HYMN 80 Be Thou My Vision
Updated: Jun 11, 2020
Middle Irish: Rob tú mo balle
Norwegian: Deg å få skode er sæle å nå
Psalm 4:6-8; Matthew 6:33; I Corinthians 2:7;
Text: St. Dallân Forgaill (530-598) Tune: Irish folk tune
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.
2. Be Thou my Wisdom, and 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.
3. Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise; Thou mine Inheritance, now and always. Thou and Thou only, first in my heart, High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.
4. High King of Heaven, my victory won. May I reach Heaven's joys, O bright Heav'n's Sun, Heart of my own heart, whate'er befall Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all
Tr. Eleanore Henrietta Hull (1860-1935)
Celtic spirituality has been for some years, something of a rage. Its sources in the landscapes of the western islands at the edge of Europe are different from the sources in the Mediterranean. The great success of the mystery series Sister Fidelma by Peter Tremayne (available on Amazon.com) gives one a vivid experience of the difference. Set in the middle of the 7th century, Sister Fidelma, a detective, lawyer, and learned sister in the Irish tradition, is always observing the difference between the pieties of Rome and those of the Irish church. The Laws of Fenechus that Sister Fidelma practiced were used for centuries and then with English rule, secretly, up until the 17th century. They were very pro-women and enlightened and Sister Fidelma teaches them to her readers during the search for the solution to the mystery. They were collected, translated and published in English during the 19th century at the urging of the Anglican Bishop of Limerick, Charles Graves (1812-1899).
St. Patrick, (d. 493?) St. Columba (521-597) and St. Brigid of Kildare (451-525) are illustrious representatives of that heritage. (Every Irish home was said to have a sign of Patrick and Brigid in it.) The poet St. Dallân Forgaill wrote a poem on the life of Columba, one of the most important poems of that time. While we are not sure he wrote this hymn, it sounds like him. We can hear in the poems from this time something that seems fresher, more connected to nature and more poetic, but deeply orthodox, even Trinitarian, than what has come down in the Latin tradition. Their time is considered today the era of a Golden Enlightenment in Irish history in contrast with the Dark Ages that had descended on continental Europe.
The first line is rich with double meanings. Is Jesus’ vision how we are to see, or is he the vision we see? The hymn expands on all of the ways that Jesus helps us see. The references are biblically rich—Jesus’ promise to live in us from John 15; him as Wisdom, in Corinthians, our treasure, and the first in our hearts.
In trying times like we have been experiencing, it is easy to put first in one’s heart things that simply upset and worry one. I am no exception to that. I can be sleepless with worry, almost overwhelmed by the threats and instabilities of the day. It is easy for me to say we should give Jesus the first place in our hearts, minds and vision, but harder to do it. I need to sing this over and over, waking and sleeping, to believe that Jesus is the one in charge. Who says it better than the ancient Celtic poet: “O bright Heav'n's Sun/Heart of my own heart, whate'er befall/Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.”
Celtic spirituality has been attractive for a couple of reasons: the poetry of the tradition with its striking images and naming of things: High King of Heaven, Bright Heav’n’s Sun, Heart of my own heart, etc. and, probably, the ravishing folk tunes. The sound of these tunes traveled with the Scotch and Irish emigrants to America where they became the folk music of the early years of America—Amazing Grace, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, etc. We hear them on the soundtracks of American movies—we hear that pentatonic scale and we know we are in America--or the North Sea.
Almost since it appeared in English, this hymn has been a constant on the list of top ten hymns. It evokes the Celtic sounds: harp, flutes and the sound of the sea. The North Sea sounds from the Vikings to the Irish and Scotch have a haunting similarity. The translator Eleanor Hull, of a County Down family, was a scholar of Irish history and literature. She promoted the heritage in all she did through her life.
A modern exponent of the sound, John Bell (1949-), a Scottish Presbyterian minister who served the Iona community, (See Hymn 46) has traveled worldwide with these tunes and his own tunes to which he has written texts. One will find his hymns in hymnals around the world. Partly because they are beautiful tunes, and partly because he is very charismatic: an hour with him singing, converts anyone to them. And since many at his conferences are members of Hymnal committees, they will choose his hymns for inclusion in the new hymnal. He has long argued that the folk songs of a people should be the tunes for their hymns—with which I agree. I teased him once that if that were true his hymns should not have taken the place of several old Norwegian folk hymns in their latest hymnal. He laughed and laughed. The Norwegian Hymnal 2013 has over ten of his hymns, the most popular, “Will you come and follow me?” (Det er navnet dit jeg ropar.) People really do love to sing them. They are hauntingly beautiful.
4 Him Hymns/Celtic instruments
Cambridge King’s College Choir
BYU Women’s group NoteWorthy with violin