I WAS RAISED IN A FAMILY for whom our Baptist church was very much an extension of our home. While that church was—as I might now parse such matters—a particularly cranky Baptist church, it offered nonetheless a loving community to those within it. More importantly, that community offered me a first taste of what I would later call the surrounding love of God.
We sang many hymns together. For the most part, our hymns served collectively to frame what would prove to be the centerpiece of our Sunday services: the sermon that—I now recognize—replaced centuries-old liturgical worship with something akin to a classroom whose lessons were punctuated by a soundtrack.
The hymns employed within that frame, by and large, fell into two categories: preparation for the sermon and altar call. Most were sentimental and didactic, speaking to the choir—as it were—while pretending to speak to God. That is also how most of our public prayer worked—with the pastor overtly addressing God while more pointedly admonishing the flock.
In any case, one hymn stood profoundly apart from the others, as it seemed to me more like prayer than any other utterance we made; it was, moreover, a prayer that I found myself praying as I sang the words. That hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” therefore has always moved me.
I’ve sung its verses, as I say, since I was a very small child in that very cranky church. In writing this, and thinking back to those days, I’m fairly certain that over those many years I have never managed to sing the hymn in its entirety without at some point choking up and falling silent, even as other congregants carried on around me. That is to say that in the course of nearly sixty years, I doubt that I have ever managed to give full voice to the concluding gesture, Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, still be my vision, O Ruler of all.
Even so, so far as I recall, I have never failed silently to shape those words with my lips while—for all my hope of vision—nearly blinded.
The text comes to us from a sixth-century Irish poem that most of us know in its 1912 English translation by the writer Eleanor Hull; since 1919, Christians have most often sung that poem to the melody of a similarly fetching Irish folk tune.
Something of that hymn’s shape—its words and its melody—cuts me deeply. It always has. I’m thinking that this is because the hymn is both a song of genuine worship and an exceedingly earnest prayer.
Over the past fifteen years or so, my annual pilgrimage to worship and pray among the saintly monks of Agion Oros—otherwise known as the Holy Mountain of Mount Athos in Greece—has led to my digging more deeply into the foundational practice and language of the early Christian faith. Specifically, certain Greek words have proven useful to my lately developing a more efficacious sense of what we have come to call theology, or God-talk. Chief among those words is θεωρία (theoría), which is to say “contemplation,” or, more to the point of the moment, “vision.”
The Eastern Orthodox Church might be called a little stingy in its acknowledging of anyone as a theologian. Strictly speaking, our church recognizes but three—just three saints whose names include that epithet. They are Saint John the Theologian (also called John the Evangelist), Saint Gregory the Theologian (also called Gregory of Nazianzus, and one of the Cappadocian Fathers), and Saint Symeon the New Theologian. As it happens, each of these men wrote their theologies in poetry, highlighting to some degree the rabbinic understanding that true theology is always parabolic, as the One of whom we speak extends beyond comprehension, irreducible.
In more recent centuries, recognizing the compelling observation of the fourth-century father Evagrios Pontikos, the term theologian has been more generously applied to several dozen others over the centuries; in his Treatise on Prayer, Evagrios writes: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly; if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”
Judging from my own experience, one doesn’t travel very far in any chosen religious practice without discovering along the way a good bit of paradox to be parsed. One doesn’t proceed, I daresay, without often suspecting that one’s own disposition may be influencing—even altering—one’s perceptions of what is so, one’s perceptions of the Holy One Who Is, the Holy One we seek. When puzzling over the mystery of our being, one finds plenty of room for interpretive error, even if it is well-intentioned error.
One of the discoveries that led me finally to embrace the eastern church was its disposition toward biblical scripture. The church of my youth approached the scriptures as if they were both knowable and reducible to proposition; each verse was approached as a fixed utterance, dictated, word by word, by God to certain men; the scriptures were understood to be God’s words precisely, and they were understood to be the revelation, as such. On the other hand, Orthodoxy observes that what God revealed to these men was but a glimpse of himself, and that those men thereafter employed their own words to offer up what might be better understood as a witness to the revelation. That is to say, these writers beheld a mystical vision, and sought to share it by whatever means they could muster.
What we make of their textual witness is, of course, another matter.
One must appreciate that in any act of reading the reader is caught in a swirling confluence of what she beholds and who she is, beholding; the reader is ever and unremittingly obliged to bring himself to the mix. All of this brings us to the troubling question along the way: am I seeing something of what is there, or am I projecting my own image upon the text, the scene, the phenomena before me?
In such a circumstance, “Be Thou My Vision” appears as a most efficacious prayer. May it be blessed.
Scott Cairns is Curators’ Distinguished Professor of English at University of Missouri and directs the Seattle Pacific University low-residency MFA program in creative writing. His ninth poetry collection, Anaphora, is forthcoming from Paraclete in 2019.
This essay and the eight that accompany it in our issue will appear as part of Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns and Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey Johnson and forthcoming this fall from Orison Books.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.