Note from the author:
Some of the elements of this story are real.
Dallan really did write Be Thou My Vision and it was originally called Rop tu mo Baile in the old Irish Gaelic. Dallan was a descendant of a mighty Irish king as well. He lost his sight as a result of intense studying though he later reganined it. He was made a saint by the Irish Church.
The rich, melodious voices rose up together in unison. The high vaulted stone walls echoed and rebounded the graceful song. In the church, hundreds of candles lighted the vaulted chamber giving it a holy, almost ethereal beauty. One by one, the hooded monks walked slowly into the chapel, their chant filling the air.
In the corner of the church, kneeling on the stone floor, was the figure of a young boy. His raven black hair was illuminated by the flickering candlelight. His face was lifted in rapt attention to the procession and the heavenly voices raised. No one noticed him. No one noticed the deep scars that crossed his bare arms. He was lost in the shadows, present but forgotten. Dark circles surrounded his eyes and a hurting, hunted look like that of a frightened rabbit was imprinted on his young face. And yet still he listened, as if in a trance. Suddenly, the song ended. The spell was broken. The boy leapt to his feet and dashed out of the church. The monks gazed after him in astonishment, but the boy was already gone.
“Æron! Come here at once!” The shrill scream rent the air. Æron’s face betrayed his fear as he stumbled to the decrepit mud hut. Shudder after shudder ran through his sickly thin frame. He tried to enter the hut as quietly at he could but he stumbled and fell. A hiss like a that of a snake caught his ear. He screamed as a whip caught his arm. Throwing up his hands, he tried to shield his face from the blows. The rope cut his back, his neck. Slowly he felt himself losing consciousness. Suddenly, the blows stopped. Æron looked up, slowly removing his hands from his face. But as soon as they dropped, the whip cut his cheek like fire. He felt tears squeezing through his eyelids.
He looked up at the wild face of the woman who he called mistress. Her matted hair hung in a tangled mess around her face, accentuating her sunken features. The whip was still raised in her clenched hand.
“You are late again.” She cried in a horrible voice. “You are as worthless at a pig, still less because a pig can be slaughtered and eaten. You simply can be slaughtered!”
Æron covered his face again. The cuts on his back were bleeding and his face was swollen. The woman screamed again. Æron glanced up in horror. In her hand was a knife, glittering above his head. There was murder in the woman’s eyes. Summoning all his strength, Æron leapt up and ran for the door. He heard a wooshing sound and saw the knife buried in the tree just beside him. His lungs cried for air as he ran even faster. His vision blurred and he could scarcely make out the trees in front of him. It seemed as if he ran for hours. Finally, he collapsed exhausted, onto the hard ground.
A vision seemed to rise before him in his unconscious state. A serenely beautiful woman with raven black hair like his, and green sparkling eyes. One hand was outstretched to him in a loving gesture. Her plaid cloak was wrapped around her lovely form and she quickly took it off and laid it over his still body. Stooping down, she placed a kiss on his bloodless forehead. She sang to him in the lilting Irish voice he remembered from so long ago. He knew it was his mother. But the vision cleared and he was still in the wood.
He never knew how his mother had died. She had been taken from his when he was about three years old. But her memory was the only bright thing in his dark and sunless life. He had gone to live with his father but he was killed in battle only a year after. And from that time on, he had been a slave to his aunt. Time and time again, her whip had scarred his young body. His mind had mercifully blurred out the memories of the past nine years so all he could remember was a strange horror that continually shadowed his soul. He had lost all track of time and could not remember how long he had lived with his aunt. All he knew was that it had ended. He could never go back. For the first time, she had tried to kill him. His life was finished if he went near her again.
The awful feeling of being completely alone fell on him. He stood up and stumbled along to he knew not where. But through the stillness of the forest, he heard a voice, winding through the trees, reaching into his heart. He followed the sound, almost as if he was being pulled by it. The song led him to a small clearing. In the middle of it, was a hut. The voice came from within. It was a man’s voice, and he was singing a song Æron recognized. It was the Magnificat, a song that he had heard the monks sing many times. But this time, something was different. The song was not in Latin but in his native Irish. For the first time, Æron understood the words of the song.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit exalts in God my saviour.
Æron stood transfixed. God my saviour. He had never heard more beautiful words. He found himself mouthing the words along with the stranger. Tha m ’anam a’ meudachadh an Tighearna. It was as if his mother was singing to him again. Her voice seemed to rise inside of him and he sung the words of the song. Tha a thròcair dhaibhsan a tha fo eagal.
