Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.
To scorn the senses’ sway,
While still to Thee I tend,
In all I do be Thou the Way,
In all be Thou the End.
Not rudely, as a beast,
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 this 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.
If done t’obey Thy laws,
E’en servile labors shine;
hallowed is toil, if this the cause,
The meanest work divine.
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.
- In naming his poem The Elixir, George Herbert was communicating to his readers that his hymn/poem was going to employ the allegory of alchemy. Broadly (and somewhat inaccurately) defined, alchemy was that precursor-of-chemistry discipline that sought, among other things, to turn base metals (i.e., common metals, like lead) into noble metals (i.e., valuable metals, like gold).
The alleged processes employed for such a lotto-winning transmutation were thought to include the use of the fabled (but never discovered) “philospher’s stone” (also known as the touchstone), tinctures (a tincture being a single chemical agent) and elixirs. (The concept of an elixir varied, from a synonym for the transmutational “philospher's stone” to a “cocktail” of ingredients that might grant the successful alchemist immortality.)
So Herbert’s allegorical message to believers is this: Even when we are involved in “mean” work (where mean carries the older definition of base, unimportant, inferior, lowly), we can realize that we’re serving God and offer up our labor to Him. Thus, applying the tincture of this realization — we are doing it “for Thy sake” — our “drudgery” is transmuted into something divine by its consecration to God. Behold, a better than alchemy and the philosopher’s stone is here! This conscious, consecrated offering up of all our seemingly insignificant labors to God “is the famous stone that turneth all to gold,” and “God doth touch and own” such endeavors and is glorified by them.
The Elixir of eternal life is Jesus Christ. Think of this arcane poem as a costumed, colorful, elaborate, thought-provoking presentation of Colosssians 3:17,23-23:
17Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.
23Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, 24knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.
And don’t forget to make daily use of that “tincture” of consecration! ↩