From Be Thou My Breastplate, by Paul Wallis
Let the vision that the people of Heaven have be in these eyes. (Fursa’s Breastplate)
Today we know a little of what it was that Fursa saw in the visions that God granted him. Bede recounts the details of one in which Fursa perceived his countrymen to be in danger from four great fires which threatened to devour them. These were the fires of falsehood, covetousness, discord, and injustice.
But what was Fursa to do with this image once he had seen it with his own eyes? Was it sufficient that he had seen the danger of these behaviors in order to be forewarned against them? Was this insight given simply to guide the saint in his teaching? What response could he make to this knowledge?
For four generations, Celtic believers had learned to combat sins using a simple strategy. This strategy was first brought to the monastics of Western Europe by the Romanian-born monk, John Cassian. “Contraria, contrariis sanatur,” he said in his learned Latin. “Opposites heal opposites.”
Following this time-tested approach, Fursa would have known that falsehood is healed by the holy combination of silence and honest speech. Such a discipline strengthens trust and mutual knowledge. Likewise, covetousness could be healed by a life of chastity and frugality along with the resolute habit of giving away everything that was surplus to subsistence living. Indeed, the Celtic monastics were renowned for these disciplines. Discord must be healed by brotherly devotion and the humble habit of always being first to defer to the needs of the other. Injustice is combated by compassion for the poorest and solidarity with the weakest. All these patterns marked the ways of Fursa’s little brothers as together they led their life of close community.
So it was that what Fursa saw in his heavenly vision translated itself into codes of conduct for the households he was forming. The behavior his neighbors saw incarnated by Fursa’s communities was the stuff of those “opposites,” which could put out the destructive fires of falsehood, covetousness, discord, and injustice. Their group life was a window onto heavenly society, an enclave for the kingdom of God and a beacon of light for those dark ages.
We can therefore appreciate that when Fursa prays daily for “the vision that the people of Heaven have,” he is not asking out of a frivolous desire for spiritual excitation. His goal is to find the best way to run the race, shaking off those sins which so easily ensnare, and helping others to do the same.
With the same goal in mind I too can pray for “the vision that the people of Heaven have to be in these eyes.”