From Be Thou My Breastplate, by Paul Wallis
Let the good of God and of neighbor be in these feet. (Fursa’s Breastplate)
Jesus Christ referred to his own teaching as the “narrow way.” It is often the harder path because it calls us to live in a way that looks beyond ourselves. The Gospel stretches us beyond a life wrapped up in self; beyond what is familiar, easy, and comfortable. For Fursa this stretching meant a journey from home and kindred to a whole new world of challenges.
For the good of God and of neighbor, in AD 633 Fursa’s feet took him from the furthest west of Ireland to the furthest east of Britain, where he was to build a community of monastic workers among the Saxon and Anglian peoples of that region. The tie of the Celtic peoples to their native lands was strong and settled. They belonged to their place and it to them. So to live in perpetual exile was seen by Celts as so great a hardship that surely only the most saintly could endure it. Certainly for anyone to migrate as Fursa did was then a more costly choice than now. Yet Fursa’s expatriate life would give him an experience in common with his new Anglian and Saxon neighbors whose great-grandparents had made the crossing of the icy North Sea in order to establish their families in Britain.
When the Holy Spirit nudges us onto new and unfamiliar territory our life of prayer becomes more urgent because of it. The surest way to lose any sense of urgency in prayer is simply to have no needs. It is when we are out of our depth and beyond our own resources that we tend to turn to God with the fervent prayer of total dependency.
How fervently Fursa and his little brothers must have prayed as their feet took them uneasily through territories riven by violent crime and tribal warfare. Fursa had left behind him in Ireland a busy and settled ministry to the many who congregated from week-to-week at his chapel and households in Galway. Now he was in a country foreign in speech and customs, his crowds and congregations replaced by small communities of strangers. With new linguistic challenges to overcome, the manner and pattern of life of Fursa and the brothers would have been scrutinized more than ever before as his pagan neighbors weighed up the character and motives of these monastic latecomers.
How fervently our Celtic brother must have thanked God when he obtained a lease on some crown land in a Saxon settlement, secreted between dense woodland and the sea at Cnobheresburg. Next came the challenge of locating and fetching stone, then mustering his engineering skills to build the first dry stone cells for his little community – and all under the suspicious eye of his strange new neighbors.
Had Fursa been led only by his own good and wellbeing, his feet might well have returned him swiftly to the warm familiarity of his congregation at Killursa. But that community was well established and Ireland was full of zealous workers for Christ. It was Britain, now empty of civilizing Roman influence, now reverting to its pagan roots, which most needed his apostolic ministry. Indeed, Fursa had taken his little band to a part of Britain renowned for its immersion in the darkness of the old ways, which had held all in their sway before the first Christian missionaries had arrived. What better to deepen Fursa’s dependence on God than a man-layered challenge such as this!
What if, like Fursa, I will allow my decisions to be guided less by comfort and convenience, less by the eradication of all my own needs, and more by what is needed by others, elsewhere? Then, like Fursa, I will soon find myself scrutinized and suspected and operating at the very edge of my abilities. In such moments my prayer will become most truly itself. For the words “to pray,” whether spoken in Greek or Hebrew, Gaelic or Anglo-Saxon, means, “to beg.”
If I learn from Fursa’s story I will understand that I am truly asking for discomfort, unease, and utter dependence on the goodness of God to equip me if I share his daily prayer and ask that “the good of God and of neighbor be in my feet”!