As a boy, sometimes I would make my way through a Sunday morning looking at the tunes of songs to be sung, imagining pilgrims of earlier days naming their music, remembering their adventures and troubles, their own hopes and longings. I didn’t know, but I wondered.
Years later, I found myself wondering again about the name “Slane,” as the world over began to listen to U2, bursting with a global gladness at the amazing gifts from these boys from Dublin. When they decided to hold a concert at Slane Castle, the ears of my heart awakened, remembering the tune that had long ago caught my attention. I bought the dvd, and have watched it and watched it again. There were thousands and thousands there that night; it seemed like all of Ireland must have been.
From the first sounds to the very last note, it was a glorious concert. With the late afternoon sun still giving light as they began, the music roared across the castle grounds for hours, until the darkness descended on the ancient stone and grass— and one might have wondered if the memories of the centuries still echoed through the night.
Most of the time, at our very best, we are indebted to “tradition says.” While there are exceptions— for me, mostly having to do with the heart of my own heart’s commitments about what is real and true and right —when someone says, “This happened here, and that happened there….” we are not altogether sure, especially about stories of peoples and places of centuries ago. I have walked through the villages and streets of Israel, and have heard “Tradition says” many times; and I have walked the hills and valleys of southwest England, making my way to what the British Museum says, “Our best guess is that, if there was a Camelot, it was here….” and I am content with our inherited judgment. A lot of life is “God alone knows,” and we do our best.
But “Slane”? One of the very best songs ever written is known as “Be Thou Our Vision,” an ancient Celtic hymn, and it is sung to the tune, Slane. God alone knows— but tradition says that this might be a song from St. Patrick. I hope so, singing its way across time as it does, but of course, I don’t know.
What we do know is Christian people have been singing this song for 1500 years. And what we do know is that in our more modern world, the song was given the tune, “Slane,” in memory of Slane Hill and its castle. What we do know is that the author was someone of deep heart, of richly-imagined theological vision who understood the cost of discipleship, whose own day had “kings” and “high kings” and so when he remembered his allegiance to “the high king of heaven” it was more than poetry. And what we do know is that Patrick lit a bonfire on a hill— tradition has long said it was Slane Hill —in honor of “the high king of heaven” whose authority was greater than that of the king who imagined himself in charge of human life and times.
And so when I ponder again, one more year, St. Patrick’s Day, I remember to remember this long history, and the more recent history too, when U2 came to Slane Hill and its castle, singing their songs to the high king of heaven— and for the rest of us too, for all who long for what is real and true and right.
Be Thou our vision… but how long, how long do we have to sing this song?