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Be Thou My Vision

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I can’t for the life of me remember where I first heard it. The horizon was boundless, the environment wild, the weather boisterous and the sensation loneliness. The land was abandoned, uncultivated and desolate. The hills were crowned with scudding clouds. The water of the loch was ruffled by the agitation of the wind. The light was fading, broken only by the stabs of lightning. The whining of the wind was broken only by the crashes and crescendos of thunder. I was standing alone and awestruck by the force of the elements around me. In the midst of this majesty of nature I felt infinitesimally small.

It was then that I heard this voice. High pitched. Raw and faintly nasal in the vein of traditional Irish folk singing. Unaccompanied, haunting and compelling. Unaccompanied except for the sound of the elements against which it competed. Haunting because of the way in which, in the midst of wild desolation, it rang with a clarity that cut through all in its path. Compelling because the direct and simple words did what folksongs should do, challenged the senses and the mind.

The tune was lingering, unforgettable. It dissected the thunder and swooped and soared as a seagull in a gale. With its words it challenged both the vagaries of the storm and the accepted values of the pre-mediaeval age of the 8th Century in which it was first written and heard. And in doing so it challenged the certainties of our own age too.

The tune I recognized. I had heard it sung in church with different words. The words I also knew. Yet it was something about the combination of the words and the tune, and the way it was being sung that froze me in my tracks and made me listen and think. Even today they haunt the inner caverns of my mind.


Be thou my vision,
O Lord of my heart,
naught be all else to me
save that thou art,
thou my best thought
in the day and night,
waking or sleeping,
thy presence my light.

Be thou my wisdom,
be thou my true word,
I ever with thee and
thou with me, Lord;
thou my great Father,
and I thy true son;
thou in me dwelling,
and I with thee one.

Be thou my breast-plate,
my sword for the fight,
be thou my armour,
and be thou my might,
thou my soul's shelter,
and 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
through all my days;
thou, and thou only,
the first in my heart,
high King of heaven,
my treasure thou art!

High King of heaven
when battle is done,
grant heaven's joy to me,
O bright heaven's sun;
Christ of my own heart,
whatever befall,
still be my vision,
O Ruler of all.


The tune sung in this environment and atmosphere was what hit me first and embedded itself in my mind’s ear. I found myself humming it constantly, strumming it constantly, seeking constantly to harmonise it and make it even more haunting. It was only later that I began to look at the words, to realise their simplicity and their impact. I who had as a folk-singer always believed in the message of the whole song, the whole sensation created by the song in its entirety, began suddenly to consider the specific phraseology of the song. I was still moved by its over all message, but more and more I was struck by the import and impact of the individual phrases and words. A hymn of praise, but a stark and crucial statement too.

The hymn of praise speaks for itself. The words need closer understanding.

Be thou my vision,
O Lord of my heart,

I have seen a face shape in the lowering clouds. It is a face of welcome, of belonging, of family, of love. I cannot describe the face, except that it fills the void in me. I live in an age of un-vision. Everything around me is of the material and of the moment. There is nothing that takes me forward anymore, or excites me or gives me any sense of satisfaction. That is until this vision; indistinct, warming, indescribable, fulfilling. A vision of completeness, of purpose, of righteousness, of inspiration. A vision of peace. Not a quiet peace, but a demanding peace. Indistinct in itself perhaps, yet a vision that sets out clear parameters within which peace and fulfilment may be pursued. Not a threatening vision. A vision that asks rather than orders, that seeks rather than coerces. A vision that understands human weakness while urging human strength. A vision that fills my mind with its challenges. And while my mind wrestles, my heart opens and absorbs. It is the vision of the Lord of my heart. My heart is in thrall to it and enthralled by it. It is my master, for it is my God.

naught be all else to me
save that thou art;

Once that vision is with me and in me, it replaces all other ambitions and aspirations. Once it has a hold of me there can be no room for other purpose or philosophy or intention. It answers all my inner questions - even if in its indistinctness I still cannot be certain how or when or why. I can have no need for any other compulsion. It is like a light in a darkened room. Its switching on dispels the shadows and the fears which accompany them. I may not fully understand what makes the bulb glow to give off the light, but I want the light to remain. I will give up everything that the light will remain. I will do anything that the light is not extinguished. Nothing else really matters to me except the light. In my dark windswept desolation, how I need the light!

thou my best thought
in the day and night,

There will be distractions from what I am doing in the daytime just as there will be from what I am dreaming at night. Distractions can never totally be dispelled Indeed to have no distractions is to border on the obsessive. In my windswept wastelands I will live with and befriend my distractions whether of the conscious or subconscious mind. But they will always rank second in the queue to the thought of my vision from which will flow my courage and my self-belief.

waking or sleeping,
thy presence my light.

