“Be Thou My Vision”: three linguistic perspectives of a hymn.
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.
This past Sunday, as I sat in church and the offering basket was passed from row to row, the pianist played “Be Thou My Vision” softly, instrumental. As I listened, humming to myself and thinking of the words, I began to consider the opening line in ways I never had before — in semantic and grammatical ways. Below, I will explore the meaning of the word vision, the syntactical structure of the opening phrase, and promote a perspective of the “to be” verb from African American Vernacular English.
Two definitions of vision
The word vision is a noun that has two meanings: it can be a thing seen and it can also be the sense or faculty by which a thing is seen. It is a thing we see and it is the way we see a thing. The opening line of the hymn becomes more complex when both definitions of vision are considered.
In one sense, the speaker is asking God to become the thing seen, asking for God to appear before her to be observed and worshipped. The speaker wishes for God to be her vision. She wishes that God might become the thing most desired and dreamed for. This is evident in the final line of the stanza: “waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.” The speaker wishes this vision to be real when awake and vivid in sleep. Waking or sleeping, eyes opened or closed, God is what the speaker wants to see.
Now consider the other definition of vision — perhaps the speaker is asking that God, in some way, become her capacity for sight. Perhaps the speaker wishes that her sight be so transformed through belief in God that God would become her way of seeing — that she would become capable of seeing only through him, able to see only because of him. This perspective is best understood with help from C.S. Lewis who said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Christianity for Lewis was the faculty by which he saw the world. This is a world-view: the set of beliefs or desires that fundamentally change the orientation of one’s sight and influence one’s perceptions of the surrounding world. In the opening line of the hymn, instead of Christianity, the speaker seems to be asking for God, himself, to become her vision, her way of seeing, her sight.
A quasi-imperative sentence structure
The sentence structure of the first line of the hymn is not standard. A standard word order would be “thou art my vision;” a statement which could be rendered in modern language as “you are my vision.” The standard version changes the original by inverting the word order of the pronoun and verb “art thou,” then changes the structure again by substituting the base form of the “to be” verb (simply “be” instead of “art” or “are”). This gives the sentence a form which is close to an imperative command, as if the speaker is saying “be my vision!”
It is, however, not a true imperative because the pronoun, “thou,” is re-inserted after the verb, “be.” But this inversion allows the statement “be thou my vision” to sit somewhere in the semantic range between a statement and a demand. It acts as a strong request. The strength of this statement lies in the fact that it is so similar to an imperative command.
While no one could presume to make demands of God, demands can demonstrate our strongest convictions and desires about that way things should be. This is why the form is important. It is the speaker’s desire — so strongly as to approach demanding — that God become her vision. The speaker’s strong desire is that God be established as her vision, as the thing she sees and the thing by which she sees.
The “habitual be”
One of the most distinguished features of Africa American Vernacular English (AAVE) relates to the “to be” verb. The sentence, “he is sitting,” which, in Standard English might describe a person who is currently sitting, at a particular moment, would be rendered “he sitting” in AAVE, with a dropping of the helping verb “is.” However, if this sentence was describing a person who is regularly or habitually sitting (like someone who makes a habit of sitting on his porch every evening), AAVE would render this sentence: “he be sitting,” with a substitution of the base form “be” in place of the conjugated “is.” This form communicates, grammatically, a regular pattern of being — a kind of permanence. This feature is known as the “habitual be” and it allows speakers of AAVE to better leverage the complexities of English to communicate a particular situation or behavior with precision.
I believe reading the opening verb of “Be Thou My Vision” as a “habitual be” illuminates a deeper truth about our understanding of God as our vision. If we choose to assign a “habitual be” quality to the first line, it becomes a more beautiful, rich, and permanent prayer. It becomes a desire that God not just become our vision for a time, but a strong request that he be established as our vision — as our sight and our seeing faculty — habitually, continually, eternally.
 Lewis, C. S. “Is Theology Poetry?” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (1949): p 140.
 a true imperative would omit the pronoun and allow it to take the form of an understood “you” before “be,” as in “(you) be my vision.”