I was fortunate enough to be present at two Golden Wedding Anniversary blessings this weekend, which might have been inspiring enough. Then, the second of the blessing masses, on Sunday, included "Be Thou My Vision"; quite definitely my favourite of all hymns. It's often sung as a funereal hymn, but it's gentle affirmations also lend it well to weddings and other celebrations. It's long been on my own wedding and funeral play lists: the former is now looking less likely than the latter!
The melody and particularly some of the words have been running round my head since Sunday mass. Having arrived home at Brighton station today I heard a busker singing it in Trafalgar Street. He had a pleasant voice and could certainly carry the tune. I waited for him to finish - he knew ALL the verses - so that I could tell him it was my favourite hymn. Before I could do so, a very well-heeled lady lent forward with a £10 note and sheepishly asked if he had any change. He clearly didn't have as much as she needed to take back, so she then tried to push the note into his hand anyway. I was amazed when he pressed the note back at her and said "Don't worry darlin', I've got enough for today. Have a good evening." Ironically, the lines that had been running round my head all day are: "Riches I heed not nor man's empty praise: Thou mine inheritance, now and always..."
I did wonder how many of those who stopped under the railway arches to listen to this forty-something, tangle-haired man, with his Alsatian and two remaining cans of Guinness, know the background to this very old Celtic hymn. It's generally attributed to Saint Dallan Forgaill, or Forchella, who died in 598. He was an early Christian Irish poet, and the hymn was originally a poem written in Irish Gaelic, called "Rop Tu Mo Baile." Ironically, the author of "Be Thou My Vision" was nicknamed "The little blind one" when he lost his sight, apparently due to intense study.
There have been many translations from the original Irish, but probably the most enduring and widely known within the Catholic Church is the most beautiful and the most stirringly simple, translated by journalist and Old Irish scholar Eleanor Hull in 1912:
"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, 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 breastplate, 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 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 love Alison Krauss' version of this hymn for it's purity, as I love Alison's bluegrass voice; but Terry's version this afternoon was, literally, priceless.
"Be Thou My Vision" sung by Alison Krauss
Trafalgar Street, Brighton