Based on the 6th century Celtic poem, translated into English verse in 1912 as the hymn “Be Thou My Vision”
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 my 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.
It is hard to know sometimes what the author of a string of melodious words actually meant to convey, unless they are able to tell us themselves. The hymn commonly known as “Be Thou My Vision” was not originally written in its current form, but began as a Celtic poem somewhere around the 6th century and was translated from Old Irish into English by Mary E. Byrne in 1905. It was reorganized into verses in 1912 by Eleanor H. Hull. To both of these women we owe a great debt for bringing such a beautiful piece of music to life for English-speaking people to enjoy. The melody is the Irish folk song Slane, which is about Slane Hill where St. Patrick lit candles on Easter Eve in A.D. 433, defying the prohibition against this custom by then High King Loegaire of Tara. But hymns very often have a deeper purpose. Perhaps it is to convey a message of love or conviction, or to give voice to a heartfelt cry of pain or exultation of joy. Some hymns express adoration of our amazing God, while still others give account of His endless devotion to His people. We cannot ask the author of the words to this particular hymn exactly what he or she longed to share, but if we look closely at the modern verses there is blessing for us in every line.
Vision is a highly prized commodity. The expression “I would have given you my eyes” stems from a centuries old tradition wherein a person expressed the depth of their love to another person by saying that they would even give them their eyes if it were necessary…in other words, “I would choose to be blind in order that this person whom I love would be able to see.” This hymn begins with the cry for God to be our vision itself. Jesus taught that the eye is the lamp of the body, and that if the eye was bad, the whole body would be full of darkness, but that if the eye was good, the whole body would be full of light (Matt. 6:22,23). And here we are now, asking God to actually be our vision. Above all other things, above all other ideas, priorities, attitudes, or agendas, we ask God to be the lens through which everything that we see comes to us.
The danger in viewing all things through God this way is that we will see things as He does. The things that cause Him joy and happiness will make us happy…and the things that cause Him pain will hurt us, too. We will be allowed to glimpse the beauty of a pure heart and unselfish love…and we will also be permitted to view the destruction of a human soul by the ravages of sin. We will see the homeless with a heart of compassion rather than judgment, and we will become intolerant of sinful actions that hurt innocent children and the weakest of our neighbors. In all of this, our eyes will become true windows into our own souls through which God can pour His light in order to dispel the darkness around us and inside of us.
When I was a little girl, I was terribly afraid of the dark. I just knew there was a boogeyman under my bed, a monster in my closet, horrible little scary guys camped out in the dresser drawers, and probably even more shadowy hoodlums creeping around just outside my bedroom window…waiting for their opportunity to pounce. My Daddy went to great lengths to convince me that there were no goblins or ghouls waiting for me, but to no avail...I hated the dark, and that was that. But the truth is, it wasn’t the darkness itself that I was so afraid of, it was the scary creatures I believed were hiding in the dark that made my heart pound. The only reason that turning on a light erased my fear was because I could clearly see that there was, as my Daddy had told me, not a single monster lying in wait. But as soon as the light went out, those shadows became menacing hiding places once again and nothing would convince me otherwise. The solution cost about a quarter back in those days: it’s called a night light. You see, what my Dad realized was that his little girl didn’t need hours of lecturing about the fact that monsters don’t exist, or scientific proof that boogeymen are just made up stories. I didn’t need him to do a “scary critter patrol” every hour, checking for creepy creatures outside. I just needed a little bit of light to push the darkness back.
Lighting up a dark room obliterates the hiding places. But remember, the monsters and boogeymen aren’t real anyway, right? Wrong. 1 Peter 5:8 tells us “…your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour’. We are warned about the darkness. 1 John 1:5 tells us that “…God is light and in Him is no darkness at all”. Obviously there is something we need to know about the dark: there is nothing of it in our God! The demonic host loves the dark for one main reason, and that is that only in darkness can it be claimed that God is absent…and the legions of hell stay as far from the Almighty as possible. Darkness is their playground, where they taunt, torment and torture; where they hide away from the brightness that exposes their vileness. In the presence of God there can be no such darkness, nowhere to hide…for the enemies outside or inside of ourselves. The harassing forces of Satan are exposed by the glare of the presence of Christ, as are the more attractively dressed minions that we invite to stay as our guests. Corrie Ten Boom said, concerning her concentration camp experience at the hand of the Nazis: "In darkness God's truth shines most clear." But just as Jacob refused to let go without a blessing when He wrestled with God in Genesis 32:22-32, we dare not sit passively, wondering when this heavenly illumination will pool around us and bring understanding and clarity to our souls! Like Jacob, we must tenaciously grasp the blessing, not fainting with fatigue, wrestling through the night until the break of a new morning sun if necessary, to see the darkness dispelled and our vision sharpened with the light of the Spirit’s dawn.
Regardless of sunrise and sunset, whether the portion of the earth we inhabit is currently bathed in sun or in shadows, when we are asleep and when we are awake, we are in His light. He is near to us, around us, inside of our very souls, always keeping watch and guarding every breath of His loved ones. As the Psalmist wrote, “…He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4). He does not grow tired, His vision never fails, and the light of His presence vanquishes all that lurks in the darkness.
