acutely aware.

But the account I have given so far fails to take into account the core of Dunstan’s contribution to our community and to his friends.  To understand the core of Dunstan’s being I would like to turn to the first reading from St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  Let us remind ourselves of one or two key sentences, ‘That is why there is no weakening on our part, and instead, though this outer man of ours may be falling into decay, the inner man is renewed day by day.  Yes the troubles which are soon over, ... train us for the carrying of a weight of eternal glory which is out of all proportion to them.’ and  ‘We know that he who raised the Lord Jesus to life will raise us with Jesus in our turn...’ (2 Cor 4.16-17, 14).

Dunstan was 43 when his health began its slow inexorable deterioration and it may be that his longstanding ill health enabled him to see the crucial difference between the inner and outer man.  Or perhaps it was those afternoon walks, usually taken alone, when Dunstan was with God in the midst of nature which brought him face to face with the life-changing reality of the presence of God in our world.  Whatever the cause, it is certainly true that there could be a depth of understanding and kindness in Dunstan which was life-changing for those who were lucky enough to experience his friendship.  He was, in many of the accounts I have heard, a devoted friend and a wonderfully encouraging confessor.  The latter part of his life was devoted to the ministry of spiritual encouragement in retreats, in letters, in telephone calls, in personal friendships, and for those in the midst of monastic formation.  Always he wanted people to know that they were destined to be raised with Christ if only they would allow the grace of God to penetrate their inmost being and change them into the image and likeness of his beloved Son.  But lest you think that I am painting too rosy a picture of the Dunstan we all knew, I would say that Dunstan, like Paul before him, was given thorns in the flesh to prevent him leaving the path of humility.  On the one hand there was his physical weakness and then, for those of us who lived with him day by day, there was his somewhat unpredictable temper which could, at crucial moments, let him down.

There was a strong eremitical streak in Dunstan.  It is clear from the one or two letters which survive in the Abbot’s file that one of the main attractions of the Scilly Isles was the opportunity it gave for Dunstan to live the life of a hermit-priest.  Later, towards the end of his life, he clung for many years to his rooftop room which gave him the peace and quiet for which he longed.  It was amazing to see this cardiac cripple overcoming his bodily weakness in order to remain in his eyrie with its wonderful view across the valley.  It was a great sadness to him that he had to come down into the infirmary when his health was so precarious that he needed careful nursing care – but perhaps the slow progression of his dementia was, in some mysterious way, a return to the hermit’s life when he could focus on God alone.

For a man who loved to be in control of things Dunstan was quite extraordinary in his love of paradox, of leaving ideas a little unfinished – so that we, his listeners could reflect and reach our own conclusions.  With that in mind I want to conclude this homily with three short passages drawn from the literature he loved for our shared, though private, reflection.  The first is taken from the Gospel of St John which we heard some minutes ago:

I tell you most solemnly, whoever listens to my words, and believes in the one who sent me, has eternal life; without being brought to judgement he has passed from death to life. (John 5.24.)

The second is from East Coker, one of the Four Quartets by TS Eliot

                                                                You say that I am repeating
                Something I have said before.  I shall say it again.
                Shall I say it again?  In order to arrive there,
                To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
                     You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
                In order to arrive at what you do not know
                     You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
                In order to possess what you do not possess
                     You must go by the way of dispossession.
                In order to arrive at what you are not
                     You must go through the way in which you are not.
                And what you do not know is the only thing you know
                And what you own is what you do not own
                And where you are is where you are not.

The last passage is taken from the eighty-sixth chapter of the Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich.

From the time these things were first revealed I had often wanted to know  what was our Lord’s meaning.  It was more than fifteen years after that I was answered in my spirit’s understanding.  You would know our Lord’s meaning in this thing?  Know it well.  Love was his meaning.  Who showed it you? Love.  What did He show you? Love.  Why did He show it? For love.  Hold on to this and you will know and understand love more and more.  But you will not know or learn anything else – ever!

So it was that I learned that love was our Lord’s meaning.  And I saw for certain, both here and elsewhere, that before ever He made us, God loved us; and that His love has never slackened, nor ever shall.  In this love all His works have been done, and in this love He has made everything serve us; and in this love our life is everlasting.  Our beginning was when we were made, but the love in which He made us never had beginning.  In it we have our beginning.

All this we shall see in God for ever.  May Jesus grant this.  Amen.