This hymn is my theme song. I have loved it for a very long time. And since May is my birthday month, I figured I’d save my favorite hymn for now. 😉
The melody is inspiring (and, as I found out later on, a traditional Irish tune to boot–which could explain why I was subconsciously drawn to it), and the text is comforting, encouraging and strengthening to the soul.
But don’t take my word for it!
Let us look at the hymn together, starting with the text, in order to analyze what makes it so beautiful.
The thing I love most about this text is that it’s a prayer. In it, the writer (and by extension, the singer) asks God to be their vision, their wisdom, their treasure, their king; to help them persevere. But, as is often the case with prayer, it also serves as a reminder to oneself of God’s power, faithfulness, wisdom and importance.
In fact, the main theme of this hymn could possibly be described in this way: Keeping God at the center. He should be our constant focus. Everything we say, think, and do should be laid subject to His rule.
The life of the Christian, though blessed, is far from easy. We are at battle every day of our lives. It may not look like it, but we are. The war we fight is against sin. Because we aren’t perfect yet, and will not be until God calls us home to heaven, that means our battles take place primarily inside our own hearts. Christ calls us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow Him. That’s no easy task for self-centered sinners.
In the midst of this struggle to keep our weak flesh and sinful nature subject to God’s will, text like “Be Thou My Vision” is a helpful and encouraging reminder of not only what that looks like, but of what awaits us at the end:
High King of heaven, the victory won,
May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall;
Still be Thou my vision, O Ruler of all.
I love that the hymn ends with this uplifting reassurance. When I breathe my last, and my battle is over, I can rest in God’s promise that He will not forsake me but will call me His daughter and welcome me into His eternal kingdom. He is my rock and my shield, the Heart of my own heart, whatever befall.
An equally comforting and strengthening truth is found in the very same verse. And that truth is this: the victory is already won. God is victor over sin and death, and there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do to change that. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t have to fight against the sin in my own heart. My defenses must remain strong, that I may not fall under its sway. But ultimately, my trust is not in my own ability or strength, but in the power of my Master to protect me.
This simple, yet profound truth in the last verse I believe is of vital importance. So when other versions of the hymn change the wording, it irks me to no end. The change is slight, yet one word can change the meaning of everything. Such is the case for this alternate (and in my opinion, errant) version. Let’s see if you notice it:
High King of heaven, Thou heaven’s bright Sun,
O grant me its joys after victory is won!
Great heart of my own heart, whatever befall;
Still be Thou my vision, O Ruler of all.
Whenever I hear this version sung, I cringe every time. By changing the order just a little, and by adding in a single word, the meaning is completely changed. When they say “O grant me its joys after victory is won,” the implication is that victory is not yet won. But wasn’t that sort of the whole point of Christ’s resurrection–that He defeated death and the grave?
Call me persnickety if you want; just know that if you ever sing or speak this version of the verse in my presence, you are hereby willingly subjecting yourself to further ranting.
Ahem. Moving on…
I have just one more word about the text before we continue to the music. There is actually a fifth verse which some versions of the hymn include, but others do not. I’m not sure why. Personally, I love the extra verse, and don’t think there’s anything doctrinally incorrect about it. Of course, I’m not an expert on these matters, so it is a high possibility that I am mistaken. Until that is proven to be the case, however, I will go ahead and include it:
Be Thou my breastplate, my sword for the fight;
Be Thou my whole armor, be Thou my true might.
Be Thou my soul’s shelter, be Thou my strong tower.
O raise Thou me heavenward, great Power of my power.
This verse is usually added in after the second verse. The reason I like it so much is because of how well it fits with the theme of perseverance and our battle against sin. Here, God is described as our armor, our shelter, and our tower. In other words, He is our defender. It also reflects Ephesians 6:13-18a.
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.
Ephesians 6 is one of my favorite passages of Scripture. I love the imagery of armor for defending yourself against sin. Also, as a side note, this passage was a chief inspiration for my fantasy novel. So I might be biased. 😉
Now, for the music!
As I mentioned at the beginning, the music comes from a traditional Irish tune. It is called “Slane,” named after the town of Slane in County Meath, Ireland. It is nestled near the River Boyne in east Ireland, just west of Newgrange. You knew I’d have to bring something up about my trip to Ireland. 😉
The first line stays relatively low and, as we will see is a common theme in the song, it includes several groups of repeated notes (marked in red below).
In this line, the repeated notes are always in groups of two, which gives a symmetrical, stable feeling to the music. Even though the groups don’t all fall on the same beat, there’s still a consistency to it. And because the song is in the key of E-flat, and the first note is an E-flat, we can say that it begins on the tonic, or the first note of the scale. This is what I have called before “the home note,” because it feels like you’re starting at home, before you leave on a trip. So there is a definite theme of constance and security here, which will continue for the rest of the song.
