From Be Thou My Breastplate, by Paul Wallis
Let the smelling of the Holy Spirit be in this nose. (Fursa’s Breastplate)
Today Fursa invites me to dedicate to God this most subjective of my physical senses. A smell is a hard thing to quantify yet we know how powerful and precise a sense it can be. The perfume worn by my mother when I was a nursing infant; the smell of the soap in my primary school washroom; the aroma of the vapor lamp that comforted my cold-ridden childhood head: all powerfully evoke a feeling or memory.
In Fursa’s day, men and women understood that, as well as preserving feelings and memories, smells could carry important information. Your nose might tell you if this was safe land to walk on or to build on. Smell could protect you against bacteria and pestilence, from poisoning and contagious illnesses. Subjective this sense might be, but it was important to Fursa’s generation in detecting dangers that would otherwise go undiscerned. Such discernment of what was bad could occasionally be life saving.
What Fursa wants to discern daily is the presence of the Holy Spirit. In assessing whether the Spirit of God is present in a situation, a conversation, an opportunity, or an idea, it is to this important yet subjective sense that Fursa now turns.
In Jesus’s day there were people who were unable to discern the presence of God even when the very incarnation of his word was standing, flesh and blood before their very eyes. Some of these people were teachers and experts in law. They sought answers to every kind of question only from the objective black-and-whiteness of words on a page: in laws, edicts, etiquette, precedent, and protocol. “There is no precedent for a messiah from Galilee,” they said.
They were the bureaucrats and lawyers and what they wanted was law, cut and dried. They were considerably less comfortable thinking imaginatively or seeking information from their senses. So it was that, as the Divine Presence stood incarnate before their very eyes, they not only failed to discern it but dismissed it. As a Celtic Christian, Fursa strongly believed in the immanence of God in this world and so prays that he, for one, will not miss this great miracle through a lack of sensitivity.
Some have described the path to knowing God as a “conversion of attention”: a waking up to the reality of God, who is permanently there just waiting to be recognized and worshiped. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the Apostle Paul says that it is the failure to recognize the reality of God that lies at the heart of a society’s sin.
A friend once told me that God is like a 24-7 radio station, broadcasting through the airwaves all around the clock. Yet the radio will not detect what is in the air, invisibly all around it, until its power switch is turned on, and I will not hear what is playing through the earpiece or headset until I place it to my ears. The airwaves can be full of music and yet I will never know until I take some action myself in order to tune in.
Fursa had no doubt that the Holy Spirit was there to be discerned and to that task he daily commits this surprising and sometimes overlooked body-part. His prayer calls us to do the same. “Let the smelling of the Holy Spirit be in this nose.”