When I was young I saw two worlds, the waking and the sleeping. When we live in the warmth and comfort of the secure and stable home we can the more easily make that division between work and rest, between conscious and unconscious, between the reality and the dream. But when you are living on the edge, when the wilderness dominates, when the world around you is a void, then there is no clear division between waking and sleeping. Both are full of darkness and of uncertainty. The light that shines in darkness must shine equally in and on both. The shadows are as doomful awake or asleep, or in that uncertain demi-world between. When I was a child I had a candle to keep the shadows at bay. In the gloom I need that candle now, ever burning, without demarcation or time-limit, always. And in that candle my vision, and in that vision the presence of my God.

Be thou my wisdom,
be thou my true word,

What is wisdom? In the failing light at the ends of the world it is at the very least the instinct of survival. But it is much more than that. It is seeing beyond self, it is rising above basic reason; it is appreciating that which has its origins beyond my mind. There are some who within themselves can achieve this knowledge and that which flows from it. They are to be admired. I cannot. Yet I still need wisdom if I am to survive. I look therefore to my Creator and Provider. If I place myself in the palm of His hand I will have wisdom. Not my wisdom, but His. Like the Internet I will find knowledge way beyond myself. Unlike the Internet I will know that such knowledge is always well directed and I need fear no virus. Moreover I can have faith that what it teaches me will be true and that which I speak from it will be the truth.

How easy it is to have the arrogance to lie. The liar - and there is a bit of him in every one of us - has immense self-confidence, above all the confidence that he will be believed. Some even have the brass neck to congratulate their interlocutor when they are discovered in their lie and then go on to tell the next one. Yet the world is ultimately undermined by untruth. It creates shifting sands upon which no edifice can ultimately survive. Truthfulness may often be mocked as a weakness in a cynical world. The cynical world however will ultimately fail and truth will prevail. And when it does, those who have laid the groundwork of truthfulness will inherit the world that will come after. I am weak, and I am frightened, and in this cynical world I will constantly be tempted to join the cohorts of untruth. To escape this, to ensure that my words are words of truth, I need a voice that is not mine but that of my Vision. I must surrender my mouth and the thought-motor that drives it to my Vision to arrange and direct.

I ever with thee and
thou with me, Lord;

It is easy to talk about totally surrendering myself and all my faculties to this vision. All of us are prone to promising to do better. We all make New Year resolutions that rarely survive beyond the 2nd week of January! In life it is always tempting to make our own promises, to undertake to deliver what in practice we are too weak to deliver because we are human. It is always easier to deliver by joining together with a force which can deliver and which will deliver. If I want to fulfil my promises, I can only do so in full partnership with my vision which is my God. How arrogant of me to claim partnership with my maker! I am in fact accepting what I believe is the sacred offer of intercommunion which I celebrate in the Eucharist, me in my God and my God in me. My God who is and should be my vision can in this intercommunion be my strength and my inspiration and my guide. In the flat and dying light of the bleak hillsides that strength is vital, that inspiration crucial and that guide the only way forward.

thou my great Father,
and I thy true son;

The loneliness of the empty space is mind-numbing. The feeling of abandonment is total. It is the orphan syndrome, left parentless and therefore counsel-less in the face of immense and daunting challenge. I recall my childhood when in the face of fear I found at my side the calm voice and resolute protection of my father. How I need that now. In truth I have it, for my Father who is in Heaven is, I believe, with me and I am His frightened and lonely son. And in knowing that God is my creator and therefore the father who gave me life, I know too that I am His son, for no other relationship is possible. My state of orphancy is over. In my desolation I have rediscovered my parentage and the parenting that goes with it.

thou in me dwelling,
and I with thee one.

Except that this is a relationship beyond that of the ordinary parent and child. It has also the sacramental elements of marriage which creates one entity out of two beings. Inter-dwelling and interaction and oneness in God.

Be thou my breast-plate,
my sword for the fight,

The pilgrimage through the hostile terrain of life is full of unseen enemies and unknown threats. I have no weapons to hand nor any armour of my own. To start with I need protection against the known and quantifiable threat of the evil enemy who will constantly seek to besiege my soul. Equally I need it against the unpredictable but no less lethal threat of the more random "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune". Both have the capacity to destroy, and both must be breasted with an impenetrable shield that will draw their sting. I know not where my soul dwells within me, but I know that the ache of love and longing are felt within my breast and stomach. My spiritual breastplate must be in place to protect them.

