St Peter Bushey Heath

5th August 2007

Learning from Hymns 3: Teach me, my God and King

On each of my three Sundays at St Peter’s we have looked at a well-known hymn, each of which was written at a time when the Church of England appeared to be falling to pieces.

Hymns, we have seen, are a concise, easy-to-remember and popular way of telling the truth – and since the English language contains the largest and best collection of hymns in the world (including, of course, many translated from other languages), we should make the fullest use of that resource: not just by singing them – it’s difficult to sing and understand hymns at the same time – but by studying them at home. That will improve our understanding both of the hymn itself, as well as of the Bible and the Catholic Faith.

Let’s begin with another history lesson, because this ‘sets the scene’ in which each of these hymns was written. Let’s refer to them as ‘hymns’, though the particular one today was written as a sacred poem called The Elixir by George Herbert. He wouldn’t have expected it to pass into popular hymnody – and anyway the tune to which it is always sung wasn’t written until many years after his death.

So back we go another hundred years before Charles Wesley to the declining years of Queen Elizabeth the First. George Herbert was born in 1593, at a time when England was threatened on every side by potential enemies, and from within by conspirators. Pope Pius V had privately suggested that anyone who assassinated her would be doing God’s will; he had blessed and helped to fund the Spanish Armada in 1588; there were numerous plots, both real and imaginary, against the Queen’s life; and the Elizabethan so-called ‘settlement’ which had been created to try and keep everyone happy, politically, ecclesially and socially, inevitably failed to satisfy the demands of those who held more extreme positions. This included the Scots, the Irish, the Roman Catholics, the Presbyterians as well as otherwise loyal members of the Church of England. Matters really came to a head of course in 1605, two years after Elizabeth had died, with the Gunpowder Plot. But George Herbert grew up in the shadow of terrorism, invasion, and possible civil war.

Of particular interest to us was the struggle which took place between those who came to be known as the ‘Puritans’, and those Anglicans who saw the Elizabethan Settlement as the only way of keeping the nation united and at peace. Both sides claimed to be loyal to the principles of the Reformation in the previous century which had taken place under Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII. But there agreement ended. Anglican Puritans wanted to see the principles of the Reformation carried through to their logical conclusion – which would all but have removed every trace of what the Church had been like during the previous fifteen centuries. Anglicans like George Herbert, his friend Nicholas Ferrar, bishops like Jewel, Andrewes and Archbishop Parker were equally clear that if the Church of England were not perceptibly in a continuum with the Catholic Church, they could have nothing to do with it.

It was, of course, one of those classic examples (which happen over and over again) of a sincere and well-motivated attempt to correct the abuses of the mediaeval Roman Catholic Church, but which turned in fact into a correction which went far too far in the opposite direction. Today’s hymn was an attempt to redress the balance in one particular respect, namely the part which this world, and its creation, has to play in the providence of God.

Christianity, like Jesus Christ Himself, has always been a world-affirming belief. ‘God so loved the world’, St John tells us, ‘that He gave his Son to redeem it’. Jesus ate meat, drank wine, went to weddings and dinner-parties, and enjoyed the company of both the small and the great, the rich and the poor. But in due course, as the letters of St Paul tell us only too convincingly, Christians were using the liberty which we enjoy in Christ as a cloak for all sorts of immoral, deceitful and thoroughly worldly behaviour. Some were drunk, some were lecherous, some were scandal-mongers and trouble-makers, one lived in an incestuous relationship with his step-mother; they were ambitious, greedy and disloyal. Sounds rather like the Church of England today, doesn’t it?

Well, a reaction, in the form of what’s called ‘Rigorism’ (or Puritanism) set in. Christianity became a world-hating religion. People began to think of life as necessarily ‘nasty, brutish and short’. Pleasure and enjoyment were frowned upon and only those whose lives conformed to the strictest principles of behaviour could be saved.

