An African friend used to joke that his country had solved the alchemist’s quest, that they had found a way of making gold. (The truth he disclosed was less pleasant, that the gold exported was plundered from a neighbouring country). The search for the Philosopher’s Stone, the thing that would turn common metal to gold or silver, preoccupied researchers for centuries.
The Philosopher’s Stone appears in the writing of the 17th Century English priest George Herbert. In his ‘Teach me my God and King’, what makes everything special is not that it is turned to gold, but that it is done for God’s sake:
Teach me, my God and King,
in all things thee to see,
and what I do in anything
to do it as for thee.
A man that looks on glass,
on it may stay his eye;
or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
and then the heaven 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 the action fine.
This is the famous stone
that turneth all to gold;
for that which God doth touch and own
cannot for less be told.
Herbert took his own words with deadly earnest, done for God, ordinary actions were golden; the writer Izaak Walton describes one incident.
Mr Herbert’s chiefest recreation was music in which heavenly art he was a most excellent master, and did himself compose many divine hymns and anthems, which he set and sung to his lute or viol, and though he was a lover of retiredness, yet his love to music was such that he went usually twice every week, on certain appointed days, to the Cathedral Church in Salisbury; and at his return would say, “that his time spent in prayer and Cathedral music elevated his soul, and was his heaven upon earth.” But before his return to Bemerton, he would usually sing and play his part at an appointed private music meeting; and to justify this practice he would often say ” Religion does not banish mirth, but only moderates and sets rules to it.”
In one of his walks to Salisbury, he saw a poor man with a poorer horse, that was fallen under his load: they were both in distress and needed present help; which Mr Herbert perceiving, put off his canonical coat and helped the poor man to unload, and after to load his horse. The poor man blessed him for it, and he blessed the poor man; and was so like the good Samaritan, that he gave him money to refresh both himself and his horse; and told him, “That if he loved himself, he should be merciful to his beast.” Thus he left the poor man: and at his coming to his musical friends in Salisbury, they began to wonder that Mr George Herbert, which used to be so trim and clean, came into that company so soiled and discomposed: but he told them the occasion. And when one of the company told him, “He had disparaged himself by so dirty an employment,” his answer was, “That the thought of what he had done would prove music to him at midnight; and that the omission of it would have upbraided and made discord in his conscience, whenever he should pass by that place: for if I be bound to pray for all that be in distress, I am sure that I am bound so far as it is in my power, to practise what I pray for. And although I do not wish for the like occasion every day, yet let me tell you, I would not willingly pass one day of my life without comforting a sad soul, or showing mercy, and I praise God for this occasion. And now let us tune our instruments. “