Be Thou My Vision

A pilgrimage to Iona that didnít work out the way I planned

by Martha Ainsworth

One spring, for no apparent reason, I began to experience a sense of separation from God. My prayers felt empty. God seemed absent. The absence of the One who had been so close, for so long, left an aching hole in my spiritual life.

That summer, I toured England as a singer in a professional choir. In an attempt to remedy my spiritual malaise, I went a few days ahead of the group, to take time for a pilgrimage to the mystical island of Iona. It seemed a likely place for spiritual insights. For many years I had been interested in Saint Columba, the visionary 6th century Irish saint who established a renowned monastic community on this tiny, remote, barren island off the coast of Scotland. Sometimes called the Island of Dreams, an evocative ďthin placeĒ where there seems little separation between heaven and earth, Iona is still frequented by pilgrims and spiritual seekers. Columba was also a musician, and I had always felt a kinship to him.

I learned that deep in the hills on Iona, there is a small circle of stones known as the cuildich or hermitís cell, marking a spot where Columba is said to have seen visions of angels. I decided I would hike up to this place, and pray there. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I cherished a fantasy that I, too, might have a vision if I were to pray in that place, as if there were some power in the place itself. So I set off into the hills, and eventually, after a bit of a hike, I found the circle nestled in the barren, grass-covered hills. I was completely alone there; as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but barren hills and wide open sky. No distractions. Certain that something momentous would happen, I entered the circle expectantly, sat on the grass, and began my prayer. Except as I remember it, it was less of a supplication and more like a demand. I more or less announced to God, ďOkay, here I am; Iíve come thousands of miles to this holy place; send a vision now, please.Ē I sat, and waited.

And... nothing happened.

Determined, I stuck with it. I did my best to clear my mind to listen for Godís once-familiar voice. But with the impending choir tour, my brain was swimming with music, drowning out my prayer. I called on every exercise I knew to get the music out of my head to clear the way for this vision God was surely about to send me. I waited, and waited. God didnít say one word as far as I could hear. I had difficulty concentrating. In the same way a commercial jingle can get stuck in your mind, a fragment of a hymn was annoying me, playing over and over in my head. No vision. Just me, and the stones, and the open sky, and this nagging piece of music. I concentrated harder, prayed harder. After all, this was Iona, and this was the special place and time I had planned. Surely God would respond.

Well, four hours later, no vision had come, no sense of Godís presence. I had been unable to exorcise the nagging hymn, and darkness was falling. With great disappointment, I gave up, and hiked back down the hill. I felt abandoned, and troubled. Why had God refused to speak to me in the holy place?

What I didnít realize was that just because that was the time I had chosen, it wasnít necessarily the time God had chosen.

Two days later, the tour had started, and I was with the choir singing Evensong in Westminster Abbey. Singing Evensong was a familiar activity, the music a part of my everyday work. Aside from the grand setting, there was nothing particularly special or unusual about it. As usual, toward the end of the service we sang a hymn. As I began to sing, suddenly, a light began to dawn--because it was that hymn, the one that had pestered me on Iona while I was trying to pray. As my awareness came into focus, it further dawned on me that the hymn was Be thou my vision, an ancient Irish hymn that, according to some scholars, is old enough that it might indeed have been written by a certain musical Irish saint. God could hardly have sent me a more customized message as I sat in the saintís cell on Iona. And the fragment that had nagged me? ďI ever with thee, and thou with me, Lord.Ē I ever with thee, and thou with me, Lord. That simple statement of faith. I ever with thee, and thou with me, Lord. In a flash of certainty, I knew this little piece of hymn that wouldnít leave my mind that day was the vision I asked for, and that God had spoken to me quite clearly after all, saying exactly what I needed to hear. I am always with you; no special place is needed. No dramatic visions of supernatural messengers. Just the simple, everyday truth of Godís presence.

I AM that I AM, said God. Without voice or sound, I replied, O Lord, Thou art.

In retrospect, I realized that thinking that I could dictate the time, place and method in which God speaks to me is laughable. I had gone to Iona to tell God what to do. But prayer must be centered on listening. I was so focused on my own will, that I didnít hear Godís voice--even when he spoke to me in the language I knew best. Sometimes, we make prayer an opportunity to give orders to God. Our prayers consist of detailed instructions, telling God how we want things to come out. Focused on getting what we want, it is easy to miss what God wants for us. And what God wants for us is better than anything we could ask or imagine.

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
All else be naught 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; thine own may I be;
Thou in me dwelling, and I one with thee.

Traditional Irish, circa 6th-7th century


© 1998 Martha Ainsworth. All rights reserved.


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