From Be Thou My Breastplate, by Paul Wallis
Let the speech of the people of Heaven be in this mouth. (Fursa’s Breastplate)
As a Celtic monk, Fursa took no vow of silence. Yet he stood in a tradition that placed a high value on the taming of the tongue. The tongue, we are told, is an organ that can be harnessed either for good or for ill. In his epistle James reminds us that out of our mouth can come either blessing or cursing, with the tongue – like a rudder – guiding the very course of our life.
In close community the power of the tongue to bind or fragment relationships becomes quickly apparent. This is why, from the very earliest times, monastic Christians learned to heed the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: “Say no more than you have to. The more you talk, the more likely you are to say something foolish.”
This is why Fursa’s brothers and sisters in their religious households on the continent of Europe, were advised by their exemplar Benedict: “Let leave to speak be seldom given.” Fursa’s prayer, however, takes a different tack. Our Celtic exemplar offers no commitment to copious silence. Nor does he offer a prayer for many words. Fursa’s desire is for heavenly words.
Heavenly words may be truth bearing or comforting; uplifting and encouraging; illuminating or convicting. Of such words the composer of the Proverb writes: “Few words, aptly spoken are like apples of gold in settings of silver.” Likewise, the Psalmist rejoices in his God-sent capacity to “sustain the weary with a word.” It is to the speaking of such words that Fursa now dedicates his mouth.
Fursa’s Celtic contemporary, Aidan, was renowned for his habit of always withdrawing early from social gatherings in order to avoid conversations that might draw him into careless speech and chatter. Likewise, Fursa became known for speaking his deepest thoughts only privately and only to penitent souls sincerely seeking God. (Jesus himself taught that pearls are only for those who appreciate them.) In such a way, Fursa sought to make his words apt to the person and apt to the moment, filled with heavenly intent.
No doubt our Celtic forbear must have slipped, as we do from time to time, by speaking in a way that was out of turn or out of sorts, for the Scriptures say the tongue is restless and “who can tame it?” That is why everyday Fursa renews the dedication of his mouth to God. Morning by morning, he prays that a holy purpose may guide him and that words of insight and knowledge may be given through all that he will speak.
It is with a heart set on blessing others that we can truly join with Fursa and pray: “Let the speech of the people of Heaven be in this mouth.”