This beloved hymn in its current form set to the familiar tune is just over a hundred years old, but it is a translation of a 6th century Irish poem composed by Saint Dallan Forgaill. St. Dallan was descended from of a legendary high king of Tara, was born around A.D. 530, and became a monk and a famed teacher. His name means “little blind one,” as Dallan had reportedly gone blind after years of study. He was martyred for the faith in A.D. 598 when pirate raiders broke into his cell and beheaded him. His feast day is January 29th.
His poem was written in old Irish and it was preserved in that form in monastic tradition for centuries before being translated into English. Like many Celtic poems, it reflects lovingly upon a powerful, majestic, and kingly image of Christ, employing terms of battle, like armor and shields and strong towers, as spiritual metaphors. It speaks of treasure, and it holds wisdom in highest esteem. It reflects the manly monasticism of the Irish tradition of St. Patrick, as the men, who would have been warlords, became instead monks, and formed a human sanctuary and a living library of Western learning and Catholic culture. It was just such men who brought Europe back from near extinction in the darkest of ages.
Our blind monk, St. Dallan, was reflecting upon Christ as “his vision,” and referred to the Lord as the High King of the seven heavens. The hymn both honors the Christ as well as expresses a longing for heaven. Found in our St. Michael Hymnal (#452), “Be Thou My Vision” is set to the classic melody “Slane” which is thought to date from the 8th century. The melody is named for the hill of Slane in County Meath where St. Patrick is said to have lit his Easter Fire and preached the Gospel in the year 433. This was a provocative act of defiance against the high king on the hill of Tara only ten miles away, who had ordered no other fire should burn that night save for his druidic bonfire. This legendary event sets into motion the conversion of the Irish, whose vigorous race would soon submit to the most powerful King, Christ.
From time to time, we try to highlight some kernel of Catholic culture on this website, an icon, a prayer, or in this case a hymn. This is just a random highlighted hymn from our hymnal (which is a treasure chest of our tradition). Each chant and hymn has a story. So this week, we invite everyone to reflect upon this classic hymn as a part of our prayer. Let us ask ourselves, upon reflection, what is our vision of Christ? Is He the best thought of our day? Are we conscious of His dwelling within us? Is He our treasure? Do we long for His wisdom, and do we pray to be with Him forever? If not, perhaps we should look back to blind St. Dallan, whose vision of Christ can inspire us to think upon the Lord’s presence in our waking and sleeping, and say to Him every day of our lives, “High King of Heaven, my treasure Thou art!”