Episode 14: Be Thou My Vision

I am a huge Van Morrison fan. I love his blend of Irish folk, Jazz, and rock themes. I love his hidden, subtle, and powerful spiritual undertones. His vocal riffs are intuitive and imaginative; and his ear for beauty is both inspired and inspiring.

My wife knows this.

One year, as I was leaving for a youth mission trip, with about 20 youth in a couple vans headed to rebuild homes a town called Ashtabula (that’s right, the same Ashtabula Dylan references in his song “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go)”; as I was leaving on that trip, Mimi handed me a gift. It was Van Morrison’s 2 CD set “Hymns to the Silence.”

That compilation is Van’s confession and absolution – not unlike Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.” Its raw honesty rips open a broken heart and tells the story of a song-writer/artist who has lost his voice. Not his singing voice, mind you, but that inner voice that composed beauty and meaning in poetry and sound. And without the beauty, without the sound – there was silence. To a songwriter, to this song-writer, that silence was madness.

Having fought the madness with remedies that only deepened the silence, Van reached a breaking point. With a flash of insight and the courage to face boldly into the abyss he was facing, he stopped trying to run from the silence and fully embraced it. No more denial. No more drinking away the pain. No more fawning up to admirers who fed the ego but drained the soul. He entered fully into the silence, and as if paying homage to the gods who gift artists like him with voice and beauty – he composed his Hymns to the Silence.

The theme for this breathtaking work is set in his song “Not Feeling It Anymore.” This is his confession. The verses rehearsed what he tried that failed to feed his dying spirit: fame, the money, notoriety, drink, adoring fans. The refrain just kept repeating “Not feeling it no more.” In the middle of the song stands a line that would frame the rest of the album: Got to get back to base.

Each song that follows is a reminder of what grounded him, what gave him his voice, what fed his spirit, what inspired the beauty. Songs about childhood homes, lost and lingering love, happy memories.

Lying on the floor of a church basement having just got 20 youth to settle down and bed down for the night, I popped in the CD. I was 5 songs in when slumber took over, and just as I was about to drift off, that beautiful Irish tenor voice of Van Morrison began singing this Hymn to the Silence: “Be Thou My Vision.” Here was his absolution. And it was stunningly beautiful.

This is what he meant when he wrote “Got to get back to base.” Having lost his way, having lost his beauty, having lost his ability to see a way forward: he remembered what fed him all along and from where his beauty and inspiration came. In an act of public humility, in the most subtle of ways, Van poured out his soul to God with an audience watching and prayed: “Be Thou My Vision.” This was his Hymn to the Silence.

That’s my favorite hymn – has been since the first time I heard it. I use it often on my own journey of faith. I find enormous power in its simple surrender to the divine Creator that sees the beauty in everything. This prayer and asks only that we see what She does; and that having done that, the walk of peace She invites us to take is made open and clear to us.

Thank you, gentle listener, for the gift of your silence why I speak these words. May you find richness in your own silences; and may the seeing of the sacred inform your steps as you journey Into the Mystic.