The Easter Mysteries and the Quest for True Knighthood

Some time ago, I wrote that the Holy Grail of True Knighthood is constituted by the inversion of worldly values and the assimilation of the foolishness of God, which is wiser than the wisdom of men.  There is a real sense in which true knighthood is itself the Holy Grail.  The ideals of Marian Chivalry are so high because it is the knighthood of Jesus Christ Himself, and so paradoxical because in practice a fighting spirit is hard to synthesize with courtesy.

Within and Without

The Holy Grail is both within and without.  In The Mystery of Faith, which is first of all the Eucharist itself and then our own participation in it, we must profess our faith in the most sublime reality of God (the Eucharist) and then conform ourselves to it interiorly (worthy and fruitful communion).  The Mystery of Faith is both the stupendous reality of transubstantiation and our own transformation in Christ.  So for true Knight the Holy Grail is first of all the attainment of the Vessel of the Eucharist and the Eucharist itself and then it is that enclosed space within one’s soul where the virtues of chivalry live and thrive unthreatened by the warfare of this world.

For good reason, then, even if within the tradition there are so many pagan elements, the legends surrounding the Holy Grail go right to the heart of the Easter Mystery.  In the most Christian version of the story, The Quest del Saint Graal, there are three manifestations of the Holy Grail.

Three Manifestations

The first is to Lancelot, the sinner, when from the Grail a priest elevates the Sacred Host and he is granted a vision of three men, two of whom place the youngest into the hands of the priest.  When Lancelot tries to approach the Sacred Vessel in order to assist the priest, who seems so weighed down by the figure of Christ that He is bearing, Lancelot is stopped in his tracks and left paralyzed and senseless.

The second manifestation is to Perceval, Bors and Galahad, the three companions, who during the reenactment of the Last Supper at the Castle of Corbenic, witness Our Lord and Savior appear out from the Holy Grail, bleeding from His hands and feet.  Jesus tells them that since they have sought Him so diligently that He could no longer hide Himself from them, and that for this reason He deigned to let them see some of His secrets and mysteries.  He also tells them that while many had been filled with the “grace of the Holy Vessel,” only they were allowed to experience the Holy Grail in such a face-to-face manner.  Then Our Lord Himself communicates the three companions from the Holy Grail itself.  Later Galahad tells his two companions that when he “was looking on the hidden mysteries that are not disclosed to common view, but only to them that wait on Jesus Christ,” that he had achieved such joy that had he died at that moment he would have been the happiest man that ever lived.

The third manifestation of the Holy Grail is given to Galahad alone, because as King Mordrain tells him:

You are the lily of purity, you are the true rose, the flower of strength and healing with the tint of fire: for the fire of the Holy Ghost burns in you so brightly that my flesh which was withered and dead is now made young and strong again.

This last manifestation takes place a year after Galahad had been crowned King of Serras.  During that year, the Holy Grail dwells within the city walls on its silver table over which Galahad has built an ark of gold and precious stones.  On the anniversary of his crowning a bishop, kneeling before the table, recites the Confiteor and intones “the mass of the glorious Mother of God.  Then during the “solemn part of the mass,” the bishop calls Galahad over:  “Come forward, servant of Jesus Christ, and look on that which you have so ardently desired to see.”  He steps forward and gazes down into the Sacred Vessel, which contains The Mystery of Faith and is seized with a violent trembling at the contemplation of it.  “Then lifting up his hands to heaven, he said:

Lord, I worship Thee and give Thee thanks that Thou hast granted my desire, for now I see revealed what tongue could not relate nor heart conceive.  Here is the source of valour undismayed, the spring-head of endeavor; here I see the wonder that passes every other!  And since, sweet Lord, Thou has fulfilled my wish to let me see what I have ever craved, I pray Thee now that in this state Thou suffer me to pass from earthly life to life eternal.

Galahad is then once again communicated from the Holy Grail and shortly after prostrates himself before the Holy Grail on the silver table and then breathes his last.

Three meanings

Each of the manifestations is an experience of The Mystery of Faith and a relaxing of the Discipline of the Secret, a progressive mystagogia.  The manifestations are progressive, proceeding from a kind of outer court to an inner sanctum.

In the first manifestation to Lancelot, the repentant sinner, he is allowed to see the mystery of the Holy Grail from a distance, but, like Uzzah who was struck dead because he touched the Ark, is punished when he attempts to approach the Holy Grail.  From the outside Lancelot, beholds a special revelation of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity and of Transubstantiation, as a kind of encouragement for him to do greater penance, but he is not permitted to enter in, nor is his presumption left unpunished.

In the second manifestation to the three companions, Our Lord rewards their perseverance in the quest for the inner life of the grail.  He tells them that He cannot withhold his secrets and mysteries from those who ardently seek them.  In it the holy knight, Galahad finds joy with which nothing in this world can compare.

But only to Galahad, the pure, is the third and highest manifestation granted.  It is a reward for his purity of heart and body.  In it he finds the source of fearless courage and the motive for all endeavor.  The paradox hear is that the end of the Quest can only be reached by means of fearlessness and the highest motives, yet the it is only in the Grail that such treasures may be found.  Again the Holy Grail is both within and without, but when it is fully achieved within our entrance into heaven is assured.  The goal of life is achieved and all that is left to do is to die.

