From Be Thou My Breastplate, by Paul Wallis
May the coming of the Holy Spirit be on this head. (Fursa’s Breastplate)
As he prays these words, we might picture Fursa standing before his God in the manner of his compatriot Aidan, with his feet in the waters of the cold North Sea, his arms outstretched in the Celtic tradition of the “Cross Vigil.” Fursa’s head is not bowed down in prayer but held high, eyes lifted to Heaven. At times the ancient Celtic believers did kneel to pray, but they also used the traditional Hebrew posture for prayer – the posture known to Jesus – standing with arms raised.
As Fursa stands praying for the coming of the Holy Spirit we recall that it was as Jesus stood in the waters of the river Jordan that the Holy Spirit came down and rested on his head, in bodily form like a dove.
Perhaps, like other monastic forebears of ours, Fursa used aspects of his physical environment to help him immerse his mind in the moments of Christ’s life. His dry-stone cell might have evoked the tomb in which Jesus lay when he had conquered sin on Calvary’s Cross and in which he awoke on that morning of resurrection. Perhaps his brother Ultan’s mountain retreat spoke to Fursa of that mount on which the son of Mary was revealed to Peter, James, and John as the glorious son of God his body radiating the uncreated light of the Divine Nature as Heaven and earthly dimensions joined where Jesus stood.
Today we picture Fursa standing on the shoreline as he speaks out his words of prayer. What significance do we find in such a place and posture for prayer? The great vista of the ocean stretching from one’s feet to the horizon has a way of setting one’s own life in perspective. It evokes the vast sweep of God’s time and space. The breaking waves lapping at one’s feet are the shifting border between the world of land and the world of sea. Here there is no forgetting that in prayer the Christian stands on the frontier that joins Heaven and Earth. From a more practical viewpoint, standing in the icy seawater would certainly keep our brother Fursa awake.
Physical environment and posture matter because we are physical. Praying in a chair or on a soft bed can often lead to slumber rather than spiritual energy and alertness. A body knows that sitting or lying down means that it is time to rest. A body standing, by contrast, is a body ready for action.
Neither is Fursa’s body turned in on itself as if, hedgehog-like, he is hiding from everything outside himself. By standing, Fursa makes himself entirely visible. In this position Fursa’s attention is not on his navel, his belly, or his hands like his monastic contemporaries in the east following other traditions of prayer. With his eyes lifted to Heaven, Fursa is looking beyond himself.
Some have spoken of the life of prayer as being a “conversion of attention.” Though his words will invoke hands, feet, shoulders, heart, eyes, ears, and nose, it will be to something beyond himself that Fursa will commit them all. In that sense, Fursa’s prayer will fix my attention not upon my self but on the God to whom I am giving myself – and to the good of his purpose.
When a Celtic Christian stood with arms outstretched in the ancient Cross Vigil his attention was thereby fixed on the passion and death of Christ, on the sins he bore on the cross for us, and on the life he laid down for us. It was a physical way of lifting the believer’s mind to something way beyond himself but to which he is connected by the love of Christ, and the aching of his limbs.
Similarly, Fursa’s prayer is concerned with fixing the attention of my whole body on that which is beyond myself; namely Heaven, God, church, and neighbor. It is in that sense a selfless prayer that Fursa invites me to offer.
When Christ stood in the Jordan River and the Holy Spirit rested on his head, the result was an anointing with power to do the works of God and transform the lives of those around him.
Therefore, it is with such an outward focus and motivation that I will look to Heaven and say, “May the coming of the Holy Spirit be upon this head.”