For most of my adult life Be Thou My Vision has been my favorite piece of Christian music, whether traditional or contemporary. Its words were composed in the 9th century AD (CE), and slightly updated and translated since then.
Its roots are in Celtic Christianity, a movement from the British Isles that emerged in the life and work of Patrick, the Christian missionary who brought Christianity to Ireland in the middle of the first millennium. Celtic Christianity was unique in western Europe given that it combined both theology and life, intellect and affections, belief and mission. It narrates head, heart, and hands. It describes the Christian journey of faith better than any composition I know outside of Holy Scripture.
A faith for all of life
Notice the focus of the first stanza. It is on centrality of Jesus Christ in all of life. All else pales in comparison. No matter what day and time in which we find ourselves, the very presence of the Triune God is our light and life.
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.
Many years ago, I read Richard Foster’s wonderful little book Celebration of Discipline. Foster’s insights were revolutionary for me because they opened for me the affective side of Christian faith. I loved doctrine and I loved the intellect. But I discovered that doctrine and intellect without attention to our affections could be dangerous indeed. As the Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthian church, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” In Romans 6, the Apostle speaks of our “union with Christ.” In other words, Christian faith is not merely an intellectual transaction. It affects all of life and brings us into participation with the Triune life of God as his adopted daughters and sons.
A journey of faith.
All of the great writers of the spiritual life speak of Christianity as a journey, a pilgrimage of faith. From St. Patrick’s Confessions to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel, the notion of Christian faith as a pilgrimage or journey describes the Christian life. We are one with Christ and we journey toward the new heaven and new earth that John describes in Revelation 20-22.
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 Triune God is our shield and sword.
Paul speaks of “spiritual armor” in the sixth chapter of Ephesians. We are to “put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, for our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities [and] against the spiritual forces of evil” (Eph 6:10-12). Be Thou My Vision reminds us from where our shield, our sword, and our power come. Our Triune God is our shelter and high tower in times of great stress and disorientation. Our power for living comes from God’s power as the living God, the one who stands above all of heaven and earth.
Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.
Our inheritance in Christ.
Jesus tells a fascinating series of parables in Matthew’s gospel. This short little one has always struck me: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it”(Mt 13:45-46). The implication is that discovering Jesus Christ is like finding the most valuable pearl one could imagine. Knowing God is far more valuable than all of the human riches, wealth, and possessions we could possibly attain.
It may not seem that way today. How our culture celebrates celebrity and wealth. Today, celebrity is so valued that more than a few become popular simply because they can manipulate our vast electronic media and advanced technology. Budding authors are told that they must build “platform” in order to publish and sell books. Pastors of large churches are encouraged to create “platforms” through podcasts so that more can listen to them. We now have a Christian celebrity culture that values platforms and wealth over obscurity and faithfulness.
This great hymn joins with Holy Scripture in teaching the opposite. Jesus tells us in Matthew’s gospel, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Mt 6:19-21, italics added). All of us struggle here and for me, the struggle is ongoing. It’s meant to be that way, so that we can learn to follow Jesus through the struggle to put Him “first in my heart.”
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.
The joy of the new heaven and new earth.
Finally, the hymn anticipates the joy of the life to come, the culmination of God’s purposes for his entire creation. As Paul reminds us in Romans 8, the renewal of all creation is the goal of his purposes and plans for all of creation, for the earth on which we live, and for our very lives. Imagine with me a world without sin and depravity, if you can. An embodied world with embodied people who experience the same resurrection at the end of our age as Jesus did three days after he was killed. A new heaven and a new earth, a remade created order this time without the consequences of the fall of humanity recorded in Genesis 3.
I long for that world even though I have a hard time imagining it. I can’t even begin to grasp what that new heaven and earth will be like. All that I know is that the Triune God is faithful and true and that this new world will be good beyond measure.
So, I pray with the writer, “May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun” and whatever happens between now and then I commit afresh to follow the Triune God into that future.
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.
Realistically, should the Lord tarry in his return to earth, my earthly life will soon come to an end probably within the next decade or two. Hence, the one hymn that I want played at my memorial is Be Thou My Vision. My journey of faith is filled with struggles and fits and starts. Like yours. Like every follower of Jesus who has walked this earth. Journey with me toward the place that the Triune God has for us who are “in Christ.”
Be Thou My Vision was originally composed by Dallan Forgail (8th Century).