3.C.3 From “The Elixir” (George Herbert 1593-1633), presented by Philip Sheldrake

  • Text

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 beat,
To run into an action;
But still to make thee prepossest,
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.

 

  • Commentary

George Herbert (1593-1633), one of the greatest English poets, was also a major figure during the seventeenth-century in shaping a distinctive spirituality for the Church of England. After being Public Orator of Cambridge University, then a Member of Parliament, Herbert was ordained as a rural parish priest. Reformed Anglican spirituality emphasised, first, our engagement with God in the ordinary activities of life rather than in mystical illumination, second, the equality of spiritual experience among Christians and finally a strong sense that our relationship with God should be expressed in moral action and concern for other people. There are parallels between Herbert and a broader tradition of Christian spirituality. Thus, the writings of St Ignatius Loyola and St Francis de Sales similarly emphasised finding God in all things and practical service of others while the great mystic St Teresa of Avila described finding God among the cooking pots in the kitchen.

The best-known example in Herbert of everyday spirituality is this poem “The Elixir” – later a famous hymn. It expresses both how everyday action (the drudgery of housework and sweeping a room) may become a spiritual practice and also how we may look at ordinary things (a glass window) and, if we desire, pass through it to see heaven. Doing ordinary activities for God is described as the “famous stone”. This refers to the ancient belief in alchemy. The alchemist’s stone creates a magic formula to turn base metal into gold. Here, the alchemical formula is to do everything as an act of praise of God. Nothing is too ordinary or small to focus our contemplative vision. However, the final stanza is richer still. For God to “touch” the ordinary refers to the touchstone used to test the purity of metals. Once “touched” (that is, tested) metals were marked with a standard of purity. Thus, our “ordinary” existence is tested and accepted (“owned”) by God and declared to be pure gold.

 

  • Video

Scholars from five traditions strongly resonate with this poem and find that it raises important questions relevant to each of them. How does one generate a spiritual state of being, so that God is always in your consciousness? What is the meaning of ‘being in a spiritual state’? Is it like being in love? All observe that the ‘higher consciousness’ which allows one to serve God in our daily lives can imbue mundane work with meaning. As a warning, though, some participants also acknowledge that religion has and can be used as a tool of oppression, to deflect attention from the inequalities in society.