As is common with folk tunes, the notes move primarily by steps and the range is kept within easy reach for most voices. There aren’t any complicated leaps, or difficult-to-sing pitches. This makes the tune a perfect candidate for a hymn, because it frees the singers to focus on the text and sing praise to God, rather than concentrating on the music the whole time and trying to figure it out.
Finally, the line ends on a G. While it is still part of the tonic chord, because it isn’t the tonic note, but rather the middle note, it doesn’t give the same feeling of finality as an E-flat would. One can sense, then, that the idea is not quite over yet.
At the beginning of the second line, the theme of repetition reappears. See? I promised it would come back.
This time, rather than continuing the groups of two repeated notes like the first line, a single note (F) is repeated four times in a row. This almost monotonous recurrence supports the aforementioned qualities of constance and stability, which in turn complement the theme in the text of perseverance and the Lord’s steadfastness.
Immediately after the repetition, the melody climbs a little higher with each note until it reaches its peak in the second to last measure. Then it descends again just a little, before settling on the last note, a B-flat. You might have noticed that it is a little higher than the last note of the previous line. In that way, the second line builds on the first, like the second step of a staircase, leading us higher. It is also the dominant note of the song, which, if you’ve read any of my previous hymn analyses, you’ll know is just as important as the tonic, because it creates a “pull” or tension on the ears, so you want to hear the tonic again. You want resolution, just like you want it after conflict in a good story.
But that resolution is denied to us in the next line, keeping us in suspense, like a cliff-hanger:
Instead, the next step in the staircase is added, and we climb even higher than before. The third line has almost no repetition (besides the first two notes), in stark contrast to the other lines. In addition to being the climax of the song, the third line serves as a strong support for the declaration of truth present in each verse (surprisingly well too, considering it wasn’t originally written for the text).
This line is the handhold we grasp on to. It is the end of the staircase, where, after the effort of climbing, we finally step out onto the top of a great tower and behold the splendor of the sky. It is the moment of fresh relief, that makes everything else worth the struggle.
Interestingly, this tune differs in one way from the common hymn formula. In most hymn melodies, the third line ends on the highest note of the entire song, making that the moment of peak climax. Instead, the third line here begins with the climax, flying high with praise and confidence; then it slowly drifts down into peaceful reassurance, upon the lowest note of the song.
At the beginning of the final line, the notes rise again, just for a moment, before they settle at last on the resolution we’ve been yearning for: the tonic, E-flat. And, just to make sure you get your fill of resolution, the tonic note is repeated three times in a row at the end, so there’s no mistaking it.
Thus the song comes full circle: both in a return of the tonic and in a return of the theme of repetition.
Furthermore, when the last verse ends with its supplication: “Still be Thou my vision, O Ruler of all,” which is quite similar to the first line of text (“Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my hear’t), the return home is felt even more. The entire text has come to rest on the same idea with which it began.
And that is, after all, the aim of all God’s children: we must set our eyes on our Lord and Master. He is our vision, the source of all wisdom, strength and power. It is only when our eyes are turned away from the temporary, fleeting joys of this world that true joy is found.
One final note about the text. “Be Thou My Vision” was originally written in Old Irish, and only later translated into English by Mary Byrne in 1905. Since then, the song has been translated into modern Irish, the most well known probably by Aodh Ó Dúgain. As a special treat, I thought I’d include this version as well. I’ve only ever seen two verses, so I don’t know if there’s more. This will do for now:
Bí Thusa mo shúile a Rí mhór na ndúil
Líon thusa mo bheatha mo chéadfaí ’s mo stuaim
Bí thusa i m’aigne gach oíche ’s gach lá
Im chodladh no im dhúiseacht, líon mé le do ghrá.
Bí thusa mo threorú i mbriathar ’s i mbeart
Fan thusa go deo liom is coinnigh mé ceart
Glac cúram mar Athair, is éist le mo ghuí
Is tabhair domsa áit cónaí istigh i do chroí.
In case you’re interested, I’ll translate it to the best of my abilities, because it’s not exactly the same as the English version:
Be Thou my vision o great King of creation.
Fill Thou my life, my senses and my self control.
Be Thou in my mind each night and each day.
In sleep or in waking, fill me with Your love.
Be Thou my guidance in word and in deed.
Stay Thou forever with me and keep me right.
Take care as a Father, and listen to my prayer.
And grant to me a place to live inside Your heart.
I read that Aodh Ó Dúgain is actually the grandfather of Enya and Moya Brennan. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but as it so happens, Moya does sing this version on her album “Whisper to the Wild Water,” and it is so peaceful and beautiful I just had to share it.
Farewell for now! May this hymn give you strength, encouragement, comfort and hope; and may all God’s children persevere to the end and trust in His care.