The stranger stopped singing abruptly. Æron realized in shock what he had done and ran for the cover of the trees. The man came out of his hut and looked around. He stood there silently for a while, then returned into his house. Æron breathed a sigh of relief. Night was coming fast, and he had no place to sleep. Curling up at the base of a large tree, he pulled his tattered plaid closer around his body and closed his eyes, the song of the stranger still lingering in his mind.
When morning dawned, the stranger was nowhere to be seen or heard. Cautiously, he crept out of his hiding place and towards the stranger’s hut. He peered inside. The man was not there. On a sudden impulse, he entered. In the middle of the room, a desk stood. Æron came closer. Quills, ink and parchment lay in disarray upon the hard oak. He picked up a scroll. Unrolling it with the greatest care, he gazed upon the Gaelic runes inscribed upon it. He smiled at the well-known markings. No one knew that he could read. He had kept it a secret from his aunt, and from the monks at the monastery. No one had ever seen him go into the scriptorium in the middle of the night to study. No one had seen him take a scroll of Irish runes and never return it. No one had noticed the ragged boy hiding in the alcove at the monastery and listen intently to the monks teaching their young students. He smiled. It had taken him years, but now he had something that no one could take from him.
He bent his head over the scroll again. It was a translation of the book of Exodus. Reverently, almost lovingly, he traced his fingers over the words. All around him were poems, songs, verses of scripture. He had never seen anything like it. In a corner of the room, something caught his eye. It was a small table with a lone scroll on it. Quickly, he unrolled it and read it. It was the beginning of a poem. Rop tú mo baile, a Choimdiu cride: ní ní nech aile acht Rí secht nime.
Be Thou my vision O Lord of my heart
Nought be all else to me save what Thou art
Thou my best thought by day or by night
The poem was unfinished, but the words struck deep into Æron’s heart. To him, God had remained a being to unreachable that he could not be approached. Not the God that he saw described here. Loving, kind, caring. Could God really care about him? A wretched boy, scarcely able to survive in the horrors that prevailed in the world?
The sound of footsteps arrested his thoughts. Quickly, he looked around. It was too late to run. With a swift leap, he hid behind a stack of firewood in the corner. The stranger came in, his long plaid sweeping behind him. He went straight to the small table with the poem. Æron held his breath. The man smiled as he caressed the scroll. Then a frown creased his handsome face and he turned abruptly away. While his back was turned, Æron slipped out of the hut. He found a berry bush and had a scanty meal. Then he fell asleep once more against his tree.
Night fell with a sound on the forest and the boy woke up. He looked up at the shining stars that illuminated the forest. His heart seemed to fill with awe and wonder at this God of love that he did not know, The words of the poem filled his mind and heart. It rose to his lips in a hauntingly beautiful melody. His voice filled the forest as he sang, soft and sweet like a sliver wind. Unknowingly, he began singing the missing stanza, the words coming swiftly to his mind.
Rop tú ad-chëar im chotlud caidche. Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
He was so caught up in the wonder of the song that he did not notice the stranger standing beside him in quiet wonder. The man laid a hand on his shoulder. He jumped and prepared to run, but the hand held him fast. He gazed up into the young and handsome face.
“Who are you?” he asked hoarsely.
The man smiled. “I am Dallan of Forgaill. And who are you lad?”
“I am called Æron.” he replied softly. “Was it you who wrote the poem?”
“It was I who wrote it, but the inspiration was from the Lord. What was the final stanza you sang?”
“Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.”
“What beautiful words. I have struggled long over how to end the verse, yet you seemed to sing it as if you had heard it already. Is the melody of your own invention also?”
“I do not know, I think perhaps it is a melody my mother used to sing to me as a small child.”
“Your voice is extremely fine my boy,” said Dallan with a smile. “Will you come inside and we will speak more? It is very late, perhaps you will consent to lodge with me.”
Æron could not speak. Tears filled his eyes and spilled down his cheeks. He could see that the love of God filled this man also. For the first time in his life, he felt truly safe. Silently, he followed Dallan into the hut, the words of the song filling his heart with peace.
Two years later
Æron sat by the riverside, a piece of parchment in his hand. He smiled as he read the words of the finished song. His heart filled with gladness as he thought over the past two years. Working with his friend Dallan in the scriptorium was the greatest joy of his life. The poetry the man wrote seemed alive. But he knew Rop tu mo Baile would always have a special place in his heart. At last, he was truly home. And he was an orphan no longer. He had a Father who would never leave or forsake him.