Our very captivation with the Holy Grail consists in the fact that it has not been found and only few have even seen it. And, of course, the reason that the mysterious cup remains ever out of reach for the ordinary man and is because its quest is fraught with danger: fearful obstacles, inscrutable riddles, and deadly foes.
To those who possess true manliness, such obstacles are the reason why The Quest is so appealing. By definition manliness is the penchant to overcome obstacles. The more hopeless the attainment, the bigger and better is the man who laughs in the face perils to be found there. Those who are lesser men still aspire to the Grail, but fear leads them to experience the danger only vicariously by following along at a safe distance, through spectator sports, litrerature and movies.
And yet there is a temptation in that boldness to which those gallant men of the Round Table too easily succumb. The bigger and better that a man thinks he is, the more likely he is to fail utterly in attaining the goal. Gawain, for example, showed himself the fool for this very reason. And Lancelot had to be taken down a few notches (many actually) before he was even granted a partial fulfillment of his desire. Galahad attained the grail, not so much by his prowess, but more so, by his humility and purity.
There is a strange and wonderful coincidence of opposites in the embodiment of true chivalry: courage, strength, boldness and skill, on the one hand; reverence, humility, meekness, and deference on the other.
In a sermon written during his Anglican Period, entitled, “The Weapons of the Saints,” Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman couched the spiritual life in terms of a war in which the stratagem for victory demands an inversion of worldly values:
But in that kingdom which Christ has set up, all is contrariwise. “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.” What was before in honour, has been dishonoured; what before was in dishonour, has come to honour; what before was successful, fails; what before failed, succeeds.
It is this inversion that constitutes the real difficulty to the attainment of the Holy Grail of true knighthood. It is the riddle of riddles. The Black Knight, enemy of our souls, guards the bridge that leads to the hermit who is ensconced away from the manners of worldly men. It is from him that we are to unlearn our pride and find the real weapons by which we are to succeed in our quest.
Cardinal Newman’s sermon is a commentary on Our Lord’s words: Many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first (Mt 19:30). And he supports his thesis from many other passages of the New Testament concerning, for example, strength made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9), the of putting down the proud and the exalting of the humble (Lk 1:52), the blessedness of those who suffer and the woes of those who are satisfied (Mt 5:2-10; Lk 6:24-26), and God’s choice of the weak and despised to do his work (1 Cor 1:27). It should be abundantly clear to anyone with a modicum of familiarity with scripture that God triumphs in and through those who have rejected worldly ambition and self-assuredness.
The invisible powers of the heavens, truth, meekness, and righteousness, are ever coming in upon the earth, ever pouring in, gathering, thronging, warring, triumphing, under the guidance of Him who “is alive and was dead, and is alive for evermore.”
Truth, meekness and righteousness, according to Venerable Newman, are the real weapons of the saints, the means by which they are victorious over Satan, sin and death. The Holy Grail of Christian Knighthood is so hidden that in order to find it the knight must lose himself in the process.
This is that intangible, greater thing, after which young men aspire. It is the stuff of true nobility. It is strength without arrogance, command without self-interest.
Venerable Newman notes that “we like to hear marvellous tales, which throw us out of things as they are, and introduce us to things that are not.” The paradox of the cross and of the victorious King who triumphs through His own death is the cosmic myth, the retelling of which is the incantation that opens the sealed doors of our hearts. He that openeth and no man shutteth, shutteth and no man openeth, is the only one with the key (Ap 3:7).
The beloved disciple saw Him mounted on a white horse, and going forth “conquering and to conquer.” “And the armies which were in heaven followed Him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of His mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it He should smite the nations, and He shall rule them with a rod of iron.” [Rev. xix. 14, 15.]
The Quest of the Holy Grail is a lesser myth, as are all other stories when compared to the gospel myth in which the most fantastic tale is merged with history, and where what Tolkien called eucatastrophe, a literary climax beyond our wildest hopes, is made the substance of all our hopes and the ground upon which we walk in the daylight of this world.