A similar ‘Rigorist reaction had already taken place in the Second Century and again in the Fifth, Thirteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, and several times in-between. The Tudor post-Reformation period had developed into one of licence, debauchery, immorality and exploitation. Small wonder, then, that there would be a religious reaction against such things by people who described themselves as ‘Puritans’ or the Godly Ones. Drawing their inspiration from John Calvin, the Reformer of Geneva (where many of them had fled to escape Queen Mary’s persecution) they held to mistaken beliefs which are still around today. Pushing their convictions much too hard: instead of believing that God intends man to be in harmony with Nature, they saw everything ‘natural’ as all-of-a-part with, and totally corrupted by, evil. As so often happens, Nature, when thus outraged ‘took a fearful revenge’.

It was against this background that Herbert wrote The Elixir. In the first verse he says:

Teach me my God and King/In all things Thee to see/And what I do in anything/To do it as for Thee

Herbert is telling us that, although Creator and Creation are literally ‘worlds apart’, God nevertheless works through His creation rather than against it. As part of His Creation, indeed as the very part for whose benefit the rest of creation was made, we have no business to treat it as something to be despised or shunned. Of course we mustn’t make the mistake of identifying ‘God’ with ‘everything there is’. That’s called Pantheism and is what Hindus teach and believe. But Herbert tells us to see God in everything, and to understand that in all our deeds and words we should be aware that He is the ever-present, ever caring, Sustainer of His creation, not least ourselves.

In verse 2, Herbert likens this way of seeing God to someone looking at a window. He writes:

A man that looks on glass/On it may stay his eye/ Or if he pleases through it pass/And then the Heavens espy.

Herbert says this, not because ‘looking on glass’ is always wrong and looking through it always right. For instance, a window-cleaner or a glass-maker has a duty to ‘look on [the] glass’ he’s making or cleaning. God doesn’t require, or even expected us ignore His creation and think about nothing but Him. In this world, much of our everyday duties will consist, so to speak, in looking at creation (rather than looking through it at God). The mistake which the Puritans made was to imagine that creation acts like a barrier between us and God, which has to be got rid of if we are to see Him as He is. ‘Not so!’ says Herbert. People go wrong when they are spending their entire lives, so to speak, ‘looking on’ the glass of this world, admiring their own reflection in it, but totally fail to see what lies beyond that glass. For the same God who made the ‘glass of Creation’ for mankind to look at and admire, also created man in order ‘to glorify and enjoy Him for ever’. Verse Three says:

All may of Thee partake/Nothing can be so mean/Which with this tincture ‘for Thy sake’/ will not grow bright and clean.

Nothing (and nobody) is so small and insignificant that they don’t matter to God. When people say ‘What can I do? I don’t count’ they are seriously mistaken. God, as St Paul says, has chosen the simple things of this world to confound the wise and clever. As another writer put it ‘there are no ordinary people’. Each and every one of us is either contributing to, or helping to destroy God’s Kingdom by how we live our everyday life. So in Verse Four:

A servant with this clause/Makes drudgery divine/Who sweeps a room as for thy laws/Makes that and the action fine.

In every area of our lives we find some duties less enjoyable than others. But if we start doing these duties for God (and thereby do them better and better) they are transformed into something ‘bright and clean’ rather than sheer drudgery. But it doesn’t end there. The best teachers of those who find difficulty in learning something are the very ones who, when they were students, had to struggle to master some particular difficulty until they found how to overcome it. Any teacher who says to a pupil ‘I don’t see what your problem is’, is a dead-loss. As Herbert writes:

This is the famous stone/That turneth all to gold/For that which God doth touch and own/Can not for less be told.

In Herbert’s day, philosophers and scientists searched for the Elixir – a powder which could turn common metals into gold. Far from scorning their attempts, Herbert assures them (and us) that such an Elixir lies right under our noses. In Jesus Christ, the ‘Way, the Truth and the Life’ (and thus the ‘Elixir of all Creation’), the commonest objects, actions (and particularly, people) will be converted by His grace into matters of infinite worth and value

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