Hymn Guide: Be Thou My Vision

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Did you know “Be Thou My Vision” was written by a blind monk?

The text is traditionally attributed to Saint Dallán, a 6th-century Celtic monk who went blind in the middle of his life. Some modern scholars have argued for a later date in the 10th or 11th century. Either way, the text reflects the legacy of Dallán and is devotionally grounded in his blindness.

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The tune is an Irish ballad called SLANE, first paired with the text in the 1919 Irish Church Hymnal. It is fitting to be sung at any time, in circumstances of strength or weakness, in gatherings of women or men, at baptisms or funerals. It is also sung for the feast of Saint Dallán on January 29th.

Verse by Verse

Verse 1

The opening verse of the hymn poignantly draws upon Dallán’s experience of blindness:

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.

Though Dallán must have suffered much from his loss of sight, the effect of this forced darkness was to drive him back to God, his “best thought,” and, whether “by day or night,” his only remaining “light.” When we sing the hymn, we might try closing our eyes; perhaps by sharing just a taste of Dallán’s experience, we will more deeply experience his reliance upon God.

Verse 2

The second verse expands on the discussion of God’s identity and his presence:

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.

The focus seems to be the unity between God and us, between the Father and his Son. In fact, there’s some half-hidden Trinitarian theology going on here since “Word” is a designation of Jesus, and one who is “dwelling” in us is the Holy Spirit. So after the first verse, which calls out to God, this second verse draws us into the relational dynamic of Trinitarian love and indwelling.

Verse 3

There is a middle verse, not usually sung, which provides a powerful request of God to be a defensive and offensive support, evocative of Ephesians 6:10-20:

Be thou my breastplate, my sword for the fight
Be thou my armor, and be thou my might
Thou my soul’s shelter, and thou my high tow’r
Raise thou me heav’nward, o pow’r of my pow’r

The “church militant” language has gone out of fashion in recent decades, which may explain this verse’s frequent omission. But Saint Dallán, in his blindness, was attuned to spiritual realities, including spiritual warfare. Rather than denying this spiritual conflict, we should engage it with God as our armor, refuge, and might.

Verse 4

The fourth verse introduces the idea of God as an “inheritance” and a “treasure”:

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.

Because God is already present, we who sing realize we are rich! With God’s riches already in hand, we need no longer be anxious for the “riches” of the world nor the vanity of “man’s empty praise.”

Verse 5

The final verse draws out the implications of all that has come before and ends with a restatement of the opening theme:

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

Because the “High King of Heaven” is a treasure we already have, our “victory” is already won. The only lasting thing we lack is to finally “reach Heaven’s joys.” The reference to “bright heaven’s Sun” puts us in mind of the eternal “Son,” and “heart of my own heart” recalls the Spirit.

Finally, as this song and trinitarian dance ends, the theme of Vision returns. When we come off the spiritual high of transporting moments of worship, we still look to God to rule and lead us in our everyday walk of faith.

On Video

Below are two versions of the hymn. The first is a congregational setting with organ. It is sung in an Anglican parish, St. Columba’s in Drumcliffe, Ireland, and is led by a student choir. Notice that, in this version, the congregation sings the less common third verse. The second is a more contemporary recording by a new band, “Celtic Worship.” Instrumentation includes guitar, bass, violin, recorder, and drums.


Image: Christ Enthroned, from the 9th Century Book of Kells, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Published on

April 11, 2024

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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