When he was 19 years old, everything looked golden for Glasgow-born George Matheson (1842-1906). A brilliant student, graduating with honors, he was engaged to be married to the love of his life.
But then he rapidly began to lose his sight. The doctors said there was no cure. Turning for comfort to his sweetheart, he was stunned when she fled. She couldn’t be the wife of a blind man, she said.
Matheson’s hymn of love
Twenty years later, on the eve of his sister’s wedding, the shock of rejection resurfaced. By now, Matheson, the “blind preacher,” was beginning to amass attention for his scholarly writing and inspiring sermons, but all the success in the world could not cure his broken heart. Alone in the parsonage that night, 40-year-old Matheson succumbed to “the most severe mental suffering.”
That’s when he composed the words of the hymn “O LOVE THAT WILL NOT LET ME GO.”
This hymn is a celebration of God’s extravagant love, with images of rainbows emerging from rain, joy arising from pain, blossoms springing from dry ground.
Matheson’s hymn celebrates a love that is faithful, not fickle, a love that will endure through the worst of life’s crises, a love in which our weary souls can rest from all the stress.
This is a song of faith sung from parched lips, a vision of healing from sightless eyes.
The preacher later wrote about the experience of shaping the verses while in a wilderness of pain:
It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high.
A hymn to heal broken hearts
The world found comfort in Matheson’s verses, and why not?
We, too, fall in love with the wrong people, endure fickle hearts and broken promises. Self-help books pushing new ways to find (and keep) our soul-mates are bestsellers. Sales of romance novels soar even when the economy dips.
The experience of rejection, in all its forms, shakes us to our very foundations and crumbles our fragile egos, even when the world rewards our accomplishments.
Imagining a love that will not let us go seems like the stuff of fantasy, but when we surrender our wounded hearts to God’s love, we know ourselves immersed in its ocean depths. The Sacred flows over and around us.
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.
TO GO DEEPER
Hymn tune and text on Hymnary.org:
The history of this hymn, by C. Michael Hawn.
Westminster Chorus singing a David Phelps arrangement in an awesome space, the Petrikirche, a Protestant church in Dortmund, Germany.
Sam Robson’s a cappella arrangement, for something different