I often cringe when people gush about their enthusiasm for everything “Celtic.” Partly this is because such an attitude romanticizes one particular European culture as “mystical” and “magical” instead of acknowledging that mystery and magic are the rightful heritage of all cultures. (I am myself of Shetlandic heritage on my father’s side, and many people assume that I’m thereby “Celtic,” when in fact Shetlandic culture is primarily Scandinavian.) Partly because I am denying my own deep fascination with Celtic culture out of a desire to be seen as a sophisticated critical thinker. And partly because, in fact, a lot of what is put forward as “Celtic” really isn’t, but is postmodern Western pop spirituality with a vaguely Celtic veneer
The hymn “Be Thou My Vision” is suspiciously popular–in the graduate InterVarsity group I participated in at Duke in the late 90s and early 2000s, it sometimes seemed as if it was the only traditional hymn we ever sang. So while its soaring melody and evocative language work their magic on me as on everyone else, the cynical part of me is muttering, “But isn’t this just a piece of Victorian pseudo-Celtica?”
It turns out, in fact, that it isn’t. “Be Thou My Vision” is a genuine Old Irish hymn translated by Mary E. Byrne in 1905 and versified by Eleanor Hull in 1912. From a comparison of Byrne’s and Hull’s versions, available on Wikipedia, it seems that Hull managed to stick pretty closely to Byrne’s text. And from what I can gather, Byrne’s version seems pretty faithful to the Old Irish original, allegedly written by the sixth-century monk and bard St. Dallan Forgaill. The opening line of the Irish, for instance, “Rop tu mo baile, a Choimdiu cride,” really does correspond almost exactly to “Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.” The Irish text really does refer to God as “Airdri,” or “High King.” In short, when we sing this hymn we really are coming about as close as we can reasonably expect in English to the heart of ancient Irish Christianity.
So what? What does this get us? Does it explain the popularity of this song across so many aesthetic and theological boundaries? I think one reason for the hymn’s enduring success is its combination of qualities that we often think of as mutually opposed: intimacy and majesty. God is the “High King of heaven,” and, in Byrne’s more literal translation of the first stanza, the “King of the seven heavens.” And yet, even in Byrne’s more matter-of-fact version, the language is also warmly personal: “Be thou my father, be I thy son. Mayst thou be mine, may I be thine.” This union of awe with intimate love is characteristic of medieval spirituality in general, but Hull has managed to give it to us in a highly accessible and perennially appealing form: “High King of Heaven, my treasure thou art.”
The opening phrase itself often slides by us due to its familiarity: “Be Thou My Vision.” What does it mean? I came to this project with the idea that it might reflect the Augustinian theology of “illumination,” according to which God is the light by which we see everything else. And that meaning may be there somewhere. St. Dallan, the alleged author, supposedly lost his sight from studying too hard, which would give that metaphor particular meaning for him. But the Irish word “baile” doesn’t seem to mean primarily “vision” in the sense of “power to see.”
Actually there are two Old Irish words spelled “baile.” One of them means “home” or “city” and is the root of all those Irish place names beginning “Bally.” But the translators seem pretty sure that this is the second word, which means “vision”–the kind of vision that the people perish for lack of, the kind of vision that Isaiah saw in the Temple when his lips were burned with a hot coal–or even“frenzy”: the kind of prophetic madness that came on people in the Old Testament when they danced all night and fell down naked. That is, perhaps, why the second line reads “nought be all else to me, save that thou art,” or, in the more literal version, “nothing is anything except the King of the Seven Heavens.” This can be read in a metaphysical sense–only God is really real. But perhaps Hull’s more personal rendering matches the original sense of “baile”–a vision so consuming that it leaves room for nothing else.
St. Dallan, according to the stories about him, held the position of chief bard of Ireland, which was a position of great social and economic privilege, traditionally equal in honor to that of the High King. He combined pre-Christian Irish poetic traditions with the Latin learning that had come with Christianity. He allegedly reformed the order of bards while, with the help of St. Columba, fighting off an attempt by the High King to get rid of them altogether. Yet St. Dallan was also a monk, venerated as a martyr after he was beheaded and thrown into the sea by pirates (allegedly God miraculously reattached his head to his body). If he is the one who wrote “I seek not men nor lifeless wealth” (“Riches I need not, nor men’s empty praise”), he knew what he was talking about. As one of the lines not versified by Hull has it, “our corrupt desires are dead at the sight of thee.” Or as Karl Barth would put it, there is no escape from the path of death revealed in Jesus.
So when we sing “Be Thou My Vision,” if we mean by “vision” what the Old Irish poet probably meant, we are asking God to drive us crazy. We are asking God to be our dream and our inspiration, yes, as this excellent blog post puts it. But we have a faint, watered-down, respectable idea of what that looks like. We dream, like Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, of an escape from this provincial life, and we plug God into our daydreams and call it piety. But I’ve known people who were so consumed by the vision of God that it seemed nothing else existed. And it wasn’t a pretty sight. I’ve seen the vision of God–or what seemed to be the vision of God–drive people crazy. And I know I’m not the only one.
And so we shrink away from that kind of “vision.” Some of us take refuge in beautiful liturgy, in complex intellectual constructs, in historical analysis. Some of us take refuge in contemporary worship, and some of us take refuge in musical snobbery. Some of us produce a cutesy facsimile of the fierce piety of our ancestors in the faith and call it “Celtic spirituality.” And some of us use our contempt for such shallow “spirituality” as a way of hiding from the powerful truths hidden there. As my mother-in-law Marilyn Woodruff used to say, “we are good at finding ways of hiding from the holy.”
But all the while, in our most cliched language, the reality we are trying to hide from is boiling away under the surface. We ask God to be our vision, and he just might take us up on it.
Edwin Woodruff Tait, Ph.D., is a freelance writer, farmer, and consulting editor for Christian History magazine. He lives in Richmond, Kentucky.