Gospel words of Jesus say, ‘Those who save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ In his poem. Putting our-selves alongside the way of the world, we might assume that escape and freedom were very good things, but that, as George Herbert discovered before us, was not to be the case. The secret is that all is resolved in obedience: ‘Methought I heard one calling, Child: / And I replied, My Lord.’
Some might consider reverting to childhood as a means of resolution to be a backward step. What has been the value of George Herbert’s mature experience? Does God not want learning skill? Not, apparently, before he desires the childlike obedience that allows entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven. To see as a child again involves the painful journey of negation, and the stripping away of adult assumptions about power and freedom.
Put simply, for Herbert, the gospel insight is that until our wills are put alongside the will of God, all our individual strivings are worthless. We will discover that God’s binding us to his will can take the form of negation, and a denia1 of our own selves. A ‘no’ to this world’s delights is replaced by a ‘yes’ to the supreme delights of God’s Kingdom.
Turned to gold
To come to a familiar hymn, Teach Me, My God and King, Herbert sees avarice succinctly expressing the paradox of money. Money becomes the drudge which we elevate into sovereignty, stamp our image on it and worship it. The result is inevitable: such people fall into the ditch. This falling into the ditch is the folly of the blind people who will not look upon the real world of God, but persist in following their own corruptible sin.
But there is a remedy. This poem is called The Elixir; that is what the word Elixir means, a remedy – a word used in the ancient science of alchemy. It is a kind of preparation that can change metals into gold. Or it is a preparation that is able to prolong life indefinitely, a supposed remedy for all ills. So it is the panacea, the cure all, heal all wonder drug. In alchemy, it is the substance thought to be capable of changing base metals into gold.
And what is this elixir, that sovereign remedy that will make all the difference to the life of the Christian? It is being able to recognize that all things in the daily routine of life may indeed turn to gold and change their meaning if they are directed to God in willed intention. The whole of life can be lifted out of the psychological into the spiritual sphere. Keep looking in this direction and all will be turned to gold. So our prayer is:
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 …
Edited by Arthur Middleton ND