Indeed, the return of the king in Tolkien’s mythology is an ascendency by way of descent. Aragorn and the Dúnedain are content to be despised if that will better equip them to protect and defend the peoples of Middle Earth. Aragorn himself must choose the path leading downward, literally underground, through the Paths of the Dead under the White Mountains, like Christ in His harrowing of hell, if he is to triumph on behalf of those entrusted to his care.
After Gandalf had “passed through fire and deep water,” and had completed his own christic transformation, he delivered a message to Aragorn from the Lady of Light, Galadriel:
Where now are the Dúnedain, Elessar, Elessar?
Why do thy kinsfolk wander afar?
Near is the hour when the Lost should come forth,
And the Grey Company ride from the North.
But dark is the path appointed for thee:
The Dead watch the road that leads to the Sea (Book III, Chapter V).
Aragorn chose the path of truth, meekness and righteousness. He was prepared to face his fear, and he was not afraid to confront his own ego with the double-edged sword of God’s truth. He chose to go down in order to go up, to be last in order to be first. Yet the myth of Aragorn cannot be a vicarious substitute for our own humiliation. We must really experience it. Newman has it right:
We so love the idea of the invisible, that we even build fabrics in the air for ourselves, if heavenly truth be not vouchsafed us. We love to fancy ourselves involved in circumstances of danger or trial, and acquitting ourselves well under them. Or we imagine some perfection, such as earth has not, which we follow, and render it our homage and our heart. Such is the state more or less of young persons before the world alters them, before the world comes upon them, as it often does very soon, with its polluting, withering, debasing, deadening influence, before it breathes on them, and blights and parches, and strips off their green foliage, and leaves them, as dry and wintry trees without sap or sweetness.
We must not loose our idealism as we grow older, but “heavenly truth” should purify our tendency to experience knighthood vicariously through its trappings and shards. Ours is to be the knighthood of the real Dúnedain, a hidden knighthood in search of the hidden, but very real Holy Grail.
As a Franciscan, I have had many opportunities to reflect upon the militant example of Saints Francis and Maximilian, and of the great tertiary St. Louis of France. The Holy Patriarch of the Seraphic Order, Our Holy Father St. Francis, was well aware of the Arthurian legends and aspired to knighthood and the Holy Grail himself. Later, after he too had chosen the path downward, he called the simple brothers who lived in seclusion and despised status and pomp, his “Knights of the Round Table.”
In this last week of ordinary time, during the “octave” of the Feast of Christ the King, we look for His return at the end of the world, when he will preside over the cosmic resolution to the perennial struggle of St. Michael and the dragon. Then He will raise his wounded hands over the universe and all of us will be witnesses of the full revelation of His truth, a more powerful illumination than possession of the Grail itself. Then we will all know what true chivalry is and whether we are worthy to drink from the cup filled by the hands of Him who carried the sword of truth and slayed the dragon by His humble acceptance of our condition and by His willing suffering and death.
The weapons of the true knight are those of the saints: truth, meekness and righteousness. They are best fitted to help us along the way of our Quest, a path that leads up a narrow crag in a mountain. But this path to the heights strangely leads us downward by many uneven steps, until we arrive in the sanctuary of the Holy Grail and find rest in the yoke of Christ on the Holy Mountain of His Passion, Death and Resurrection.
Made it on Headline Bistro, thanks to Dawn Eden.
For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
I am not sure why I never noticed how militant this hymn is, especially verses 7-10. I guess it is because we never sing that many verses in America. The words were written by Anglican Bishop William Walsham How in 1864:
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
When How released his work to the Church of England, I wonder how the English Catholics who had been singing the words of Father Frederick Faber already for 20 years thought about the irony:
Faith of our fathers, Mary’s prayers
Shall win our country back to Thee;
And through the truth that comes from God,
England shall then indeed be free.
