From Be Thou My Breastplate, by Paul Wallis
Let the work of the church of God be in these hands. (Fursa’s Breastplate)
The impact of the work of Fursa’s hands proved so enduring that after his death many tales began to be spun concerning Fursa’s various achievements. Soon the stories grew well beyond the limits of Fursa’s actual history so that today the scholar must carefully pan fact from the fiction as it were gold from silt.
Our Celtic brother was even reinvented by one ancient writer in the role of a diocesan bishop, adding great weight no doubt to his initiatives in ministry. To be fair, this may have been a simple error, on that writer’s part, for the word “bishop” was not used in Fursa’s time with the technical meaning it gained in later times.
In their efforts to magnify Fursa’s heroic status, these writers invented journeys, meetings, family relationships and acquaintances, as well as various adventures in ministry. History does not yield much detail on Fursa’s life and evidently the scribes felt the need to elaborate on what history had to offer.
Yet the most common inaccuracy among Fursa’s hagiographers lay not in what they added but in what they omitted. For some have neglected to emphasize that Fursa was far from the heroic loner or the rugged individual. The truth is that everything that Fursa did, he did as the member of a small, close community or household. Whether in Ireland, Britain, or France, the story of Fursa is more truly the story of a whole group of people. Though there were many whose names we do not know, we can name six of this special company: Fursa, Foilian, and Ultan who were three blood brothers, and Gobban, Dichull, and Emilian, who were brothers in the gospel and who shared their lives with Fursa. In that sense when we hear Fursa’s name we must be sure to remember that the presence of a group is always implied.
In the church, we speak at times of giving and receiving “the right hand of fellowship.” This kind of offering of Fursa’s hands was essential to the substance of his group-based work because those hands stand as a symbol of relationship. Hands to help, support, comfort, bless, reassure, gesture, guide, beckon, greet, and embrace: these are the kind of hands that are needed to hold such a band of brothers together in a life of community and discipleship.
As I now offer my hands, Fursa’s story – the story of his groups – invites me to consider with whom I am standing as I pledge to God my service. With whom am I standing as I pledge to God my service? With whom am I offering to labor in serving the kingdom of God? Whom will I be supporting, blessing, or beckoning in order to see that the church of God grows and its members remain bound by cords of love and friendship?
Though I may take my stand before God each day as an individual, Fursa’s story reminds me that, in pledging my hands, I must expect to labor within the shared context of a group. For that is the very meaning of the word “church.”
Therefore, consider who it is you need to stand with as you ask the Lord that “the work of the church of God be in these hands.”