I have always believed myself resilient and strong against the projectiles and arms of my fellow man that threaten me physically. But against those weapons that emanate from the forces of darkness and evil and which are aimed at the inner me - my soul, my spirit, my conscience and my sense of duty - I am weak and vulnerable. Without my vision and my Lord as my breastplate I must surely perish. And while with my physical strength and hand-weapons I can resist the human foe and 'send them homewards to think again', against the wiles of fallen angels I must find a sword of truth and integrity to hold them at bay. I have no such weapon; only my Lord and vision can provide it. The fight is never-ending and so equally must be the power of my sword.

be thou my armour,
and be thou my might,

When Roman legions were under attack they formed the testudo - the tortoise - placing their shields around and above them to encase them in impenetrable armour. In the middle ages the suit of armour was a personal equivalent of the testudo, total encasement yet permitting of movement. In my fight against evil I need a spiritual testudo. I believe that my Lord and vision can encase me in his love, thereby providing me with the protection that I seek and the movement that I require.

Yet armour is not enough if I lack spiritual strength. Beset as I am by the darts of anger, the arrows of temptation, the gas of envy, and the viruses of avarice and ambition, I stand within my wilderness bereft of energy and without the courage to do what must be done. I need the sustaining fuel of might within me, constantly replenished and constantly ignited to drive me in my chosen purpose. It is from my vision that this strength must flow.

thou my soul's shelter,
and thou my high tower,

The wind blows ever colder and the rain sweeping across my wilderness turns to hail and stings against my face. It saps my will and turns my blood to ice. It freezes my determination and numbs my senses. I must find escape from it. I must find shelter against it. Yet all the terrain around is flat and featureless. There is no shelter to be had - other than in the folds of my Lord's tunic. I crave shelter against the elements and enemies that beset me. Grant me, Lord, the shelter within which I will find all the frightened and dispossessed, all the abandoned and betrayed.

The waters of despair and perdition are rising. I feel them cold about my feet. I must be lifted above them before I drown or become infected by the evil bacilli that find their environment within them. I recall the high hills and the high towers that lifted men above the foetid and plague-ridden swamps of past centuries. I look and in the barrenness around me I find no such hill or tower. But in my vision I see my high tower, standing like some folly on the edge of the high escarpment and soaring like some pinnacle of doom high into the leaden skies.. Let me take refuge there in the clearest and purest air that I can find and the greatest elevation and separation from the evils of the flooded ground below.

raise thou me heavenward,
O Power of my power.

And in my elevation within my high tower I am surely closer to my Lord and my vision. Or am I? What makes me so certain that Heaven lies above? Could it not be all round? All I know is that my vision is my power and that that power contains the power within it to lead me to the Promised Land. Whichever the direction to salvation, the power of my vision can feed my conscience and guide my soul through the rocks and shoals of temptation and can inculcate in me the true repentance that I need as my passport to heaven. And when I reach the walls of the kingdom of heaven, I know that I will be too weak to climb. I will need a hand up, and I look to my Power to lift me. Raise me, my Vision, my Lord, my Power.

Riches I heed not,
nor man's empty praise,

The wilderness around me grows ever wider and the loneliness deeper. I have sought often as to why I who have had a relatively comfortable, prosperous and successful life should find myself immersed in this bleakness. What is clear to me is that money has not bought me a way out of it, nor has a modicum of public recognition raised me above it. Indeed I wonder whether the relative comfort and financial security I have enjoyed has sheltered me from those realities of life in which alone true fulfilment can be found. Certainly I have never understood the making of money for its own sake, nor the possession of riches as a worthwhile life purpose. I have never therefore been unduly impressed by wealth, only by the work that can be done by it and the good that can be achieved with it. More often I am filled with despair at the failure to do so. I neither crave wealth nor am I enthralled or persuaded by it.

When I was young I must admit that I hankered after praise and applause. They were a heady concoction. Now I have learned the hard way how false a concoction they are, how quickly the euphoria can be replaced with dereliction. How swiftly praise can turn to criticism and applause to contemptuous derision.

The only judgement that counts is not the opinion of fellow man but the final verdict of our Maker before the Judgement Bar. All else, however well intentioned, is empty and transient. How easily it turns the head! How swiftly it corrupts the conscience of the soul. How quickly it is gone. Turn my eyes from gold unless it is yours, Oh Lord. Block my ears against adulation unless it is the murmur of your approval.

thou mine inheritance
through all my days;

We live in a world governed by desire for property, as if it is the guarantee of security. Some strive and win property by their own efforts. Others inherit it from their antecedents. Inheritance has long been held as somehow un-egalitarian and thus unjust. Fiscal devices have been introduced to undermine it, and in many cases have succeeded. Of course inheritance selfishly abused or wickedly exploited cannot be condoned. Inheritance in terms of stewardship is however very different. The heir who receives with humility and builds on his inheritance for the good of those around him is not to be condemned for being an inheritor.

