From Be Thou My Breastplate
Let the hearing of the Holy Spirit be in these ears.
Fursa lived in a world where the presence and voice of God were believed to be experienced within this physical world. We have noted that Fursa does not pray for the hearing of God to be in his mind or in his imagination but rather in his ears. His thinking does not separate alertness to spiritual realities from alertness to the physical world of his senses.
Fursa is remembered by history partly because of the impact among Christians of the stories of Fursa’s heavenly visions and revelations. Christians across Europe became aware of them and some of his biographers made much of them, just as in centuries to come curious readers would excite themselves over the visions of Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila. But we must not mistake such excitation over things supernatural and imaginative for the spirituality of Fursa himself.
According to the monastic historian Bede, Fursa spoke only rarely of the visions granted him by the Holy Spirit. We know these spiritual encounters were quite real and powerful for Fursa because of the fruit of work that flowed out from them: the establishment of new residential church expressions, which became the monasteries at Killursa on Ireland’s west coast, in Norfolk on Britain’s east coast, and in the Peronne region in France.
Like every monk, Fursa dedicated a third of his waking hours to reclusion, meaning extended times of solitude with God. This was the source of his energy and impetus in visiting the neighboring village and townships to preach the Gospel and set people free from evil spirits.
Fursa later told those who came to him for spiritual direction that he entered upon this ministry in his successive locations in obedience to words spoken to him directly in the way of the apostles of old. These words of commission, he said, were angelic. By this Fursa meant that he discerned these words with his physical ears. To today’s reader such an assertion is startling, but not to the Celtic mind: their God was immanent. For them the kingdom of Heaven was truly “at hand”; not for them the Greek concept of spirit and matter being immiscible. Their faith was rooted in the word that came to Earth, became flesh to be touched and handled, and dwelt among us. The Celtic vision was one profoundly at home with the reality of God’s material incarnation. Their God was not impossibly distant and removed from the world of his making for as the Apostle Paul said, it is in God “that we all live and move and have our being.”
When teaching seekers of God to find the presence and voice of God for themselves, our Celtic ancestors often spoke of “tuning the five-stringed lyre.” If you have not guessed it, the five strings stand for our natural senses. The Celtic Christians believed that, properly tuned, our physical senses had the power to attune us to the music and voice of God.
Now, our physical senses are the gifts God has given that connect us with the present moment. So while the thoughts of my mind and the emotions of my heart may connect me with remembered past, interpreted present, and imagined future, my physical senses report to me what is around, upon, and within me right now.
By touch I feel what is around me at this instant. By sight I perceive what surrounds me at this very moment. I am aware by hearing what is happening in the environment around me as I sit here. Thus my senses attach me to and plant me in the stuff of the present moment. In the past, I was. In the future, I will be. But the present moment is ultimately the only place where I myself truly am. That is why it is only in this moment that I can truly encounter the great “I am.” If my senses can bring my attention and consciousness more thoroughly into this present moment then, of course, they can help me in my encounter with God.
Therefore as you take your stand before God, take some time to tune your five strings. Let yourself become gradually aware of all that your physical senses are reporting to you. As you do this you will find your mood becomes calmed and your alertness heightened. However, enjoy this exercise not merely for the enlivening and refreshing feeling it can bring, but chiefly because it brings your attention back to the present moment, and back to your physical body. Your body, says Scripture, is the temple of God – the place in which your spirit and the Holy Spirit meet and testify to one another.
“Let the hearing of the Holy Spirit be in these ears.”