Catholic Emancipation and the Oxford Movement had led to many conversions, like that of Father Faber, and a spirit of Catholic militancy was in the air, perhaps the Anglicans wished to share in it. It is a gift of the Blessed Mother for which we should all pray.
Virtually anything that can be said of the Church can be said of the Blessed Virgin. England is Our Lady’s Dowry. I pray that the Church of England finds its way.
All the Holy Martyrs of the England, pray for us.
Marron: 3, Friars: 0
Thank you, soldier, for not being a politically correct, sellout pinhead, like so many others, while our troops fight and die for their country, sometimes at the traitorous hands of their own comrades.
Religious Liberty Down Under in the side bar.
All these things, which I have securely in mind to the extent that in this life I have been able to understand them, are, compared with what I have said, extremely great. Beside them, all the sights and sound and justice and truth of this world seem to me lies and nothingness. I am left confused because I cannot find words extreme enough for these things (St. Catherine of Genoa, Treatise on Purgatory).
St. Catherine of Genoa (+1510) was a great mystic who was given insights into the plight of our poor brothers and sisters in Purgatory. Like all mystics she was given an understanding of supernatural realities that she had a hard time putting into words. The pain of the Poor Souls in their purification was beyond her ability to describe. But so was the love and joy of these souls who were so drawn to God by the bands of His love and who were so eager to be delivered from the imperfections that hindered them from uniting themselves to Him completely and freely.
The world lies to us about happiness and about the relative value of the experiences of this life as compared with those that exist beyond the veil of death. Every time we sin we make a false estimation of the consequences of our actions. We take imprudent risks to our own detriment. We sell our inheritance for a bowl of porridge. All the while we settle on a transient relief from suffering and purification, like addicts getting their next fix only to crash harder than before.
Even on the night before Our Blessed Lord and Savior died, just after the apostles had received the first Eucharist they preferred sleep to His company. He underwent purification for them, suffering the pain of pure love, not because He had no other choice, as those of us who wind up in Purgatory, but because he willed to undergo pain and suffering so that we might be delivered from that necessity . . . and worse.
Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke of the mental sufferings of Christ, by which He assumed not only our guilt, but the very experience of our compromises, as He sweat blood in the garden, and how like a myriad of demons they all descended upon Him as though He was the depository of every iniquity:
Hopes blighted, vows broken, lights quenched, warnings scorned, opportunities lost; the innocent betrayed, the young hardened, the penitent relapsing, the just overcome, the aged failing; the sophistry of misbelief, the wilfulness of passion, the obduracy of pride, the tyranny of habit, the canker of remorse, the wasting fever of care, the anguish of shame, the pining of disappointment, the sickness of despair; such cruel, such pitiable spectacles, such heartrending, revolting, detestable, maddening scenes; nay, the haggard faces, the convulsed lips, the flushed cheek, the dark brow of the willing slaves of evil, they are all before Him now; they are upon Him and in Him. They are with Him instead of that ineffable peace which has inhabited His soul since the moment of His conception. They are upon Him, they are all but His own; He cries to His Father as if He were the criminal, not the victim; His agony takes the form of guilt and compunction. He is doing penance, He is making confession, He is exercising contrition, with a reality and a virtue infinitely greater than that of all saints and penitents together; for He is the One Victim for us all, the sole Satisfaction, the real Penitent, all but the real sinner.
And the apostles slept, as we sleep, content with the thought that there is still time for us to change and that our compromises are small. How we deceive ourselves.
St. Catherine has no words for the extremity of our danger . . . and of the love that is the cure of our torpor. The souls in purgatory when they were alive thought too little about their danger and too little about love. Now they think nothing of their pain and only about the love of God. They will their purification. They do not sleep and they have no desire for it. Yet for all their love and joy in the midst of their pain, it is for them no merit, for their time has passed.
Remembrance of the holy souls is self-forgetfulness. It is the cure . . . for them, and for us. Unless, God forbid, we go to hell, someday we will forget ourselves and remember the ultimate realities: God and our obligations toward one another. We can do it now or we can do it later. The souls in Purgatory would have us do it now.
