From Be Thou My Breastplate, by Paul Wallis
May the Holy Spirit dwell in this heart. (Fursa’s Breastplate)
The ancient Celts loved the Psalms. They resonated with the earthly emotionality of the Psalms, their sense of poetry and the broad scope of them, embracing every human hope and fear. The Psalms were often the first literature that Celtic children learned to read, for the Psalter was always the text the brothers used when teaching the people of their hamlets and villages to read for the first time.
Many of the Hebrew Psalms were forged in times of conflict and battle, producing words of prayer with a deep resonance for the Celtic peoples who lived through the turbulent and violent centuries of the Dark Ages. The Celts also loved penitence as a way of deepening the soul’s connection with God, and so the penitential Psalms were a special treasure in the Celts’ litany of prayers. It is small surprise, therefore, that Fursa’s prayer echoes the prayer of King David in the most famous penitential Psalm of all:
Restore to me the joy of your salvation.
Make my spirit true and steadfast once more.
Do not cast me from your presence,
Or take your Holy Spirit from me.
It is in this moment of humility that sacred scripture speaks the name of the Spirit of God for the very first time: the “Holy Spirit.” In the same way that David asks God not to take away his Holy Spirit, Fursa prays for the Holy Spirit to dwell. This word means not only to live but to remain.
Like the royal psalmist, Fursa makes no assumption that because he connected with the Holy Spirit yesterday it will happen automatically today. Indeed the son of God, himself, said: “I will remain in you if you remain in me.” Of course Christ’s desire to remain with us is a steadfast desire. It is our spirits that must be made true and steadfast, for our hearts are naturally fickle. That is why Fursa offers his heart daily.
It is “through faith,” says Apostle Paul, that the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts. Fursa renews that faith daily in this repeated act of self-offering.
“You remain in me,” says the son of Mary, “if my words remain in you.” It is precisely in order to incarnate those words Fursa offers his head, forehead, eyes, ears, hands, feet, and heart; daily renewing his obedience and love for his savior. It is good that Fursa’s Breastplate requires me to renew these things daily because without my deliberate attention my natural tendency is to forget anything that lies beyond myself.
A life of selfishness is certainly easier than to continue steadfast in grace and godly fervor. It is surely easier to yield to temptation than it is to resist. It is easier, for instance, to want payback for wrongs than it is to forgive a person from the heart. It is certainly easier to continue unchanged than to repent; to give up rather than to persist in prayer; easier to doubt than to believe; easier to let my mind wander from day-to-day than to hold in my mind the life, the cross, the resurrection, and the love of Christ. In those and other ways Christ’s is the harder choice and the narrower way.
That is why my heavenly father has set me among brothers and sisters in the faith, and why in his scripture he has commanded us to “encourage one another daily” and “spur one another on to love and good deeds.” Because every believer needs this spurring and encouragement, such soul-friendship is essential to our staying the course to the very end of our pilgrimage. That is why the ancient Celts often repeated the saying: “colainn gan cheann duine gan anamchara,” which means, “the man without a soul-friend is like a body without a head.” Fursa’s own pattern of disciple-making, so centered on brotherhood, household, and close community, was founded on this understanding.
We might be surprised, then, that one so rooted in the life of community should have bequeathed us a prayer to be prayed by individuals. However, the truth is that no matter how much my brothers and sisters might bless me and keep me, spur me, and encourage me, they can never believe for me, for only I can open my own heart to God. Only I can admit his Spirit into my heart by believing. Only I can open that door.
So, although by faith I stand united with the family of God, and although united in intention I pray this line with Fursa, ultimately I must stand before God as an individual and simply ask on my own behalf that “the Holy Spirit dwell in this heart.”