Friday, March 8, 2013

Be Thou My Vision

 Statue of St. Patrick atop the Hill of Slane
 [B]e not conformed to this world:
but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind,
that ye may prove what [is] that
good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

If you've ever known someone whose entire life was devoted to God--every day and hour, in thought and in acts small and great--you've known something not only beautiful, but all too rare. Burdened with daily obligations to family and employers, as well as the myriad temptations and distractions today's world puts in our way, a single-minded devotion to our Lord might seem all but unattainable to the average person. Yet, this is the standard He has set: "[W]hat doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good?" (Deuteronomy 10:12-13)  Christ Himself reiterated this truth and expanded on it:  "[T]hou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself."  (Mark 12:30-31)

These admonitions call us to a life of utmost devotion to our Heavenly Father and all His children.  As author Charles E. Orr observed, "[d]evotion to God implies ardent affection for Him—a yielding of the heart to Him with reverence, faith, and piety in every act . . ."  Moreover, "[e]very devoted Christian desires to be more devoted to his God. . . . It is pleasant to feel in our hearts an ardent desire to love God more." This is a very natural and commendable desire, but one the World treats with contempt and resists fiercely.

This desire, and the challenges thrown against it, are beautifully expressed in the hymn Be Thou My Vision (Irish: Bí Thusa 'mo Shúile). With its text and melody both springing from the green hills of Ireland, it's fitting to explore it here in the month of March, when we celebrate the feast (March 17) of her patron Saint Patrick.

Dallán Forgaill
St. Patrick
Be Thou My Vision is based on an Old Irish text called Rop tú mo Baile, which is often attributed to 6th-century Christian Irish poet Dallán Forgaill (ca. 530–598). This poem is said to have been written in tribute to the missionary zeal of St. Patrick, as exemplified in an event that occurred in 433 A.D. when St. Patrick came to the Hill of Slane in County Meath, Ireland, during his work to convert that then-pagan country to Christianity. It was the night before Easter, as well as the beginning of the Druids' festival of Bealtine and of the spring equinox. The pagan High King Lóegaire mac Néill had issued a decree that no fires were to be lit until the lighting of a blaze atop the nearby Hill of Tara, which would mark the spring equinox. The first fire was not King Lóegaire's, however, but a flame (either a bonfire or candles) lit by St. Patrick to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. According to legend, the King was so impressed by St. Patrick's courage that instead of putting him to death, he allowed Patrick to continue with his missionary work throughout Ireland. As one observer has noted,"the lighting of a fire seems trivial to us, but at the time it was equivalent to declaring war on the Druids and their pagan beliefs and war against the King of Ireland. That small act of starting a fire was a turning point in St. Patrick's life and in the history of Ireland."

Rop tú mo Baile remained a part of Irish monastic tradition for centuries. Finally, in 1905, it received a literal translation from Old Irish into English prose by Irish linguist Mary E. Byrne (1880-1931). In 1912 the text was first versified by Irish scholar Eleanor H. Hull (1860-1935) and published in her work Poem Book of the Gael.

The tune most widely association with Be Thou My Vision is called, appropriately, Slane.  It is an old Irish folk melody, named for the Hill of Slane, where occurred the confrontation between St. Patrick and King Lóegaire that supposedly inspired Dallán Forgaill's poem. Though centuries old, the melody was first published by Irish historian and music collector Patrick Weston Joyce (1827-1914) in his 1909 collection, Old Irish Folk Music and Songs, under the title "By the Banks of the Bann."  Not until 1919 was this melody coupled with Eleanor Hull's versified text of Be Thou My Vision, by Leopold Dix (1861-1935) in the Irish Church Hymnal.

Here are the text and music to this beautiful hymn of devotion:
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.

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.

Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

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.

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

[Click here to hear the original Old Irish text of Rop tú mo Baile sung to the tune Slane.]

As observed by the Center for Church Music, "[the hymn's] prominent theme encourages single-hearted focus and devotion to Christ. In the hymn lyrics, the poet expresses his adoration of God through the many titles he gives him: Vision, Wisdom, Word, Great Father, Power, Inheritance, High King of heaven, Treasure, bright heaven's Sun, Ruler of all. Today, we continue to sing the words of this hymn, echoing the poet's response to God's many titles. 'Thou my best thought, Thy presence my light.'"
* * * * *
There are many good renditions of Be Thou My Vision available for viewing and listening on the Internet, and that makes it hard to select just a handful to present here.  I thought the four below were strong in musical and video quality, and capture the consuming devotional spirit of the hymn. [NOTE: If you subscribe to these posts by email, the videos may not appear; in that case you can see them at the Songs of Praises web site.]

The first is a beautiful choral presentation by the George Fox University Concert Choir and String Ensemble, with a video showing scenes of the students' missionary and outreach work--just what it means to let God "be your vision"!

The next choral arrangement, by Lisa Campagnoli Bloom and performed by her as soloist with South Bend, Indiana's Vesper Chorale, is just a little more inventive--and just as moving:

Here is an excellent contemporary performance by the Christian group 4Him, featuring Irish instrumentation as well as lovely artwork and photography:

The live performance below, by Irish Christian singer and songwriter Robin Mark, pairs the hymn with an inspiring pictorial review of some of history's greatest Christian evangelists:

* * * * *
True devotion to the Lord is a formidable challenge in an age of godlessness and social depravity. Nevertheless, Scripture and history are replete with examples of people, many otherwise unremarkable, who lived God-centered lives in the midst of such conditions. It's done by countless people everywhere, even today. Our God would not lay upon us an expectation that we could not fulfill. Every person has within him- or herself the capacity to walk steadily hand-in-hand with the Lord. Doing so only requires that we develop the inner discipline, patience, and courage that spring from and nourish the defining qualities of the true believer: faith, hope, and selfless love. Let us strive to make Christ our Vision every moment of every day.


I am crucified with Christ:
nevertheless I live; yet not I,
but Christ liveth in me:
and the life which I now live in the flesh
I live by the faith of the Son of God,
who loved me,
and gave himself for me.

~ Galatians 2:20


  1. "Be Thou My Vision" has been one of my all-time favorite hymns. The words are ones to live by, even in such godless days as these--and only possible by God's grace and strength dwelling within the believer.

    My favorite videos are the first and last. And I especially liked the way the last video includes photos of some of the great Christian evangelists of all time. And not a 'prosperity gospel' figure in the bunch!!

    What a perfect hymn to include for St Patrick's Day, and the month of March! Well done on all counts!!

  2. Wonderful reminder on St Patrick's day. I had no idea that this hymn was Irish much less that it went back to an early Irish poet only a few years after St Patrick. If you look at the Old Irish and try to sing the Hymn in old Irish it fits even better than the English Translation. Is there any way we could hear it sung in old Irish? How about asking a modern Irish group?

  3. Tremendous work of the Spirit to prevail upon all who trust in God’s direction to guide them in their ministry!