Heart of My Own Heart

Why I Love ‘Be Thou My Vision’

If you were to ask me to name my favorite hymn, I’d probably hem and haw, then list a bunch of favorites, and end up saying, “It depends.” I mean, how do you choose a single favorite hymn? But if you were to ask me what hymn I sing most often when I’m alone with God, that would be easy: “Be Thou My Vision.” If that makes it my favorite, so be it.

For me, it’s become a love song, kind of like the familiar phrases I default to when telling my wife how much I love her, which over time have become infused with great depths of emotional meaning. The verses of this hymn give voice to my intimate delight in and longing for the Lover of my soul. When I sing it in private, just me and my piano, it’s rare when I can sing it without tears.

Typically, when a song touches me deeply, I’m curious to know more about who wrote it and why. I guess it’s easier to take hymns somewhat for granted. I’ve loved “Be Thou My Vision” for decades, but I never thought to look up its backstory until recently.

I discovered that this hymn’s origin is veiled in the misty past of ancient Ireland. We do know that the hymn’s progenitor is a poem that’s more than a millennium old, composed in Old Gaelic and consisting of sixteen couplets. Irish tradition claims its author was a beloved sixth-century Celtic poet named St. Dallán Forgaill, but scholars have linguistic reasons to doubt this claim. All we know is that the writer certainly was a poet and sure seems to have been a saint.

Thank God for Scholars and Editors

My search wasn’t in vain, because it revealed people God used to turn that ancient poem into the precious song we have today. Thank God for Mary Byrne (1880–1931), who dragged the poem out of academic obscurity by translating the ancient Gaelic into English. And thank God for Eleanor Hull (1860–1935), who chose twelve of the sixteen couplets from Byrne’s literal translation, and then skillfully crafted them into rhymes.

And thank God for the editors of the Irish Church Hymnal, who selected ten of Hull’s couplets, combined them into five four-line verses, and then, with a stroke of inspired genius, paired those deeply moving verses with an achingly beautiful Irish folk tune they named “Slane” (in honor of St. Patrick’s famous Easter festival fire on Slane Hill, which he burned in defiance of a pagan Irish king).

The hymn was first published in the 1919 edition of that Irish hymnal, and the rest, as they say, is history. “Be Thou My Vision” soon appeared in hymnals around the world, many of which trimmed it down to the four verses most of us know and love today.

Why do so many, like me, love this hymn so much? Because it gives poetic voice to our deep love and longing for the triune God, who is the Light of our lives (John 8:12), our ever-present, indwelling Word of life (1 John 1:1), the great Treasure of our hearts (Luke 12:34), and soon the Heaven of heaven for us forever (Psalm 73:25–26).

Thy Presence My Light

If the ancient author ever titled the poem, that too has been lost to the mists of time. For centuries it was known simply as “A Prayer.” But it’s hard to imagine a better title than the poem’s first four words, “Be thou my vision,” which in Old Gaelic read, “Rop tú mo bhoile.”

Verse 1, in my view, begins just where it should: a prayer for God to enlighten the eyes of our hearts that we may be filled with his hope (Ephesians 1:18). Listen to how beautifully the lyrics convey the biblical metaphor of light as understanding:

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.

Implicitly woven into this verse are the New Testament references of Jesus as “the light of the world” and “the light of life” (John 8:12). But the words also carry an echo of one of my favorite verses from the Psalms:

With you is the fountain of life;
     in your light do we see light. (Psalm 36:9)

Everyone who has known deep darkness of any kind — the darkness of sin or grief or pain or depression or loneliness or spiritual oppression — and has seen, however dimly, the Light of life shining in their darkness, understands how meaningful this verse can be. It resonates with the hope that this light will not ultimately be overcome by our darkness.

Be thou my vision, O Lord, for you are the light of my life.

Thou My True Word

The prayer of verse 2 builds on the prayer of verse 1, asking that God would fill us with the riches of his wisdom and knowledge (Romans 11:33):

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.

Notice how simply this verse expresses the profound and mysterious New Testament teaching that requires pages to unpack in prose: that Christian wisdom comes from the Father and Son (our true Word) dwelling inside us through the Holy Spirit (John 14:23, 26), a gift we receive through our adoption as sons (Ephesians 1:5). The wisdom we’re praying for here is clearly not “a wisdom of this age,” but a wisdom that can only be “spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:6, 14).

Be thou my wisdom, O Lord, for you are the ultimate Truth.

My Treasure Thou Art

Now we come to my favorite verse of this great hymn, the one most likely to prompt tears:

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.

Verse 3 is my favorite — not because the other verses are less true or less hope-giving or less precious, but because Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34). Our treasure is whatever we love and long for most — what most satisfies, enthralls, and therefore captivates our hearts. And in this fallen age, where even our best love for our great Treasure is defective and lacking, our love is almost always accompanied by a desire to love him more perfectly, more completely. Hence, my tears, a sweet, melancholic mixture of love and longing.

So, I love this verse, the heart of the hymn, the Love Song within the love song. Because God, as the next verse will say, is the Heart of our hearts — the Treasure that makes his light beautiful, his wisdom desirable, and his heaven so heavenly.

Be thou my Treasure, O Lord, first in my heart now and always.

O Bright Heaven’s Sun

Verse 4 ends the hymn just where it should: with the great “blessed hope” of the Christian life (Titus 2:13), when “we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).

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.

If our heart is always with our treasure, and if God is our Treasure, then the Heaven of heaven will be the Heart of our heart. And the Sun of heaven will enable us to see more light than we’ve ever seen, “for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23). And so it will be, always and forever. To which we say, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).

What a priceless gift, this hymn. Thank you, Lord, for that ancient Celtic poet whose God-entranced heart overflowed so eloquently through his quill. And thank you for those throughout history whose collective labors have made this great song of love and longing available to us. And thank you for the gifted Celtic folk musicians whose sweet, haunting melody makes it so wonderful to sing.

But most of all, thank you, Lord, for being the Light of our lives, our ever-present, indwelling Word of life, the great Treasure of our hearts, and someday the Heaven of heaven.

Yes, O Lord, be thou our vision, now in this darkened age, and soon — may it be soon! — in unveiled, eternal glory with unclouded eyes.