Thursday, January 15, 2009

'I Climb the Rainbow Through the Rain'. George Matheson -XIV

So far we have seen George Matheson as a writer of serious theology, a man appreciated by academics. But that is not how most know him. We know him as the blind poet=preacher who wrote 'O Love that will not Let me go', and other poems. And so he was, for like all men, he was a complex character. About the same time that he delivered his Baird lectures, with their complex theme and academic tinge, he began to write what would become a long series of devotional books that would be far more influential and popular than his Aids to the Study of German Theology, or his Natural Elements of Revealed Religion.

These books had their genesis in Matheson's pulpit-work. Since he had to memorise the Scripture-reading perfectly in order to give it out in the pulpit, George Matheson replaced one of the Scripture readings in his services with a short meditation on a part of Scripture. These meditations were a popular part of Matheson's ministry, and some of his hearers preferred them to his sermons. As a result, since his congregation included many of the great and the good, it was almost inevitable that these meditations should be published. Indeed the first request for this came in 1872. But it was not until 1882 that Matheson finally gave in and issued the first of his devotional books, My Aspirations. It was an immediate success, and what was more, it went on selling for years. It was no flash in the pan popular Christian book. Those interested may find the text here. Not only did My Aspirations sell well in the United Kingdom, but it was translated into German and other languages.

This unexpected success led him to prepare more of these short meditations for the press, and between 1883 and his death in 1906, George Matheson published seven of these small devotional books. They were always secondary to his main work as a minister, but they were probably his most popular books. The meditations are all based on Scripture texts, and they deal with every facet of the Christian life. The opening meditation of My Aspirations is typical in this respect. It deals with the text 'And God saw everything that He had made, and behold it was very good." Matheson draws from this the message to the Christian that all the ways of providence are 'very good' even though we cannot understand how at the moment. Again, let us recall that Matheson was blind, a terrible handicap for a scholar and a pastor, as it meant that books had to be read to him. He writes for the Christian who has to live in the real world, where there is suffering and loss, where life is difficult.

This book was published at the same time as Matheson's most enduring monument, his hymn 'O Love that Wilt not let me go'. The words are famous:
O Love that wilt 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 foll’west all my way,
I yield my flick’ring 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 trace 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.

Matheson describes the circumstances of his writing thus:
"My hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan on the evening of 6th June 1882. I was at that time alone. It was the day of my sister's marriage, and the rest of the family were staying over night in Glasgow. Something had 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. 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. The Hymnal Committee of the Church of Scotland desired the change of one word. I had written originally 'I climbed the rainbow in the rain.' They objected to the word 'climb' and I put 'trace.'"

Next time, God willing, we shall have more to say about Matheson the hymn-writer.



Blogger Jonathan Hunt said...

I've been itching to ask 'why climb, not trace' all the way through, but I hoped there'd be a payoff somewhere, and there it is!

Is there a defined time with Matheson where he rejected the higher criticism and turned back to the old paths?

11:43 am  
Blogger Highland Host said...

Be patient.

8:20 am  
Blogger Simone R. said...

I'm loving this. Thanks.

10:34 am  

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