Twelve Hymns Project: Be thou my vision, HWB 545
Text: Isaiah 6:1-8
“Be thou my vision” is a prayer. It’s an ancient prayer. The language feels old. When’s the last time you were having a conversation and found yourself saying “naught be all else to me save that thou art?” I haven’t decided yet whether I know what that means. But we sing it. One of the wonders of setting our prayers to music is that we say things, we sing things, without having to understand everything we’re singing. Sometimes the music and the rhythm of the words are enough to make it a prayer.
The English feels old, but the song is Irish through and through, in text and in melody. What we have is just a translation. The original is old enough that no one’s quite sure how old. It may go as far back as the 6th century, words of an Irish poet, Saint Dallan. Or maybe it was written a couple hundred years after Saint Dallan and just got attributed to him. The oldest surviving manuscripts of this Irish prayer are from the 10th or 11th centuries.
Before Saint Dallan, around the year 401, a young man and his family were walking along a beach in the Western part of Britain. They were interrupted by a fleet of boats, Irish warriors. The warriors demolished the nearby village and captured the young man, taking him back to Ireland and selling him to a local warlord. The young man’s name was Patricius.
Patricius was enslaved as a shepherd, spending his time in the wild with his master’s animals, exposed to the weather and foraging for food just like the animals he kept. He did this for six years. During that time he had an awakening toward the Christian faith he had grown up with. He prayed constantly. Feeling led by the Spirit to do so, he fled 200 miles to the south and got on a ship. He escaped Ireland, back the Britain, went to a monastery to study for the priesthood, found his way home. And there, after many years, heard a voice calling him to “come and walk again among us.” He took this as the voice of God, calling him back to Ireland.
Some of the details of his life are about as fuzzy as the origins of the text of “Be thou my vision,” but it seems that Patricius went about his mission work in Ireland by building monasteries which became places of refuge and transformation in an incredibly violent Irish culture. The monasteries were places of spiritual formation, but also developed their own economies with craftsmen and farmers and cloth makers and artists. In that economy shepherds were not slaves, but part of the fabric of the community. A recent article in the Christian Century telling the story of Patricius, Saint Patrick, referred to these monasteries as “outposts of God’s kingdom.” They provided a vision of the new heavens and new earth already being realized. In this way, Ireland was converted to Christianity. (“The gospel in a violent culture,” June 7 issue, p 31.)
Perhaps Saint Dallan, several generations after Patrick, was within one of those monasteries, praying with his eyes open, when he wrote the prayer we have translated as “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.”
I suppose every hymn is a prayer, but some of our hymns, like this one, are addressed directly to God, using that old word, “Thou.” This is the seventh of our twelve hymns, and the first to be thoroughly oriented to God in this way. The other two that will speak not just of God, but to God are “Rain down;” “Rain down your love on your people.” And “Come thou fount of every blessing. Tune my heart to sing thy praise.” In other songs we’re singing to each other: “Will you let me be your servant.” “The Lord bless you and keep you.” Even songs like “My life flows on” and “Amazing Grace” are songs that have us proclaiming these things to one another. They speak of God, but not to God in the second person sense – “you,” “your,” “yours,” or, in our case today, “thou,” “thy,” “thine.” Even the ultimate Mennonite praise anthem, “Praise God from whom,” the grand finale of this series, is addressed, technically, not to God, but to “all creatures here below,” who are being summoned to do the praising and the hallelujah-ing, Amen.
It’s a good question to ask while singing a hymn. Who are we singing to?
And there’s part of the catch with prayer, sung or spoken. Because God, the Divine, the Holy, is no ordinary who. Not just a larger, stronger, more loving, better version of ourselves. Those who study and think and write about these things frequently remind us that what we refer to as God is not so much a being as Being itself. Characterized by perpetual relationship rather than singular existence. Closer to nothing, no-thing, not-a-thing, than something.
In prayer, we address something, someone beyond our categories.
When we sing, “Be thou my vision,” who, where, what are we talking to?
For the prophet Isaiah, Thou was an overwhelming, life altering vision. At least that once, told in Isaiah chapter six.
Isaiah was in the Jerusalem temple and saw a vision of a god so large that the hem of its robe, just that bottom part, filled the entire temple, a container far too small for something so grand. Fiery beings called out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” There is shaking and smoke, and Isaiah is overcome.
The vision is too much, and he is too small, too inadequate to even take it in. But one of those fiery beings comes over and touches Isaiah’s lips with a coal from the altar. A holy kiss. And that’s enough. Isaiah is proclaimed worthy. The voice asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah, perhaps without even realizing it, finds himself saying, “Here am I; send me.” Isaiah is then commissioned to speak to people who, he is told, will not listen.
Isaiah’s vision involves being overwhelmed, then being assured and comforted, then being sent on a mission that by all reasonable measures, will fail.
Had Isaiah been singing “Be thou my vision” right before this, a wise elder may have leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Be careful what you pray for.”
Rather than converting an entire continent, like Patrick, Isaiah’s prayer sends him on a mission that looks like an exercise in futility.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that “Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.” (Source: The Wisdom of Heschel)
It strikes me that prayer is also a great risk. We risk that it goes unanswered. Even more, we risk that it is answered.
“Be thou my vision…Be thou my wisdom….be thou my true word…be thou my dignity, my delight.”
We are those who, in the words of Heschel, have been given the “inconceivable surprise of living.” But we don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t know how to do it. We are trying to walk in the way of Jesus and resist violence. Resist being reduced to consumers. Resist despair. We don’t know what will result, but we address the Divine, if we dare, as thou. Or, to update the language, “you.” It’s intimate language. The kind of language that opens our hearts. We do not merely speak of the Divine, we speak to it. The Glory fills the whole earth, it is much grander than us, and we are as nothing before it, and yet we are invited to address it as “You.” You be my vision. You be my wisdom, my language, my dignity. I am listening. We are listening. I to you. You to us. We are praying. To You. And when we pray, there is always the risk that we will be addressed in return, Patrick and Isaiah sent into the unknown. Here we are Lord. Send us?