Triple Ways

Thee Three manifestations correspond roughly to the three ways of the spiritual life: purgation, illumination and union.  Lancelot is given a revelation in order to bring him closer to the source, by inspiring in him hope, and this leads to greater repentance.  The three companions are illumined with what is hidden and secret because they persevere through the darkness.  Galahad is brought into the union of the Holy of Holies, into the very sanctuary of heaven, because his purification and illumination is perfected.

In sacred scripture the chalice has a threefold meaning as well.  There is first of all the cup of wrath:

For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup of strong wine full of mixture. And he hath poured it out from this to that: but the dregs thereof are not emptied: all the sinners of the earth shall drink (Ps 75:9).

But while our godlessness draws down upon us the wrath of God, Our Lord Himself has imbibed the cup of our iniquities.  From this chalice he prayed to be delivered because the corruption of our sins with which was filled was poison to His immaculate flesh and His Sacred Heart.  Nevertheless His last word on the matter was:

The chalice which my father hath given me, shall I not drink it? (Jn 18:11).

We may indeed, drink “judgment” to ourselves, by partaking of the Eucharist unworthily, or we may honor the Body and Blood of Christ, by doing penance and seeking perseveringly the Holy Gail.

The second is the cup of salvation, which is, we might say, the very same cup of wrath transformed by mercy.  Wrath becomes mercy in the Heart of Christ, when he drinks the cup of the wrath set up against us, and allows us to drink from the cup of His salvation: This chalice is the new testament in my blood.

This do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of me (1 Cor 11:25).

This memory of Christ makes the past present and transforms it, conforms it to the victorious Christ.  It is the dawn of a new light toward which the whole of history is led in procession.

The third is the cup of fellowship that, like Galahad, we are invited to share because we have persevered.  Holy Communion is the summit of the Mass because the Penitential Rite and the Liturgy of the Word (prayers at the foot of the altar and Mass of the Catechumen) are preparations of the heart and mind for union.  If penance is made perfect by the enlightenment of the Cross then the way is open for the third manifestation of the Grail, which is not only the reception of the Eucharist, but a vision into the Holy Vessel, by which we may contemplate The Mystery of Faith contained therein.  Our call is not only to receive the Eucharist bodily but to experience what that bodily union represents.  Surely, the grace of the Blessed Sacrament does not depend on how we experience it, but nevertheless we are called to taste, and see that the Lord is sweet (Ps 34:8).

Thou hast prepared a table before me against them that afflict me. Thou hast anointed my head with oil; and my chalice which inebreateth me, how goodly is it! (Ps 23:5).

The Only Way

Unfortunately, the myth of the Holy Grail is suffused, in most its renditions, with the old Gnostic heresy of secret knowledge given apart from the public revelation of Jesus Christ.  Dan Brown has given us a useful, if not revolting, synthesis the Gnostic nonsense in his wretched novel.  But he is not altogether wrong either.  The Grail is an enclosed space and a feminine symbol, but it does not for that reason point to the erotic, to goddess worship and the Gnostic Mary Magdelan.

As a Christian myth, the Holy Grail is a symbol of the Blessed Virgin, within whose solemn Mass its mysteries are revealed to Galahad (third manifestation, union).  She is the Enclosed Garden, within whom the secret of God’s divine presence is contained and through whom, He who was hidden from all eternity is made manifest.  And it is through the attainment of Her as the goal of our Quest that we will find within ourselves the same hidden mysteries realized.

In the Quest del Saint Graal, Galahad receives the fullness of his knighthood from the Perceval’s sister, a virgin of consummate beauty and virtue.  Galahad, as the only one who may safely unsheathe it, wields the Sword of the Strange Belt, found on the Miraculous Ship.  It is both prophesied that only the best of knights will be able to wield the sword without harm, and that eventually a pure maiden will come who will replace the cheap hemp belt from which it hangs for a more worthy one.  Perceval’s Sister replaces the belt with one made from her hair, which was her most precious possession.  Taking the sword in its sheath and attaching it to the belt made with her hair she girds Galahad with it and says:

Truly, Sir, it matters no more to me when death shall take me; for now I hold myself blessed above all maidens, having made a knight of the nobles man in the world.  For I assure you, you were not by rights a knight until you were girded with the sword which was brought to this land for you alone.

Then Galahad answers:

Damsel, you part in this makes me you knight forever.

Shortly thereafter Perceval’s sister does die, offering a cup of her own blood to a sickly queen in need of healing.

By Her precious virginity, the Blessed Virgin girds the Son of God with His sacred humanity and bestows upon Him the Knighthood by which He will save the world.  He becomes Her Knight, and through Her we will become the children of God.  Christ offers His blood, taken from the Virgin, as a sacrifice for all, and She offers Her life’s blood, Her very own Son in an act of consummate feminine chivalry.  All true knights that come afterwards will have to penetrate The Mystery of Faith by taking this path, this way and must persevere in this quest.

This is the secret of Marian Chivalry and its mystagogia is the science of the great Marian saints like St. Louis de Montfort and St. Maximilian Kolbe.  These are Easter mysteries that we contemplate:  mysteries of light and of victory.

Having concentrated in this post on the Holy Grail, I will look more closely in the next Easter catechesis at the Holy Sepulcher.

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The Holy Grail of True Knighthood

True knighthood is the Holy Grail of manhood, a revelation attainable only by the pure.  The proud are ever barred from taking a draught from it.

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.