Arthur Middleton on loving learning and desiring God

‘This is the famous stone

That tumeth all to gold,

For that which God doth touch and own

Cannot for lesse be told.’

George Herbert, ‘The Elixir,’ in The
Temple, Herbert’s Works, Vol. II, Bell and Dalday, (1859) No. 156, at p.212.


The Flame of Prayerful Living

Blind people who will not look upon the real world of God, but persist in following their own corruptible sin, fall into the ditch. But there is a remedy, and this poem, which you will know as ‘Teach me my God and King,’ is called ‘The Elixir,’ a word that means ‘a remedy’—a word used in the ancient science of alchemy (that preceded chemistry). It is a kind of chemical mixture that can change metals into gold; or it is a preparation that is able to prolong life indefinitely, a supposed remedy for all ills. This is the cure all, wonder drug. The philosopher’s stone had the same power, and here George Herbert is alluding to this imaginary philosopher’s stone. But Herbert’s stone is not something imaginary; it is the touch of God’s love that turns all into gold. Everything he touches must be given a value that is equivalent to turning everything to gold.

Julian of Norwich claims that when the Holy Spirit touches the soul it longs for God rather like this: ‘God of your goodness give me yourself, for you are sufficient for me… If I were to ask less I should always be in want.’ This is what it means to have a deep desire for God. This is the reason why there is a deliberate avoidance of the modern word ‘spirituality,’ a word that Lancelot Andrewes himself did not use. Today, this word has come to be associated with ‘feelings,’ ‘feel good feelings,’ a self-regarding fulfilment or self-realization and not sufficiently with the desire for God. It has become a word that is used and understood in a vague, fuzzy and self-regarding way about uplifting feelings. The dictionary is more precise in defining ‘spirituality’ as ‘a distinctive approach to religion or prayer.’ To deliberately use the term ‘Anglican devotion’ is to focus on this distinctiveness in the classical Anglican approach to religion and prayer, where the focus is not on experiencing a ‘feel-good factor,’ but on living the dogma of the revealed Christian mystery in such a way that, instead of the mystery being assimilated to our mode of human understanding, it is allowed to effect an interior transformation of spirit that enables it to be experienced mystically. It changes the heart and mind, renewing one’s whole mental and emotional attitude, which begins in self-renunciation and is accomplished and sealed by the Spirit, so that one’s life becomes conformed to the doctrine. In the Scriptural sense it purifies the character like gold in an ‘assayer’s fire.’ That is repentance. Here lie the seeds of Anglican mystical theology that is consonant with the Christian Mystical tradition.

What is distinctive about Anglican devotion, what qualities are native and integral to the Anglican understanding of devotion and religious practice? It is never an isolated individualistic pietism; always, it is concerned with dogma, doctrine, life, worship, and Christian discipline, which must colour and inspire the whole of life, where personal devotion and personal life are inseparable from liturgy and theology. In the people who produced this literature, prayer was their primary concern, their abiding preoccupation, and so it was the driving force of their lives because ‘they were all soaked in the primitive and medieval tradition of contemplation as the normal outcome of a life of serious prayer.’ Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667), Lancelot Andrewes (1555–1626), Richard Baxter (1615–1691), Thomas Ken (1637–1711), William Laud (1573–1645), George Herbert (1593–1633), John Donne (1571–1631) and Thomas Traherne (1636–74) et al., John Byrom (The Glowing Mind, Prayer in some Caroline Divines (SLG Pamphlet 1991), p.7.) tells us that ‘all of them spoke the same language, at least where prayer is concerned; the language of loving desire for God.’ The seventeenth century was a theological age:

‘Everybody who thought at all was interested in the subject, and had qualified themselves both by study and by listening to sermons to take their part in the vigorous discussion of religious problems. People of all kinds among the educated classes wrote books about religion, or translated some foreign work which advanced their point of view, or put together their own collection of prayers and pious thoughts, sometimes for private use, sometimes to be handed round in manuscript copies among their friends, sometimes to be published in print. It did not follow by any means that they all lived specially holy lives; some did and some did not; but theology was the fashionable intellectual activity and every-one was engaged in it.’ (C. J. Stranks, Anglican Devotion, p.64).