They remember us. Do we remember them? This is no time to sleep. Rest will come, but until now, we have not toiled for God nearly enough.
The good men we have canonized at their funerals will not thank us for the kind and laudatory eulogies. We forget the sufferings of others so as to console our families, and ourselves and in this no one is served, not ourselves, not our families, and certainly not the souls of the departed.
Oh, sweet sleep. How we crave rest, yet we will not find it unless we give it. During this November we would do well to do more than a casual visit to a cemetery or a write a check and conveniently hand it to our pastor for yearly masses, though both of these we should do. Indeed, nothing can be more efficacious than the Mass, except a Mass that is dedicated by the stipend of our own hearts.
The apostles slept through Our Lord’s agony and we sleep through the agony of the poor souls. It is so easy to do. Perhaps we could offer time with Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, or more frequent communions for the grace to understand better the extremity of the situation and how the deliverance of the poor souls from their suffering will help protect us against our own peril, and how our imitation of their selfless desire for purity may save us from their present distress.
Love is not loved. But it need not be that way. Now is not the time for us to rest.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.
I kid you not. I would have thought it was satire, if I did not know better. It is an old piece from Crisis Magazine, regurgitated, I guess, to capitalize on the interest drummed up by West’s reply. From my point of view it could not come at a better time because it is perfect example of how Team TOB USA has wandered off the track and got lost in the wild. Too much.
In the new covenant, Jesus elevates marriage to a sacramental sign. Marriage no longer simply represents the natural union of man and woman but makes visible Christ’s total and irrevocable gift of Himself to the Church. Just as He gave Himself away to the Church so that He could be one with her (cf. Ephesians 5:31-32), so husband and wife are called to give themselves away so as to image the oneness of Christ and the Church. This self-gift doesn’t happen in some ultraspiritual realm but in the body. Christ said, “This is my body, given up for you.” So, too, man and woman say to each other, “This is my body, given up for you.”
How could this possibly apply to tango? Danced in all its beauty and artistry, Argentine tango expresses the theology of the body: The man gives himself away to the woman, the woman gives herself away to the man, and suddenly the two are no longer dancing as two but as one. Right before our eyes we see union and communion, two and one, giving and receiving. The man and woman are a visible sign of the self-giving union between Christ and the Church.
Despite the many times I’ve been tempted to throw in the tango towel, this is why I continue: Tango is not just a dance, it’s sacramental. It constantly propels me toward my heavenly calling — union and communion with Christ through a total gift of self.
Every time I re-read it I scratch my head. I am in that sort of surreal state, where I know this stuff is nothing to be surprised at, but then I wonder if the very sense of commonness is an indication that I must be dreaming, or hallucinating.
But my real reason for posting this is the gem of a comment from Father George Rutler:
I respond to a request that I comment on the religious significance of the tango dance. First, I have found that the “theology of the body” is widely perceived as an unsystematic melange of theology, philosophy, and frail romantic poetry, which can be problematic even in skilled hands and is commonly invoked by people who are limited in their knowledge of the subject, Secondly, I am relatively ignorant myself of social activities which cause perspiration. With those advisories, I think I may assume that all of us are familiar with the Kaiser’s condemnation of the tango in 1913, for fear of its effects on his Crown Princess. More pertinent to the theological aspect, is Pope St. Pius X’s informal condemnation of the tango after he had watched an exhibition performance at the request of Cardinal Merry del Val who thought the Pontiff might approve a sober version of it as choreographed by the Roman dance master Professor Pichetti. The Pope did not at all approve and recommended instead the “Furlana,” an Italian folk dance which goes back to the early seventeenth century in Friuli Venezia Giulia and with which he had been familiar in his youth.
Good thing I wasn’t drinking anything when I read that. That second sentence is about the best and most concise summary of the situation I have read.
Capuche tip to Terry.