Sunday, January 23, 2011

Be Thou My Vision

Praise for the Lord #70

Words: Irish folk hymn, c. 750; trans., Mary E. Byrne, 1905; alt., Eleanor H. Hull, 1912
Music: SLANE, Joyce's Old Irish Folk Music & Songs, 1909; harm., Martin Shaw, 1925

This hymn is a real treasure, a happy convergence of talents across the centuries that have formed one of the most beautiful hymns in any language. Like a historic old estate (the kind they have in the Old Country, not the kind we build from a kit in the U.S.), each addition and modification to the original structure is distinctively of its own era, but the result is no less lovely. The work of translating this to English is particularly impressive; where most poetry loses quite a bit in translation, our English text here is very close, capturing the spirit and even many of the literal phrases of the original.

The modern text of "Be Thou my vision" comes from a medieval Irish hymn, "Rop tú mo baile," which is found in two manuscript sources, one from the 14th century and one from the 16th. It is doubtless much older, though, because the original text is in Old Irish. It is probably at least c. 900-1100, if not older.(CELT) There is a persistent tradition that it was written by Dallán Forgaill, the chief poet of Ireland c. 600, but there seems to be no evidence to support this.("Be Thou") The 14th century manuscript, MS G 3 from the National Library of Ireland, can be viewed online; the hymn begins with the large capital "R" in the right-hand column, and ends in the left-hand column before the decorated "T" (which may strike the reader as a "U"). In the video above, Wikimedia contributor Gareth Hughes sings several stanzas of this Old Irish text to the SLANE tune; we have no record of what tune might have originally been used (it is not even certain that the poem was sung, rather than recited).

At the dawn of the 1900s, after a century of the Union Act, Ireland's Home Rule movement was at full pitch. Part of this nationalist movement was a rediscovery of the contributions of Irish culture to world history, and to the preservation and furtherance of Christianity in western Europe during the "dark age" part of the Middle Ages. The Irish School of Learning, founded in Dublin in 1903, was part of the cultural aspect of this movement, and its scholarly journal, Ériu, was a platform for this revival in Celtic studies.(Dublin Institute)

Mary Elizabeth Byrne (1880-1935) was an important voice in this movement, and would later be a major contributor to the massive multi-volume Dictionary of the Irish Language published by the Royal Irish Academy. She also edited the institution's Catalogue of Manuscripts.(Cottrill) Even as a young scholar she published frequently in Ériu, and her articles are still cited in Celtic studies. One of her early articles was "A Prayer," pp. 89-91 of the journal's second volume (1905). This was the first English translation of "Rop tú mo baile." Though originally made simply for scholarly and cultural interest, it is a remarkably powerful rendering and is not all that far from what we sing today:

1 Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.
None other is aught but the King of the seven heavens.

2 Be thou my meditation by day and night;
May it be thou that I behold ever in my sleep. ...

The original is in sixteen stanzas of four lines each. Most stanzas begin with the appeal, "Be Thou my...," appealing to the Lord for protection and guidance. Some believe this hymn is in the medieval tradition of the lorica (in Latin, literally, "breastplate"), a poem recited almost as a magic charm calling for God's protection.("Lorica")

In the attribution notes in Praise for the Lord we read "alt., Eleanor Hull." The "alt." ("altered") in connection with a hymn text might often mean only a change of one or two words, but in this case we have a very artful reworking of Byrne's literal translation into even-metered rhyming couplets. Eleanor Hull (1860-1935) was also a prominent scholar in the Gaelic movement at the beginning of the last century, and is still well-known for her two-volume History of Ireland and a two-volume survey of Irish literature, divided into Pagan Ireland and Early Christian Ireland. Co-founder of the Irish Texts Society in 1899, she was equally qualified to leave her stamp on this great hymn. Hull's versified rendition of the hymn appeared in her Poem-Book of the Gael in 1912.("Hull")

With minor variations and usually the omission of a couple of stanzas, this is the text of the modern English-language hymn. Hull's version is only twelve stanzas compared to sixteen in the original--she left out the confusing 11th and doleful 15th stanzas, and condensed the 7th-10th into just two stanzas. It remained only for a hymnal editor to pair this text with the right tune to create a classic; the editor was Leopold Dix, and the hymnal was the 1919 edition of The Irish Church Hymnal, the official hymnal of the Church of Ireland (Anglican communion).(Hymnal 1982) The long phrases of the SLANE tune use up two stanzas at a time, and with the omission of two of Hull's twelve stanzas we finally come to the usual five stanzas found in current hymnals.

