From Be Thou My Breastplate
Let the smelling of the Holy Spirit be in this nose. (Fursa’s Breastplate)
How close must you be to a person before you can smell them? In Fursa’s day perhaps a few paces – downwind, you might smell them before you could see them!
It is for closeness to the Divine Presence that Fursa now prays. In later times saints were to write of a wonderful aroma and sweetness sometimes sensed in special moments of mystical union with God. Such experiences would be remembered for a lifetime. Fursa now prays for just such a fragrant sense of fellowship.
Here we are reminded once more that our Celtic forbears believed that God’s presence impinged directly on the material world of their senses; that God was immanent and reachable. It was with this in mind that Celtic Christians heard that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” At hand. Within reach. Touching our fingertips.
The Psalmist himself declared that neither physical light nor darkness could hide him from the gaze of God, nor could physical space put any distance between him and God’s loving presence. The Apostle Paul affirmed that we live and move and have our being “in him.” Another ancient father wrote that God breathes his Spirit “closer to you than your own breath.”
So, when Fursa prays that his nose may discern this closeness, he is not merely issuing a metaphor. Neither is he trying to create a feeling or manufacture an experience. Fursa believes this presence is there in reality and that all he needs to do in order to discern it is to stop and breathe.
Many monastic teachers within the Eastern Church taught that if you desire to achieve such a quietness of spirit that the reality of God’s presence begins to confront you as something real, you should simply stop, sit, and breathe. Then the God who is closer to you than your own breath will make himself known to your senses.
Fursa and those eastern mystics shared some common spiritual heritage in the desert Christians of Syria and Egypt. So it was with that shared hope of mystical union that Fursa invited his followers to pray with confidence: “Let the smelling of the Holy Spirit be in this nose.”