By Mark Michael
We sang “This is My Father’s World” at least once every year in the church of my childhood, on the Sunday of the church picnic at the town park. This was about the only hymn we knew that mentioned the natural world: “of rocks and trees, of skies and seas, his hands the wonders wrought.” When I hear the tune, I instinctively smell fried chicken and listen for the crack of a bat from the softball game after lunch.
In later years, as I began to think more seriously about the content of hymn texts, I turned up my nose at this one. Lots of landscape description, stitched together with a few platitudes. Golf course spirituality, I thought, is made of such stuff as this. And that vaulting optimism of the final stanzas:
This is my Father’s world, O let me ne’er forget:
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world, why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring! Let the earth be glad!
Awfully chipper. Surely, this was the versifying of a vague, overconfident American Protestantism, yet to face reality in the trenches; the song of a man who has all the goods of life presented on a silver tray.
A first glance at a biography of the hymn’s author, the eccentrically named Maltbie Babcock, seemed to confirm all my suspicions. Babcock was a leading figure of late 19th century Presbyterianism, a college athlete with a warm personality and rhetorical flair. He began his ministry in Lockport, New York, where he took long, meditative walks along the Niagara Escarpment, the high limestone ridge over which the mighty falls eventually plunge. Before heading off, he would tell his wife Elizabeth he was venturing into “my Father’s world.”
Syracuse University awarded Babcock a D.D. when he was still in his thirties, and he ascended quickly to a prominent pastorate in Baltimore, where the largest stained glass window the Tiffany Company ever produced is dedicated to his honor. He went on to serve New York’s historic Brick Presbyterian Church, which paid him the then-astounding annual salary of $30,000.
A year later, in 1901, he took a steamship to the Holy Land. During a stopover in Naples, he fell ill of brucellosis, and experienced an intense recurrence of deep depression that had dogged him throughout his adult life. Ten years before, after losing a second son in infancy, Babcock had slipped away quietly to a sanitarium to be treated for “nervous prostration.” His Italian doctors found him largely resistant to treatment, and he committed suicide by slitting his wrists and ingesting mercuric chloride. He was only 42. The brightly hopeful nature poem adapted for “This is My Father’s World” was published by his grieving widow in a collection a year later.
The poetry still seems a little saccharine. But the hymn is more profound when seen for what it surely was: a song of praise in the midst of deep inner pain; a testimony of God’s faithfulness and watchful care from a man who believed, but at times struggled to find such assurances meaningful. The hymn’s cheeriness is perhaps less pretense or denial than a self-fashioned form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), one of the best-known and widely effective forms of mental health treatment available today.
In poems like this (and others much like them), Babcock was affirming those things he knew were true of God, human life, and the world around him, even as his emotions were pulling him into agonizing self-doubt and moral confusion. Repeating these truths expanded his sense of what was truly possible and checked his self-destructive thoughts and impulses. Like all good methods, this one was not infallible; but the resiliency it evoked gave Babcock time to be of valuable service to God and humanity.
Babcock’s hymn is like those confident declarations of God’s redeeming power that usually close the psalms of lament. The author of psalms 42 and 43, for example, confesses that “tears have been my meat day and night, while [my enemies] daily say unto me, ‘Where now is your God?’” It feels, he says, like his bones have been broken, and God seems distant. “Why have you put me from you?” he rails.
And yet, looking on the wonders of nature (are the “heights of Hermon,” with their thundering cataracts so different from the Niagara Escarpment?), the psalmist remembers again God’s promise to support and assist him. He punctuates his anguished cries with a hopeful refrain:
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?
And why are you so disquieted within me?
Put your trust in God.
For I will yet give thanks to him,
Who is the help of my countenance, and my God. (Ps. 42:6-7, 14-15; 43:5-6)
There are few aspects of human life more entwined than faith and mental health. And yet, mental illness is rarely discussed as openly as it should be within Christian congregations. Sometimes those who suffer in these ways are cruelly stigmatized. We are happily past the days when psychological training suggested that most religiosity is neurotic, though studies show that many therapists remain reluctant to introduce their patients to spiritual coping methods, even when they recognize that such treatments would likely be helpful.
Pioneering figures like Harvard Medical School’s David Rosmarin have made great strides in bringing faith and CBT closer together. Duke’s Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health publishes an excellent series of free manuals for psychologists and parish clergy outlining scriptural and theological resources for countering unhelpful thinking, as well as simple spiritual practices for grounding and refocusing those in distress. Returning to God’s promises can bring deep consolation, by allowing us to make sense of an overwhelming world and discovering ways to face each day with patience and renewed hope.
Several features and reviews in this Advent issue connect Christian faith and mental health, a timely theme when rates of anxiety and depression are rising precipitously. Many around us long, perhaps unknowingly, for the Lord to “rend the heaven and come down,” bringing rest for our weariness and comfort for our loneliness (Isa. 64:1). We pray, as we are able, to the one who, in Babcock’s words, “is the ruler yet,” even when it is hard to glimpse his ways. We trust that he will return on a day when all his people who have persevered in hope amid suffering may sing “let the heavens ring! Let the earth be glad!”
The Rev. Mark Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac, Maryland.