The Great Elixir
For all our new versions, revisions, commentaries, and despite the hype, the Bible has a bad press in many circles today. All right, it has been brought down from a pedestal and that is not always a bad thing. A realistic approach is usually an advantage. The rationalistic and academic appraisal of the text over the last couple of hundred years has borne much fruit, and yet for many the Bible has grown stale, all sense of transcendent respect for the revealed word of God has been lost. Ignorance and indifference have set in. Others have approached the sacred pages with an arrogant self-assurance. To paraphrase St Benedict (speaking of another matter) what pleases them they call holy and what goes against the grain they disallow. We need to pause and backtrack, in order to build up again and advance, as we should. Finding a morally acceptable way forward in our disintegrating civilization is dependent on an enlightened re-implementation of timeless biblical truth.
Awe and emulation
Some of the eulogies of Scripture from previous ages can at times seem remote. But where there is respect and awe, rightly perceived, there usually follows an attempt to emulate. For instance, Henry Vaughan, seventeenth-century Christian poet and person of prayer, knew without a doubt how central the scriptures needed to be in his life. Like many of us he met them in his early years then let their influence drift. Later he saw things differently. What he has to say about all this is not simply poetry, gifted though he is. He lived at a time of great upheaval and uncertainty and was brought up short by an experience of God. Scripture henceforth became his anchor and guiding principle. Perhaps he has something to say to our own time.
We will look at a short poem to be found in Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans, part one, written around 1650. It is simply entitled ‘Holy Scriptures’ The first two verses extol the Bible, in the poetic style typical of the metaphysical poets of his era, and of which he was himself a master:
Welcome dear book, soul’s joy and food! The feast
Of spirit’s; heaven extracted lies in thee.
Thou art life’s charter; the Dove’s* spotless nest
Where souls are hatched unto eternity.
In thee, the hidden stone, the manna lies;
Thou art the great elixir rare and choice;
The key that opens to all mysteries,
The Word in characters, God in the Voice.
* i.e. the Holy Spirit
Space will not allow for word-to-word commentary, but meditation on these verses can yield depths of relevant meaning if we approach things prayerfully, chewing slowly over the words. After all that is how we should behave towards Holy Scripture itself.
Engraved on stony hearts
Having thus eulogized the Bible – sincerely and meaningfully and not simply through a clever use of words – Vaughan brings the sacred book down to his own level in the third and last stanza. He knows his own sin and hardness of heart and wishes that the words of Scripture could be engraved permanently on that stony heart. Then God would of necessity hear his prayer since he would be praying always with God’s own words. With acceptable familiarity he could remind God that his own Son had become one of us, had taken our sin upon him and done away with it. How then could God refuse to redeem and sanctify him?
O that I had deep cut in my hard heart
Each line in thee!** Then I would plead in groans
Of my Lord’s penning, and by sweetest art
Return upon himself the law and stones:
Read here, my faults are thine. The book and I
Will tell thee so; sweet Saviour thou didst die.
** i.e the Scriptures
A Sister from Holy Cross Convent, Rempstone.
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