Back in the 1600s when modern science was still in the cradle, alchemists devoted themselves to the pursuit of something they called the philosopher’s stone. They were sure there was such a thing, and if they could just discover it, they would be able to transform base metals into gold. Alchemists also experimented attempting to find the elixir, which to drink (they just knew) would keep them eternally young.
We who are arguably wiser now know that this is impossible, but it was exciting science back in those days. If only they could discover how to turn a more common metal, say iron or lead, into gold. Suddenly the rocks around them would make them rich! Or this fleeting little life locked in to decay… if only they could discover the magic potion that reverses the inevitable.
And so everyone was talking about this back in the 1600s. Would one of these alchemists actually find the philosopher’s stone or the elixir of life? It was exciting to think so in a time when very few people lived into their 60s. However, an Anglican rector by the name of George Herbert who knew and loved the Lord realized he had already found this stone, this elixir. Herbert made it the subject of one of his poems, which were published after he died at age 40. (Some might remember that a line from one of Herbert’s poems, The Call, inspired the title for this blog—A Mending Feast.)
Here is the poem, The Elixir. It’s a little difficult for the modern ear; if you’re like me, it’ll take a few readings to mine out the riches in it. But first, a few definitions that will bring Herbert’s use of the English language up to date.
Rude: primitive, coarse, unthinking, like a brute beast
Prepossessed: to be preoccupied with, to make something of exclusive concern
Tincture: dye, stain
Mean: ignoble, base
Now the poem.
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see;
And what I do in any thing,
To do it as for Thee;
Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossess’d
And give it his perfection.
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.
All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—“For Thy sake”—
Will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for Thy laws,
Makes that, and th’ action, fine.
This is the famous stone,
That turneth all to gold;
For that, which God doth touch and own,
Cannot for less be told.
Is this not a wondrous find? To borrow a favourite phrase of our Lord’s, He that hath ears, let him hear. There is an elixir that transforms drudgery into the divine. It is found in doing all things as unto the Lord. Let me not be rushing through life preoccupied with its needs and chores, harnessed to them like an unthinking beast that knows nothing beyond earthly things. Let me be preoccupied with God in it all, and give my best to Him.
Yes, we can focus our attention on the window pane of life taking note of the streaks in it, and the smudges. But it’s a bit strange that someone stands before a window looking no further than the pane. We can look through that and see the heavens revealed. The base things, the mean things of life, the “servant” things… we need not chafe at these. I know, we’d all like to leave that to others while we ourselves get on with what we know we were cut out for in this life—being kings and queens. But—what does God know that I don’t?—inevitably there is something before me that means I must stoop to being a servant. I am not free to do my own thing, I must obey… someone else. But God adds a clause in that law—Do it unto the Lord—that makes the doing of it something royal, something refined.
When our lot in life is “mean” things, base things, this is the transforming elixir that makes those very things heavenly. This tincture, this dye—“For Thy sake”—causes all that is colourless to shine with new luster. This is the stone that, since God is now involved, the most humbling things can only rightly be told (accounted) as gold.
I like that very much. This transforms not only the disagreeable duties of life, but the whole of life itself. Take my own life, for example. What a plain, ordinary, bland, boring life I live. If I ever wrote my autobiography it would be a bargain-bin book for sure.
Except for one thing… and oh for eyes to see this always! I’ve found a Stone… and He’s turned my life to gold! Yes, all the troubles and afflictions, too! It’s all gold!