Hymn Exploration: 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.

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 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.

“Be Thou My Vision” is one of my favorite hymns. This beautiful song has an incredibly long history. The first Irish text “Rop tú mo Baile” is usually attributed to a 6th Century Christian Irish Poet, Dallán Forgaill, but some scholars believe that it was inspired by the writings of Saint Patrick.

Yes, that Saint Patrick.

Yep. Nothing to do with leprechauns and pots of gold, by the way.

Even the folk tune that is used, commonly known as Slane, might be significant and linked back to Saint Patrick. It was on Slane Hill in the year 433 AD that Saint Patrick defied the High King of Ireland and set Christianity in direct opposition to Celtic polytheism. The line “High King of Heaven” may be a reflection of how early Irish Christians often referred to God as their clan leader and protector.

But as with all things 1000+ years old that are not terribly well-documented, there are no guarantees that Saint Patrick was the inspiration. Nor that Dallán Forgaill was really the author of the original. All we do know for sure is that this is a really old text that was used as a special hymn-prayer for protection, called a “lorica.”

The Old Irish version:

Rop tú mo baile, a Choimdiu cride:
ní ní nech aile achtsecht nime.

Rop tú mo scrútain i l-ló ‘s i naidche;
rop tú ad-chëar im chotlud caidche.

Rop tú mo labra, rop tú mo thuicsiu;
rop tussu dam-sa, rob misse duitsiu.

Rop tussu m’athair, rob mé do mac-su;
rop tussu lem-sa, rob misse lat-su.

Rop tú mo chathscíath, rop tú mo chlaideb;
rop tussu m’ordan, rop tussu m’airer.

Rop tú mo dítiu, rop tú mo daingen;
rop tú nom-thocba i n-áentaid n-aingel.

Rop tú cech maithius dom churp, dom anmain;
rop tú mo flaithius i n-nim ‘s i talmain.

Rop tussu t’ áenur sainserc mo chride;
ní rop nech aile acht Airdrí nime.

Co talla forum, ré n-dul it láma,
mo chuit, mo chotlud, ar méit do gráda.

Rop tussu t’ áenur m’ urrann úais amra:
ní chuinngim daíne ná maíne marba.

Rop amlaid dínsiur cech sel, cech sáegul,
mar marb oc brénad, ar t’ fégad t’ áenur.

Do serc im anmain, do grád im chride,
tabair dam amlaid, a Rí secht nime.

Tabair dam amlaid, a Rí secht nime,
do serc im anmain, do grád im chride.

Go Ríg na nuile rís íar m-búaid léire;
ro béo i flaith nime i ngile gréine

A Athair inmain, cluinte mo núall-sa:
mithig (mo-núarán!) lasin trúagán trúag-sa.

A Chríst mo chride, cip ed dom-aire,
a Flaith na nuile, rop tú mo baile.

No, I do not expect you to understand that. My spellcheck went berserk.

I was absolutely thrilled to find that someone had recorded the song and made it available on Youtube in Old Irish:

“Rop tú mo Baile” was written down and translated as it passed down through the ages. It has been translated into modern Irish many times, but the most popular translation is by Aodh Ó Dúgain. His granddaughter Moya Brennan, recorded two stanzas of his translation, which was the first time it had ever been publicly recorded (from what I can tell, 1999).

Bí Thusa ’mo shúile a Rí mhór na ndúil
Líon thusa mo bheatha mo chéadfaí ’s mo stuaim
thusa i m’aigne gach oíche ’s gach
Im chodladh no im dhúiseacht, líon mé le do ghrá.

thusa ’mo threorú i mbriathar ’s i mbeart
Fan thusa go deo liom is coinnighceart
Glac cúram mar Athair, is éist le mo ghuí
Is tabhair domsa áit cónaí istigh i do chroí.

This stunning video is Moya Brennan’s voice with some awesome images put in by the video creator:

The Old Irish text was first translated into English in 1905 by Mary Byrne and it looked like this:

Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart
None other is aught but the King of the seven heavens.

Be thou my meditation by day and night.
May it be thou that I behold even in my sleep.

Be thou my speech, be thou my understanding.
Be thou with me, be I with thee.

Be thou my father, be I thy son.
Mayst thou be mine, may I be thine.

Be thou my battle-shield, be thou my sword.
Be thou my dignity, be thou my delight.

Be thou my shelter, be thou my stronghold.
Mayst thou raise me up to the company of the angels.

Be thou every good to my body and soul.
Be thou my kingdom in heaven and on earth.

Be thou solely chief love of my heart.
Let there be none other, O high King of Heaven.

Till I am able to pass into thy hands,
My treasure, my beloved through the greatness of thy love.

Be thou alone my noble and wondrous estate.
I seek not men nor lifeless wealth.

Be thou the constant guardian of every possession and every life.
For our corrupt desires are dead at the mere sight of thee.

Thy love in my soul and in my heart —
Grant this to me, O King of the seven heavens.

O King of the seven heavens grant me this —
Thy love to be in my heart and in my soul.

With the King of all, with him after victory won by piety,
May I be in the kingdom of heaven O brightness of the son.

Beloved Father, hear, hear my lamentations.
Timely is the cry of woe of this miserable wretch.

O heart of my heart, whatever befall me,
O ruler of all, be thou my vision.

Well, we English-speakers could understand it now, but it’s not exactly singable to “Slane.” But then in 1912, Eleanor Hull, then president of the Irish Literary Society, modified it into the English version we sing today. Except most seem to skip over the 3rd verse, which is a shame because that’s where it really shows its “lorica” roots. See, “lorica” is a Latin word meaning “armor” or “breastplate.” And the 3rd verse says:

Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;

The prayer for protection. I am not sure why the 3rd verse is usually omitted, but it seems to be a clear reference to the Armor of God in Ephesians 6:

Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

The second part of that verse says:

Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

Which reminds me of Proverbs 18:10.

The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.

If my vote counts, I vote to keep the 3rd verse in!

I found this video with lyrics sung by Robin Mark, that does include the 3rd verse. Enjoy!

I really enjoyed learning the history of this beloved Irish hymn! Let me know down in the comments if you did, too!


Author: pileofpates

6 thoughts on “Hymn Exploration: Be Thou My Vision

  1. I recently read the history of this favorite ancient hymn, in preparation for singing it at church yesterday, with all five verses, and using an accompaniment very close to the one used by Robin Mark at the end of your article. When I shared the less familiar 3rd verse with my sister, she was appalled at the reference to sword and shield, but it prompted me to share numerous scripture references and hymns that clearly indicate the spiritual battle in which we are called to fight, as soldiers of the cross. May we all oppose darkness and unbelief with the boldness of St. Patrick, by God’s grace!

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