(description of picture in words: a line drawing portrait of George Matheson. A handsome bearded, wavy haired man, impeccably groomed, drawn in profile. He is wearing a starched white clerical collar under a dark gray overcoat.)
A couple of days ago on Belinda's Blog, Whatever He Says, the regular feature Friday's With Susan featured the story of George Matheson, a story that I had never heard. Matheson, amongst other things, wrote the famous hymn, O Love That Will Not Let Me Go. Joe and I have sung this hymn many, many times over the years and I never knew the connection of the hymn to the man and of the man to the world of disability. Susan's post hit me, again, with the thunderous silence around the contributions of men and women with disabilities. The continued ignorance of society regarding the contributions of those whom, even today, we revile as 'useless' and as 'tragic' is appalling. It angers me, but, that's not what I want to write about.
As I investigated further afield from Susan's post, I began thinking of the story of his life and the moment that he wrote the hymn. It seems that Matheson wrote the words to the hymn during a particularly painful and difficult moment of his life. As a blind man, he had relied on his sister's loving and devoted assistance to fulfill his calling as a preacher and theologian. He was home alone on the day of her marriage and wrote the song in five minutes as he was in the depths of great despair. He never articulated, for anyone, the circumstances that caused him to feel such suffering. He said of that moment: 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. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression rather of having it dictated to me by some inward voice than of working it out myself...this came like a dayspring from on high. I have never been able to gain once more the same fervor in verse.
There are, of course, theories. The two most popular involve loss. Not of sight - as one would expect from a disphobic world view, but of love and support. Abilities are not the most painful thing to lose, as anyone with a disability can easily attest. Matheson did indeed lose his sight, but he lost considerably more. He was engaged as a young man and when it was clear that he was going blind and that there was nothing that could be done about it, his fiance announced to him that she could not live with and love a blind man. She broke off the engagement and clearly broke his heart. One theory believes that that day, the day his sister was to marry, he was reminded of the loss of this great love of his life.
Others think that there was a different loss in his heart that day. They think that the suffering was caused as he realized what the loss of his sister to his life would mean. He relied on her assistance in many areas of his life. He needed her. They were much more than brother and sister, they were partners in a joint enterprise. She had learned Greek and Latin so that she could help him with theological studies. He relied not only on her care, but on her company and her intelligence. It is easy to imagine that feeling of impending 'what now' that would settle around his shoulders as he faced yet another life's leaving.
I leave those who wish to ponder the source of his anguish to their discussions and their wonderings. Was it loss of one, was it loss of the other? I'm not sure that it matters to the heart of the story. I found myself considering something quite different. I wondered if at that moment, in a different household in Scotland, there was another dark night of the soul.
George Matheson had lived a storied life. His name had become a household word in Scotland, his preaching was renowned as 1500 people a week came to hear him speak. His books were lauded, his hymns sung. He was invited to Balmoral Castle to preach to Queen Victoria and her family, she was so taken with his sermon, on Job, that she had it printed and distributed. After having graduated with highest honours from the University of Glasgow, he continued a life of achievement after achievement, of honour after honour. His memory was so fine tuned that when he was in front of a congregation he could do the 'readings' and the sermon in such a way that many never knew that they were listening to the words of a blind man. He carried himself as a man of power and passion not as a man needing pity and protection. It could easily be said that he took life, as he found it, and lived it vigourously.
This was the man she never married.
She left him and stepped out of history. What ever she did, where ever she went, her story is not told, her journey is not documented. Her name appears in none of the articles I found. All that exists is her rejection and the reasons for it. What ever road she took, it would lead, ultimately to anonymity. She never met the Queen, she never stood at Matheson's side as he was cheered and acknowledged. She never, like his sister, had the opportunity to share in these moments, to have made a contribution, of her own, to his work. One wonders, as she sat alone, in her kitchen over tea, humming the tune that his words were set to, if she ever sipped her tea and wondered about the decision she made. Of the life she didn't choose. One wonders if she was damned by her own prejudice, her own, forgive me, lack of vision.
I rather imagine that she did. Not because I wish her ill, but because it is human nature to wonder about the road not taken, the choice not made, the man not married. These ponderings come of their own, unbidden, without our volition. She is human. She wondered.
So while others try to figure out what George mourned on that day that he wrote a hymn that would travel down through history, I wonder more about her, and her loss, and somehow I know - that she mourned that decision over and over again.
She saw him as we still see disability. As a burden and as needing of charity. She probably pictured a life of poverty, of penury, of pity. She could not marry that life, so she could not marry that man. Disability, though, is not a prediction. George Matheson, the blind man rejected, did not need charity. He gave support and sustenance, charity if you will, to the thousands. He contributed much, he worked tirelessly in pursuit of a life of meaning and purpose. He met royalty and was treated as royalty. His life gave the lie to those that offer pity when only support is needed.
Another life well lived.
Another story, untold.
(a note of the words to the hymn that follows: I have chosen to present the words as they were first written. When it was to be published, in a book of hymns, for the first time. a committee came to him and asked him to change one word. This was a hymn that Matheson, himself, said that he considered to be divinely inspired, he did not change it from the moment he wrote it. He gave into their demands and the line 'I climbed the rainbow through the rain' became 'I traced the rainbow through the rain'. The line, as they changed it, is not the wording that a blind man would have used. It, to me, represents the triumph of ableism over the disabled experience. Therefore, I will never sing it in the altered way again.')
O Love That Will Not Let Me Go
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.
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.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I climbed the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
(description of video in words: a quartet of singers standing in what looks to be a backstage area. Three are wearing casual clothing, one is in a suit with a hideous tie. Singers range in age but are all male.)