Back in September 2020, Be Thou My Vision was our praise of the week. We read how St Patrick came to be in Ireland, first as a slave and then as a missionary, opposing druids and their pagan ways of human sacrifice. We read of a poem – thought to have been from the 8th Century, but possibly earlier – in honour of Patrick. It was translated into English (in 1905) and set to music (in 1912), the music being the medieval Irish melody ‘Slane.’
Now we have the space to dig deeper; to see the significance of the choice of music for the verses that honour Patrick.
The story of Patrick’s battle against the druids records that each year the pagan Irish king led a ceremony to honour and appease the sun god. This Beltane ceremony involved the king lighting a fire on the Hill of Tara as part of the Feast of Tara, during which, the only permitted flame was the king’s fire.
But there was another hill ten miles away and slightly taller. You can see one hill from the top of the other. Beltane was during the Spring Equinox and in AD433 it coincided with Easter. When he landed in Ireland as a missionary, Patrick made straight for this other hill where he lit a ‘paschal flame’ – a sacred fire representing the light of the risen Lord defeating the darkness of death.
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5: 16)
Patrick was making the statement that the light of Jesus had come to the land. The king was outraged that someone had lit a fire before his own one, but Patrick’s fire remained for all to see. Patrick was brought before the king and whilst the druidic priests argued and fought, the king listened. Impressed by Patrick, he allowed him to remain and his missionary work to continue. Then, as now, that other hill was called the ‘Hill of Slane.’
The composer of the melody is unknown, but they called it Slane. How appropriate that this was the melody that was allied with the poem written in honour of Patrick.
Be Thou My Vision rests heavily on the concepts of Jesus’ power. It is a classic ‘lorica’ prayer or hymn, talking of the Lord as ‘battle shield” and “high tower.” Of course, this harks back to themes found in Psalms and written about by Paul:
For you have been my refuge,
a strong tower against the foe. (Psalm 61: 3)
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Ephesians 6:10-11)
Both words and tune languished for over a thousand years, but they were rediscovered, restored and now refresh us to this day. Celtic Christianity can be like that to us, so long as it is a way-point to God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), the One who created us, the One who loves us to death (and beyond) and the One who blesses us with wisdom (true heart knowledge of His holiness).
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.
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.
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.
Riches I heed not, nor vain, empty praise,
Thou mine inheritance, now and always:
Thou and thou only first in my heart,
High King of heaven, my treasure thou art.
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.
[from Timothy Pitt]