Stanza 1:
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me save that Thou art.
Thou my best thought, by day or by night;
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

"Vision" is a word needing some consideration. We first think of vision in terms of our sight, and in that sense we might sing this with a sense of appealing to God for Him to be our eyes; Jesus said in Matthew 6:22, "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light." We need to be sure that our vision is His vision, that we see as He sees (to the extent we are able). Do we see ourselves as He does--as flawed, immature children who frequently defy Him in our willfulness, then cry out for Him in our helplessness? And do we see ourselves thus, yet realize that He loves us anyway? Do we see others as He sees them? Do we see the dropout from society, perhaps even on the wrong side of the law, as a tragically lost child of God? An individual for whom (and from whom) God wanted and still wants so much more?

But "vision" here connotes more than physical sight. The original Irish word "baile" mean "vision" or "rapture,"(Brittanica, 631) in the sense used by the Old Testament prophets. It is "vision" in the sense of a guiding inspiration that directs the actions of today toward a desired and anticipated future outcome. Even the secular world recognizes the wisdom of Proverbs 29:18: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." (Or, in the words of that great American philosopher Yogi Berra, "If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else.") So people and institutions focus on many different kinds of visions; accomplishing a good work, achieving a level of recognition, or becoming leaders in their fields. But the ancient Irish poet sought only this: "May God be my guiding inspiration--that fact that He is, and that He is my Lord." Ask people around you what their visions, dreams, or guiding inspirations are, and you will get many answers, sometimes revealing a sad lack of consideration of what it all means. Jesus called us to a far higher vision in His prayer to His Father: "this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent."(John 17:3)

Just having a vision is not enough; businesses and institutions sometimes spend a great deal of time and effort crafting "vision statements" that are never carried out. The rest of the stanza emphasizes the need to keep this vision, this realization of God's sovereignty over our lives, always before us. Psalm 105:4 encourages us to "seek His presence continually," and in the beautiful 139th Psalm, King David marvels that "You hem me in, behind and before, and lay Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. Where shall I go from Your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from Your presence?"(5-7) If we keep the presence and sovereignty of God before us "by day and by night," as the hymn says, it will be a comfort, an encouragement, and an admonition to our daily walks.

Stanza 2:
Be Thou my wisdom, be Thou my true Word,
I ever with Thee, and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

The first line of this stanza takes on even more meaning in historical context; this hymn comes from the Medieval monasteries, where the flame of literacy, scholarship, and classical learning was kept alive in the West during the breakup of the Roman Empire and the transition to the modern nation-states. In an era when your life was defined by your social status at birth, the monasteries were attractive to talented people who wished to succeed on their own merits and pursue the life of the mind. But then as now, knowledge for its own sake can be a deceptive goal. Proverbs 4:7 warns, "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding." There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom, as humorist Jerry Clower wryly pointed out when he described a man "educated beyond his intelligence." Education is a blessing if one can get it, but remember the judgment pronounced in Jeremiah 8:9, "The wise men shall be put to shame; they shall be dismayed and taken; behold, they have rejected the word of the Lord, so what wisdom is in them?"

The poet also desires to dwell in God, and for God to dwell in him. Jesus promised that with the coming of the gospel, "In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.(John 14:20) Confusing? Certainly. No less confusing than the Trinity, and no less essential. How do we abide in God, and He in us? Ephesians 3:17 says that Christ "dwell[s] in your hearts through faith." Romans 10:17 reminds us that, "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God." Jesus said as well, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you."(John 15:7) A good place for us to start is to drink deeply from the word of God, to eat it up like our daily bread.(Deut. 8:3, Matt. 4:4) Let it build up in us an obedient faith that leads to actions in harmony with God's Holy Spirit dwelling in us.

Stanza 3:
Be Thou my buckler, my sword for the fight;
Be Thou my dignity, Thou my delight,
Thou my soul's shelter, Thou my high tower;
Raise Thou me heav'nward, O power of my power.

Those who are squeamish about military imagery in hymns need not avert their eyes; a bona fide pacifist could sing this in clear conscience. Though the poet knows a conflict is coming, God's presence in his life will be all the protection he needs, "for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds."(2 Cor. 10:4)

Ireland was a dangerous place in the Middle Ages, what with Viking raids and the Norman invasion, not to mention the power struggles amongst the Irish themselves. A "buckler" is a small round shield about the size of a skillet, held in the hand opposite one's sword, used to deflect an enemy's blows (and as a weapon itself at times) in close combat. Sword and buckler were insufficient separately, but together they gave the warrior the ability to attack or defend with either arm or both as needed. In spiritual terms, the poet reminds us that God will be on both offense and defense for us as we "wage the good warfare."(1 Tim. 1:18)

The 100-ft.-tall round tower on Devenish Island, built in the 12th century to defend the monastery from Viking raiders. Photo by Rosemary Nelson, from
 The poet also calls on God as his "shelter" and "high tower," familiar language from the Psalms. I cannot be certain that the anonymous Medieval poet was thinking of Psalm 61:3, "For Thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy," but I am nearly sure that Eleanor Hull was. The original Irish word was more like "stronghold," an ever-present feature of the Medieval landscape as battling feudal lords sought to defend their territories.
Just as the ancient round tower defended the physical lives of the monks, the Irish poet called on God to be "every good to me." God did not leave us defenseless in this life; as Paul told the Corinthians, "Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours, ... and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's."(1 Cor. 3:21,23) We are empowered by the One who created this universe. It was Paul's prayer for the Christians at Ephesus, "that according to the riches of [God's] glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being."(Eph. 3:16) I may not understand fully how the Spirit dwells within my inner being, but I can certainly be grateful He does!

