I have heard this hymn by George Matheson hundreds, if not thousands of times before. It's funny how you can hear something so many times and then - suddenly! - it's like you're listening to it for the very first time. After running across it on Youtube today while searching for something else, and then stopping to let the words and music flood over my heart and restore my soul, I thought I would look up the history of how this great hymn came to be.
George Matheson was forty years old on the evening of his sister's wedding day when he penned these words. He was alone in the house as all his family members were away, presumably staying closer to where the ceremony had taken place. In his own words,
“I was at that time alone, it was the day of my sister’s marriage . . . Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering.”
Some years earlier, his fiancee had broken his own engagement when it was learned that his ability to see was rapidly degenerating and there was nothing medically that could be done to save his sight. "I cannot live with a blind man... " she had told him.
By the time he was twenty he was completely blind, but even so he had completed his studies at the University of Glasgow with the highest honours, placing first in his class in logic, classics and philosopy and went on to enter the ministry. His sister, the one who was married that day, was his ardent supporter, companion, and aide, and had even studied Greek and Hebrew in order to be able to help him with his sermons. They had lived and worked together for twenty years when she got married.
Who knows what his "mental suffering" consisted of that night when this hymn flowed (in five minutes, he said) from a heart that in the midst of the pain sought after God alone. We can only guess that it could have been that he was mourning the loss of his sister's singular devotion to himself, his life and his work. Perhaps he couldn't imagine life without her. Or perhaps it was the thought of his own unrequited love and rejection of years past? Was his former love a guest at the wedding?
There were other disappointments in his life, including bitterly disappointing reviews of a learned book on theology. He was criticized for being "an inaccurate student" which reportedly was "heartbreaking" news and understandably so. Friends wrote of this event: “When he saw that for the purposes of scholarship his blindness was a fatal hindrance, he withdrew from the field – not without pangs, but finally.” He left the academics of theology and entered the pastoral ministry ending up at a church where he preached to more than 1500 people every week. But he had only been able to do this with the assistance of his sister.
Whatever was the deep pain and mental anguish that he experienced that night, we can see and feel the result of turning to God in such an time and in such a way.
1. O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
2. O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
3. O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.