From Be Thou My Breastplate, by Paul Wallis
May the yoke of the Law of God be upon this shoulder. (Fursa’s Breastplate)
Our Celtic forefathers knew the patterns of tides and seasons. Their lives were wrapped up in the repeating cycles of seedtime and harvest, morning and evening, birth and death. Yet we know from the gathered prayers of various Celtic people-groups that these island Christians were not believers in a relentless, unchangeable inevitability. They knew that life events might have different outcomes: a harvest might succeed or fail; an illness might end in death or life; a family might prosper or fall; a pagan king might resist the Gospel or convert to Christ.
Like most monastic pioneers in history, Fursa was a farmer. Now, any farmer can tell you that when left to God alone, a farm doesn’t do too well. It doesn’t sow itself, tend its own livestock, or reap itself. It is only when human effort and God’s blessing are combined that the result is crops rather than weeds, healthy livestock rather than sick, and harvests rather than chaos. In the “self-sufficient” life of a monastery farm, the effort of men and the blessing of God are both essential.
Fursa and the communities of young men he recruited and with whom he shared his life knew this truth very well. Every little community that Fursa gathered began its life in this same way, each brother building his own simple dry-stone or wooden cell, and those cells clustering around a central stone chapel. On their land the brothers then ran the livestock and cultivated the crops on which they relied for food and materials. As farmers, they understood that they depended both on the grace of God and the fruit of their own labor in order to prosper. To the minds of such believers there was therefore no contradiction between the sovereignty of God and the necessity of our own efforts.
Celtic prayers are built largely on that belief, grounded in the reality of a farmer’s life, that divine and human action could each alter the outcomes of life. That is why, in addressing the many uncertainties of daily living, Celtic prayers call upon Almighty God for his sovereign power and help, not neglecting to give back to God whatever work and endeavor the one making the prayer might be able to offer.
Praying Fursa’s prayer and taking on the yoke of Christ, the believer now chooses to offer his or her own shoulder – all in the belief that, when harnessed with Christ, we can and must labor towards good results. Fursa’s, then, is unmistakably an active spirituality.
Years ago I knew a man who was insistent that he wanted nothing to do with the Gospel of Christ. This, he told me, was because he did not want to be told that the way things are this poor world is simply the will of God.
“The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate,
God made them high or lowly, he ordered their estate.”
My friend had heard this preached and had rejected it. Rather than submit to the injustices of this world, he wanted to right wrongs, help the needy, bring healing to the sick, food to the hungry, and release to the oppressed. Then one day he heard the call of Christ expressed in exactly those terms. For the first time he understood the Messiah to be issuing a recruiting call to join with God in fighting for all those things he believed were right. When my friend heard this, his heart was touched and he gave his life to God – heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Such was the faith of Fursa who, from his twenties onwards, gave a lifetime of effort to preaching the Gospel, forming group-houses, founding monasteries and chapels, and to touching many lives with the saving and healing power of the holy name of Jesus. The fruit, so Bede tells us, was the conversion “of many believers in Christ.”
Fursa’s spirituality, then, was not about tranquil submission to some imagined, inevitable, what-will-be-will-be divine will, but rather consisted chiefly in a taking of personal responsibility for the apostolic commission of Christ. The passion of this faith is shown in his steady life-long devotion to following the ways of God.
So it is that the words of Fursa’s prayer call upon the one who prays them to devote themselves to God, and lend their own shoulder to the cause and purposes of Christ. If your heart’s desire is to make yourself a part of Christ’s answer to the questions and problems of this world, then simply pray with Fursa for the yoke of the Law of God to rest upon your shoulder.