Now that we understand God’s presence in light, our hearts and minds seek a deeper intimacy with God, a closer walk as our feeble legs try to match His stride. As we address the endless challenges that come our way along the avenues of life, we grasp at wisdom to guide our decisions. Once again, our need is met by the God who not only gives us wisdom, but who IS our wisdom from the very beginning. The hymn expresses our need as human beings for God to come in and be our Truth in an unstable world where values shift and consequences of poor judgment can be dire. This is not a request for a new set of rules, or even a more thorough explanation of the old ones. Instead, it is an acknowledgement that the Giver of the gifts of wisdom and truth are indeed the embodiment of each. We need not be governed by ink on paper or the threat of punishment for failing to maintain a standard. Rather, our very souls can become intimately connected with Wisdom and Truth Himself just as a father and son share many of the same genes. It is in this sense that we can say with Paul, “…for in Him we live and move and have our being…” (Acts 17:28a)
It is often said that “Christ lives in us”, or “God is in my life”. But how often do we address the matter of us being in Him? Or do we overlook the fact that just as God lives in us, we too are meant to reside completely in Him? Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians (1:17), “…He is before all things, and in Him all things consist”. Are human beings somehow exempt from “all things”? We too, are part of the “all things” that consist in Him…which is why we are so utterly lost when we separate ourselves from Him. It would be like expecting a huge bucket of water to contain itself if we take the bucket away. The instant the bucket is removed, the water spills in every direction, out of control. The bucket held the water where it was supposed to be…without it, the water loses even its most basic form and becomes an ineffectual mess, soon evaporating into the thin air.
Paul goes on to say to the Colossians, “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3) Our lives are safe with Him, held firmly in His grasp and under His protection. “Thou my great Father, I Thy true son…”, the hymn rolls on. In sixth century Ireland, the issue of sonship to a father was no small matter. Land was passed through families primarily through the male heirs, and genealogies were carefully kept in order for families to remember their roots. Both father and son were unmistakable gifts in a time when disease and hardship often claimed the lives of either or both long before “goodbye” was a welcome word. Not only is God our Father, He is our very great Father…and not only are we His sons, but true sons whose status in the family cannot be denied or challenged by any outsider. Not only are there responsibilities on the part of both, but also the blessings that come with being a true heir to a loving and gracious Father who withholds no good thing from His children.
Volumes have been written concerning Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesian church to “put on the whole armor of God” (6:13-18). But again, the setting of the hymn’s writing should give us pause to seek out the writer’s intent…sixth century Ireland was far different than the world in which most of us live today. Talk of swords, battle shields, and high towers all seem to belong more in movies about knights and kings in some far away land shrouded in mist, long ago and nearly forgotten. Not so to the inhabitants of Ireland in this time period. Kings came to power by use of force and size of army, political treachery abounded (In 378A.D., after ruling as king for thirteen years, Crimhthann was poisoned by his own sister!), and the common folk often defended their lands and their families by whatever means necessary. Imploring God Himself to be their battle shield, their sword, and the high tower to which they could run for safety meant much more than poetic words, it was a cry for true deliverance and protection. Oh that we could catch a glimpse of that faith…that we could nurture within ourselves a heart so devoted to our Creator that we too would “…be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Ephesians 6.13.b)
Part of the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) is that our Father “give us this day our daily bread”. Simplicity of heart searches for sustenance in things that are required, and beauty in all that surrounds us. Riches that spoil, praise from the lips of other frail earthly men, inheritances that can be stolen or lost by thief or years…though given to us to enjoy for a time, none of these are to gain a place of reverence on the altar of our hearts. Like our own breath, all of these will one day fade from memory, returning to the hand of the One who bestowed them. First in our hearts always should be the gracious Creator who infused us with His own breath, allowing us to live and love, and learn how to live and love more. In the middle of the 4th century, the three nephews of the High King of Ireland established a new kingdom until they themselves were conquered and rule passed to yet another king. In spite of this history, our hymn writer refers to our own true High King of Heaven as the real treasure to be sought. Earthly kings come and go, territories rise and fall, the very earth we walk on groans under the weight of bloodshed spilled in the name of war…and peace. Yet the Ruler of all never changes…never weakens…is never conquered. In His blood lies our victory, and in His heart lies our own pulse. The joys of Heaven welcome us only because His heart beats within our chest…and ours in His.
At the close of this glorious hymn are the words. “…still be my vision, O Ruler of all”. The beginning of the hymn is the same, the verses roll by, and at the end is the same cry for God Himself to be the eyes through which we view His world. We are left with the notion that this is, above all other points or requests, the most important thing the writer wished to convey, the need to see through God’s own eyes. Remember, the original text was not written in the verses we know today, but was translated first into English and then written into verse only in the last century. The original English translation follows… as His people, let it be our heart’s cry.
by Mary Byrne, 1905
Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart
None other is aught but the King of the seven heavens.
Be thou my meditation by day and night.
May it be thou that I behold even in my sleep.
Be thou my speech, be thou my understanding.
Be thou with me, be I with thee
Be thou my father, be I thy son.
Mayst thou be mine, may I be thine.
Be thou my battle-shield, be thou my sword.
Be thou my dignity, be thou my delight.
Be thou my shelter, be thou my stronghold.
Mayst thou raise me up to the company of the angels.
Be thou every good to my body and soul.
Be thou my kingdom in heaven and on earth.
Be thou solely chief love of my heart.
Let there be none other, O high King of Heaven.
Till I am able to pass into thy hands,
My treasure, my beloved through the greatness of thy love
Be thou alone my noble and wondrous estate.
I seek not men nor lifeless wealth.
Be thou the constant guardian of every possession and every life.
For our corrupt desires are dead at the mere sight of thee.
Thy love in my soul and in my heart --
Grant this to me, O King of the seven heavens.
O King of the seven heavens grant me this --
Thy love to be in my heart and in my soul.
With the King of all, with him after victory won by piety,
May I be in the kingdom of heaven O brightness of the son.
Beloved Father, hear, hear my lamentations.
Timely is the cry of woe of this miserable wretch.
O heart of my heart, whatever befall me,
O ruler of all, be thou my vision.