Stanza 4:
Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise;
Thou my inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of heaven, my treasure Thou art.

This stanza actually condenses several stanzas of the original poem, which elucidate the ideas very forcefully and are worth reading in full:

7 Be thou every good to my body and soul.
Be thou my kingdom in heaven and on earth.

8 Be thou solely chief love of my heart.
Let there be none other, O high King of Heaven.

9 Till I am able to pass into thy hands,
My treasure, my beloved, through the greatness of thy love.

10 Be thou alone my noble and wondrous estate.
I seek not men, nor lifeless wealth.

11 Be thou the constant guardian of every possession and every life.
For our corrupt desires are dead at the mere sight of thee.

12 Thy love in my soul and in my heart—
Grant this to me, O King of the seven heavens.

13 O King of the seven heavens grant me this—
Thy love to be in my heart and in my soul.

Two ideas emerge at once--first, the poet's desire to keep God as his "first love,"(Rev. 2:4) and second, the poet's willingness to forsake all earthly fame and wealth in order to do so. Jesus warned that "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money."(Matthew 6:24) In many times and places, being a Christian has meant being an outcast from society, barred from the mainstream economy and without civil rights. There are godly men and women around this world professing Christ under those very circumstances today. We Americans have cause to be uneasy--what have we sacrificed for God's sake?
The first point is returned to in the 12th and 13th stanzas of the original, in a palindromic form. God is solemnly invoked as "King of the seven heavens," a reference to beliefs from Jewish tradition and apocryphal writings that pictured heaven as a gradiated series of zones, each more holy and majestic than the one before. It may also refer to the "spheres" of the seven planets then known.(John of Damascus) The request for God's love to be "in my heart and in my soul" reminds us of the great Shema, which in Matthew 22:38 Jesus called the first and greatest commandment: "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."(Deuteronomy 6:5)

Stanza 5:
High King of heaven, when vict'ry is won
May I reach heaven's joys, O bright heav'n's Sun!
Heart of my heart, whatever befall,
Still be my vision, O Ruler of all!

This beautiful poem of single-minded devotion to God is a strong reminder of our need to focus. Life pulls us in so many directions, it is easy to fall into the habit of trying to give the job its piece of our time and committment, the family its piece, and God His piece, etc. God wants it all, and in return will give it back to us imbued with a purpose far greater than any we could have found without Him. Jeremiah 9:23-24 reminds us of the futility of a life lived without God at its center, and points us to the antidote:
Thus says the Lord: "Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.

About the music:

Too many great hymn texts fall into obscurity for lack of a good tune. In this case, the editors of the Irish Church Hymnal found a folk tune of a simple, earnest character that perfectly matches the humble appeal of the lyrics. SLANE is named for the hill near Tara where St. Patrick lit the Paschal fire on Easter Eve, defying the prohibition of the pagan king Loegaire mac Neil, and is taken from a tune first published in Patrick Joyce's Old Irish Folk Music and Songs in 1909. (The original title is secular, "With my love on the road;" I can't find any lyrics, so it may have been an instrumental.)

David Evans's Church Hymnary of 1927 included the hymn with a slight modification of the melody, which became the version most widely republished. Martin Shaw's harmonization from Songs of Praise (1931) is one of the popular arrangements of this hymn, which gained favor in the United States during the second half of the 20th century.(Hymnal 1982) Over the last few decades this tune has become a popular instrumental again, especially with the spreading popularity of Celtic folk music in the United States.


"Rop tú mo baile." CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts. University College Cork, 2010.

"Be Thou my vision." Wikipedia.

"Background: the School of Irish Learning." Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, School of Celtic Studies.

Cottrill, Robert. "Today in 1880: Mary Byrne born." Wordwise Hymns. (2 July 2010)

"Lorica." Wikipedia.

"Eleanor Hull." Electronic Irish Records Dataset. Princess Grace Irish Library (Monaco).,Eleanor/life.htm

The Hymnal 1982 Companion, ed. Raymond Glover.  v. 3 pt. 1, p. 909.

"Celt." Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed. (1910), v. 5, pp. 611-652.

John of Damascus. "Concerning the heaven." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, bk. 4, ch. 6.

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