What greater inheritance than that which is bequeathed me from my Vision and my Lord. It is not an inheritance of wealth or material possession. It is an inheritance of faith and of principles and above all of a sense of duty. It is an intensely challenging inheritance because it demands rather than gives, it asks rather than answers, it imposes rather than relieves. It is an inheritance that doesn't just give a little comfort to us but opens up the world. It is an inheritance of good news, for it promises redemption. It is hardly a passive or comfortable inheritance. It requires us to go out into the world to spread the message that virtue can win redemption, that good can triumph over evil, but that none of this will happen unless with the sweat of our brow and the callouses on our hands we make it happen.

That is a big enough inheritance for any man. There can be room for no other if we are to be true to the trust vested in us.

thou, and thou only,
the first in my heart,

I can be a part of none of what I have discussed above if I am distracted. I need to be totally single-minded and my exclusive devotion to my vision must be a prerequisite. Even in my wilderness there are many things that can waylay and ambush my mind, not least the intense self-doubt by which I am currently overtaken. Lack of confidence turns me in on myself. I find my mind taken up with fears for my health, for my safety, and even for my sanity. It is easy to place myself at the centre of my universe, the fulcrum of my notice, the object of my attention.

I can only escape this by filling my consciousness first and last with my vision, filling every nook and invading every cranny of my mind so that there can no longer be any room for self-pity and self obsession. My heart is hardly big enough to encompass all of my vision, but I will stretch it as far as I can.

high King of heaven,
my treasure thou art!

In a world of monarchies, there must be one monarch who stands above all others. In a world of priests there is always a high priest, a chief Rabbi, a pope. Among kings, there is a high king. You are my high king, my high priest, my high vision and Lord. As such you more priceless by far than the most perfect jewel, more flawless than the most beautiful diamond. I need no other treasure in the treasure-house of my heart than you.

High King of heaven
when battle is done,
grant heaven's joy to me,
O bright heaven's sun;

Life on earth is not so much a pilgrimage as a battle. We are not just fighting evil, we are often fighting ourselves. There is no let up in the battle of life. It rages constantly and remorselessly, and when we think we have overcome we find that it was no more than a minor and passing advantage gained in a skirmish. Rest will only come when the race is run and the battle done. Then as I lie in my wilderness, cold and wet and forlorn, then will I cry out that I have sought to fight the good fight and have been true to my faith as far as I was able. I will look with anticipation to a time of fulfilment, an end to the cold and the dark and the lonely wilderness. I will look to my vision of you Lord as my King, radiating warmth and sustenance by your very presence, the blazing giver of life just as the sun is in our solar system. From the sun comes energy and light and heat. It gives life to the world and there could be no sustained life without it. It makes the world go round in every sense of that phrase. In my vision, Lord, you are that sun in Paradise. All I can ever aspire to is to be in your presence, dried and warmed, secure and confident that finally I belong to You.

Christ of my own heart,
whatever befall,
still be my vision,
O Ruler of all.

The Christ for me is he who saves, who so loved me that he gave his life to save me. He will always be in my mind, but his home will be in my heart.

I stand alone in my wilderness with the battle still raging about me. I know not how it will end. I know only that I am weary beyond measure, and that I no longer have the lightness of foot and the swiftness of sword hand, nor the enthusiasm for the fray that I had when I was young. I will of course fight on, for there is no option but to fight. But now I long for the peace that lies at the centre of my vision.

You who are the High King will decide when my fight will end. You decree all these things, for your rule is omnipotent and omni-present. Where I can see only vague shadows in the dark, and do not know what I will face around the next corner, you who are all seeing know everything. All I can ask is that, whatever happens, you will not desert me, that you will ever be my vision, my inspiration and my salvation.

And so I will still sing against the rising wind and the deepening dark. I will sing in the teeth of the hail and across the vast expanse of wilderness. I will sing through the emptiness clutching my heart and the dread encircling my mind. I will sing from my soul, not with my voice but with the voice I thought I heard so long ago, that haunting Irish voice singing unaccompanied across nearly thirteen centuries, proclaiming this most simple of prayers - Be Thou My Vision.

2002

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