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HISTORY OF HYMNS: ‘Meaningful thoughts’ guide communion hymn C. Michael Hawn, May 23, 2008
“All Who Hunger” Sylvia Dunstan The Faith We Sing, No. 2126
“All who hunger, gather gladly; holy manna is our bread. Come from wilderness and wandering. Here, in truth, we will be fed. You that yearn for days of fullness, all around us is our food. Taste and see the grace eternal. Taste and see that God is good.”*
By C. Michael Hawn UMR Columnist
Canadian clergywoman Sylvia Dunstan (1955-1993) became one of the leading hymn writers in North America during her brief life. Her hymn texts appear increasingly in hymnals in the United States.
A graduate of York University with degrees in theology and divinity from Emmanuel College in Toronto led to her ordination in the United Church of Canada. She served as a prison chaplain for 10 years and was appointed to Malvern Emmanuel United Church in Scarborough, Ontario, just a few years before she was diagnosed with the liver cancer that took her life at the age of 38.
Dunstan received her formal musical education from Sister St. Gregory at St. Joseph’s convent. Growing up on the “evangelical side of the United Church of Canada,” she found her musical education at a Catholic convent expanded her spiritual as well as musical horizons.
It was in the Catholic liturgy in the 1970s that she sang the folk music of Ray Repp and the Medical Mission Sisters. She met one of the Mission Sisters, Sister Miriam Therese Winter (see “My Soul Gives Glory to My God,” The UM Hymnal, 198) who taught her how to write songs based on Scripture.
A child of her time, her early songs used the folk guitar. As she noted in her collection, “Most of these songs are now under a well-deserved and merciful curtain of oblivion.” Realizing that she was not a gifted musician, she focused on writing texts.
Dunstan realized that the structure of classic hymns with meter and rhyme “empowered” congregational singing. “I came to believe,” she said, “that ‘meaningful thoughts’ in sloppy form are an impediment to the people’s prayer, causing an undue focus on the work itself, rather than pointing to the worship of God.”
Thus she made a “transition from guitar-strumming, meter-mangling self-indulgence to form-following, tradition-loving classicism... from 1981-1983.”
“All Who Hunger” comes directly from Dunstan’s experience at an annual conference of the Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada where she was asked to lead a session exploring her hymns.
“After the conference, some of us vacationed at Folly Beach outside Charleston, S.C., where I worked out this text, wandering up and down the beach singing the tune HOLY MANNA,” she said.
The final two lines of each stanza form a refrain: “Taste and see the grace eternal. Taste and see that God is good.” This is an obvious reference to Psalm 34:8, “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (NRSV)
We learn from this hymn the nature of the meal and how important it is for all who share it. Those who partake in this meal “yearn for days of fullness” (stanza one), are “never strangers” (stanza two), and will find that “Jesus Christ is living bread” (stanza three).
This is not a memorial hymn that recalls Christ’s suffering, but a joyful hymn of community to be shared at the table. As the writer notes in stanza three, “Blest are those who from this table live their days in gratitude.”
Lynette Miller, a friend of the author, described Dunstan's passing and its impact in a tribute to her in the United Church journal, Touchstone:
“Four hundred strong gathered to praise God for Sylvia Dunstan. Her own hymns were sung. The Church sent its faithful daughter forward into grace and glory, singing the praises she herself had written. Her life and work can be summed up in the words that appear on her grave marker: Sylvia G. Dunstan A Priest Forever.”