From Be Thou My Breastplate, by Paul Wallis
Let the sign of Christ be on this forehead. (Fursa’s Breastplate)
When a soldier or a sailor receives his commission he expresses this change by taking on a standard form of dress. This new identity as a member of the forces will also be made visible by the severest of haircuts. Hence-forward anyone meeting him will perceive instantly what he is by profession. Even in civilian dress his profession will be instantly public for the haircut on its own is enough to make it visible.
So it was for the Celtic monk, too. His head was distinguished by the severe aspect of a hairline shaved right back to a straight line drawn from ear to ear. This haircut or tonsure stretched the monastic forehead to the crown of the monk’s head. This extended forehead made Fursa’s profession instantly public information. He was recognized immediately, not only as belonging to Christ, but as belonging to Christ in a very specific way. It signaled that he lived in a pledged household of Christian brothers, given over to a life of study, manual work, prayer, and missionary activity after the manner of Christ’s apostles. That indeed was Fursa’s profession.
In the Gospels, the son of God commands every Christian to make their own profession of faith something public: “He who acknowledges me publicly I will acknowledge before my father in Heaven,” declares the Messiah. “Those who reject me publicly I will reject before my father in Heaven.” For the believer and the savior, faith is in its essence a matter of mutual solidarity.
Accordingly Fursa’s faith is not a private or passive spirituality but a virile and bold faith, proud to wear the name of Christ. He is glad to be known as one who had found his identity in God. Fursa is unashamed: soldier-like, he wears his colors proudly.
We note that as a person, a worker, a pastor, and a monk, it is not his relationship with any one church, denomination, diocese, or religious order that Fursa invokes to distinguish himself. Indeed such categories would have been meaningless to the people of that time. The sign Fursa invokes speaks of his relationship with Christ.
Often we define our identity by explaining our relationships with others:
- I am a pastor because I shepherd others in the flock of Christ.
- I am a teacher. I teach others.
- I am a manager. I manage others.
- I am a psychologist. I study others’ minds.
- I am an accountant. I keep accounts for others.
- I may be a mother, a father, a son or daughter, a husband, a wife, an apprentice, or a supervisor.
This aspect of our identify helps explain our place in the fabric of society.
But, away from the land of his birth, in a church with little hierarchy, arriving as a stranger in a band of strangers, marked out by a different way of speech, with no real rank or status to defend him in a foreign land, Fursa had no place in this society’s fabric. He had to negotiate that place by how he lived. His sense of identity had to be rooted not in his social circumstances but in his belonging to Christ.
Sometimes we hesitate to be so public with our faith lest inadvertently we identify ourselves with some portion of church culture or church history that might give cause for embarrassment. But Fursa’s statement is not about subcultures or the history of institutions. What he asks and what he offers is that mutual solidarity with Christ of which his faith consists. I must be sure not to offer less when I pray with Fursa: “Let the sign of Christ be on this forehead.”