I began my last note with a reference to the prophet Isaiah, who heard the eternal song of the seraphim,
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts,
the whole earth is filled with glory!” (Isaiah 6:3)
The angelic song agrees with the apostolic announcement: “Christ is all in all!” (Col 3:11). Paul was ever attentive to the glory of Christ, even in the mundane moments of daily life. This is why he exhorts us, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17).
George Herbert’s poem, The Elixir, uses the vocabulary of alchemy to give poetic expression to Paul’s sanctified and Christ-centered vision of life. “Elixir” is a term that comes from the ancient and medieval practice of alchemy. The goal of alchemy was to discover a special stone, known as the “philosophers stone,” which could be ground up into a powder or “elixir” and mixed in a liquid such as alcohol to produce a “tincture.” If the right recipe was found, it was believed that the tincture could turn base metals into precious metals, cure diseases, and even grant immortality.
I hope you’ve had time to read and ruminate on this poem. Here are my thoughts:
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:
Herbert begins with a prayer to have his eyes opened to glory of the Lord, which fills the whole earth, and to consecrate his daily life and work for the Lord.
Not rudely, as a beast,
To runne into an action;
But still to make thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.
Herbert’s prayer continues. He doesn’t want to run from task to task, without prayerful awareness of the Lord’s sanctifying presence.
A man that looks on glasse,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,
And then the heav’n espie.
Cleaning windows is satisfying work. When you’re cleaning windows, you focus your gaze on the surface of the glass. You’re not looking through the glass. Sometimes our gaze becomes fixed on the glass because we see our own reflection. Herbert reminds us that “Christ is all in all.” As another poet has put it, “Christ plays in ten thousand places” (Hopkins). A sanctified vision sees what the seraphim sing, “the whole earth if fill with his glory.”
All may of thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture (for thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.
The tincture is that elusive solvent which alchemist believed could turn base metals into precious metals. For Herbert, the tincture is the parenthetical “for thy sake.” The knowledge that we may do all things for the sake of Christ is the tincture that makes bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgerie divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.
Does your work feel like drudgery? With this clause – “for thy sake” – your work is consecrated for the Lord’s glory and pleasure. It’s for him and he joyfully receives it.
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold:
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for lesse be told.
The consecration and orientation of our drudgery for his sake turneth all to gold. Christ is present in the mundane tasks of daily life and when we work “for thy sake,” he receives it and is pleased by it. Christ is all and in all (Col 3:11). All things were created by him, through him, and for him. He is before all things and is preeminent in all things. In him, all things hold together. (Col 1:15-20). And so, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17).