Saturday, April 15, 2006

Be Thou My Vision

Ever since I was old enough to sing hymns, one of my favorites has been Be Thou My Vision:

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.

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.

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.

I first encountered this haunting hymn in the early 1960's in a United Presbyterian Church in the USA congregation in Northern Virginia. We used the "green" hymnal (The Hymnal, 1933). When I moved to Colorado in the early 1970's the congregation I joined was using The Worshipbook (1970, 1972). In subsequent congregations I sang from the Hymnbook (1955). All three of these hymnals used the same four verses with no changes.

Not so with The Prebyterian Hymnal (1990) -- The four familiar verses were whittled down to three, and the middle verse (number three above) was changed in two places to use gender-neutral language. The last verse consisted of the first two lines of the traditional verse two and the last two lines of the traditional verse four.

I like most of the hymns in the 1990 hymnal. Where it does best is in the inclusion of new hymns, but I have to say that altering existing hymns rarely results in an improvement.

Hymns are poetry, and "retrofitting" poetry to conform to modern requirements is difficult at best (if the flow of the words is to be preserved). But more importantly, these hymns were a labor of love. I think it would be better to leave them out entirely rather than change them to fit the current ideas of what is correct. There are a number of people who can write new hymns that are every bit as meaningful as the hymns of previous centuries.

Be Thou My Vision has a symmetry about it in its traditional form, and it is rooted in Irish history and culture. By removing references to the High King, the only obvious reference to Ireland is on the upper left side of the page where it is identified as coming from an ancient Irish poem.

A favorite resource I have is The Cyber Hymnal, which has many hundreds of hymns, presented with all the verses that are known. It turns out that Be Thou My Vision has five verses. The following is placed between verses two and three of the traditional verses:
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.
One piece of interesting history is that the hymn tune, Slane, refers to Slane Hill -- about 10 miles from Tara, where the High King, Logaire, ruled during the time of Patrick. On Easter Eve of 433 A.D. Patrick defied the High King by lighting candles on Slane Hill.


Quotidian Grace said...

This is my husband's favorite hymn. You're so right about the problems with the "new" hymnal removing some of the verses to older hymns. I just hate that. I also miss some excluded hymns like Onward Christian Soldiers and Stand Up for Jesus which were left out in a fit of political correctness.

I do love some of the new hymns like Here I Am Lord--so I'm not a total trogdolyte!

Denis Hancock said...

Thanks QG --

When new hymns are written, the authors can be just as skilled with their words as Charles Wesley, Russell Lowell, and Fanny Crosby.

I personally miss Once to Every Man and Nation, but it's not surprising that it didn't make the cut...