Friday, March 23, 2007

Lent: Language

Last night at our Christian Union meeting, we sang a favourite hymn of mine: Be Thou My Vision. Setting aside the discussion of whether 3/4 or 4/4 timing is superior, I was reminded of when I last sang it in church. I was sitting next to a German family, who have lived in the UK for quite a long time. After the hymn was over, I couldn't help asking Karl how he coped with the language, given it was both archiac and complex.

'Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
be all else but naught to me, save that thou art;'

or consider the word order in:

'O raise thou me heavenward, great Power of my power'

He was impressively relaxed about it, and said he was familiar with the older forms of English found in liturgy and hymns. I suspect the native English speakers in the congregation may not all have coped quite so well. I wonder if it's possible to do a modern English rendition that has the same poetic power. Might ask the missus if she can rise to the challenge.

It's an interesting thing to reflect on, though. How much of our own personal faith do we express in words and symbols that are very familiar to us, but we don't really understand. I'm going to go back to 'Be Thou my vision' and read it carefully, thinking through the great things it expresses, and I may just learn something new.


Steve McMahon said...

You might consider reading David Adam's book "The Eye of the Eagle" which is a set of meditations on that very hymn.

Mike Peatman said...

Thanks. I know some of David Adam's stuff, but when I read other people's meditations I always have an egotistical urge to write my own, and then never get round to it!

PS Debbie spent a year on Holy Island pre-David Adam, but I remember him speaking very well at a Cranmer Chapel service.

Anonymous said...

I have that book. I do remember a friend of mine telling me at Uni that I shouldn't read books based on hymns but should rather stick to books on the Bible like commentaries and things like that.

I think that all that is needed to understand 'Be Thou My Vision' is a basic level of literacy! I might take an argument for putting the Book of Common Prayer in modern language though.

By the way, 3/4 is the only proper time signature. People erroneously refer to the 4/4 version as the "celtic" version which really gets my goat. It is far more celtic style in 3/4.

I think we risk over simplifying things at the expense of literacy.

Mike Peatman said...

What amused me was the thought of what a German made of it all, followed by the thought that a lot of native English speakers probably didn't follow it either.

It is, of course, a translation into English, done as recent as 1905 and versified in 1912. Quite why it was put into 16th century English I don't know, but it's very effective.

I don't really believe in tweaking old texts into new (eg Hymns for Today's Church). Better to keep and appreciate the old for what they are and write good new stuff.

However, a new translation of the original text of Be Thou would be interesting. Don't worry, I still love the original.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I agree with you there.

Interestingly, I have been unable to find an original of the Irish text. The only one I know is one that Máire Brennan sang which was a Gaelic version written by her grandfather.

I am not really always against new versions. For example, I would rather pray the Lord's prayer and other liturgy in modern language. I always sense the tension between making things understandable and oversimplifying at the expense of a good command of our language.