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 Mystery of Faith

The following reflection was written on Holy Thursday, but concerns the whole Easter Triduum and Easter Itself.

This evening we have begun the Sacred Paschal Triduum with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which commemorates the institution of the Sacraments of Holy Orders and of the Eucharist.  From here we will pass to the historical enactment of Our Lord’s great sacrfice and then on to His glorious victory over death.  This will be my one Easter reflection for this blog and I will not return here until after the Easter Peace has concluded.

In actuality, the different moments of the Easter Triduum are most properly conflated under the title of Easter, since each of them is rightly qualified by the word paschal. Easter is our pasch, our passover, by which we pass from death to life in the crucified and victorious Savior.  For Christ our pasch is sacrificed (1 Cor 5:7).  In fact, it is almost a truism to say that the death of the Lord makes no sense without the resurrection and vice-versa.  But it is also true to say that from the Lord’s own institution, we were never called to consider either His death or resurrection apart from the Eucharist.

The Hour of Christ

It was for these moments, or for this hour that He came (Jn 12:27).  Everything, aside from the sin of his betrayers and murderers (among whom we are included), was executed according to his will and predetermined plan.  His saving deeds have become the culminating moments of salvation history, but we do not merely remember them as belonging to the past, nor do we simply comprehend them in view of the transformation we all anticipate.  As Cardinal Ratzinger has written, our liturgical participation belongs to a kind of middle moment, a “between-time” in which the institutional past is brought into the liturgical present and beyond by our carrying out the command he gave to His apostles at the last supper: This do for the commemoration of me (1 Cor. 11:24).  The middle moment consists in the fact that our commemoration (a remembrance that is more than a memory) of the Lord’s saving mysteries looks forward to and effects our own transformation in grace, which is to be perfected in our own resurrection for which we are being prepared now by His Sacrifice and Sacrament of the Eucharist.

The three moments of the Triduum then—Eucharist, Passion and Death, Resurrection—are ordered to one another in such a way, that it is only in this liturgical life that Christ’s design for our salvation is fully realized.  That the Paschal Triduum is the zenith of liturgical life only serves to underscore this truth.

A True Sacrifice

The Council of Trent taught that the Mass is “a true sacrifice and proper sacrifice,” and not a “bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross,” but rather “a propitiatory sacrifice” (Session 22, cc. 1, 3).  The difference between the sacrifice as it is offered on Holy Thursday and on Good Friday is the mode.  On Holy Thursday at the Last Supper, Christ is immolated mystically in an “unbloody” manner, and on Good Friday, he is immolated historically and physically in a “bloody” manner upon the Cross.  Our Lord institutes the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacrament of the Eucharist, as well as the Sacrament of Holy Orders the night before He died, because His explicit intention was to make all of us real and immediate participants in this One Sacrifice.  Cardinal Ratzinger writes that in this way Our Lord made the semel (once for all) of His sacrifice semper (always) of liturgical life.

The difference between the first Mass celebrated by Our Lord Himself on the night before He died and those that take place after His resurrection through the ministry of His priests is the state of His humanity in respect to its glorification.  On the night before He died, Our Lord’s Body in the consecrated host was not yet crucified and glorified, whereas after, and until the end of time, our Victim on the altar is not only the Savior on the Cross, but also the Victor who has come forth from the tomb and sits at the right hand of His Father, glorified in heaven.

The Mystery of Faith

The Church teaches that the Eucharist is The Mystery of Faith.  This notion comes from the institutional narrative itself into which these words are inserted, specifically from the consecration of the chalice:

HIC EST ENIM CALIX SANGUINIS MEI, NOVI ET AETERNI TESTAMENTI:

MYSTERIUM FIDEI:

QUI PRO VOBIS ET PRO MULTIS EFFUNDETUR IN REMISSIONEM PECCATORUM.

THIS IS THE CHALICE OF MY BLOOD OF THE NEW AND ETERNAL COVENANT:

THE MYSTERY OF FAITH:

WHICH IS BEING SHED FOR YOU AND FOR MANY FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS.

This is the text as it is taken from the ancient liturgical usage.  I will refrain from comment on the change introduced into the new liturgy, especially in the English translation, as it does not pertain to my purpose here.

The words The Mystery of Faith have been introduced by the liturgical tradition into the scriptural texts as an appositive attached to the reference concerning chalice of the blood of the new and eternal covenant.  There are a number of theories as to why the words were inserted without strict adherence to the biblical text and without explantion, and as to what exactly they were intended to mean.  One of the great liturgists of the modern age, Joseph A. Jungmann, S.J., has written that no certain answer can be ascertained on either score.  However, the magisterium has commented on the text, and has told us that it refers to the ineffable mystery of the Eucharist itself.  Thus the narrative might be punctuated as follows:  This is the chalice of My Blood of the new and eternal covenant—The Mystery of Faith—which is being shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.

All this being said, for the sake of my little Easter reflection, and without intending to do anything more than to offer a meditation, I would like to explore more deeply the meaning of this unexplained insertion of mysterium fidei into the biblical narrative.

Ineffable Mystery

We know that the one sacrifice of Christ is made present in the Mass, that Jesus suffering and victorious is both the Priest and Victim.  We know that we are present at Calvary and that the heavens have opened so that not only is the past made present, but that we are entering into the hour of Christ’s glorification, so that we are also present at the heavenly liturgy, singing with the Seraphim: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth.  We know that the double consecration during the canon of the Mass symbolizes the separation of Christ’s Blood from His Body in such a way that the one Sacrifice is made present once again:

For by the “transubstantiation” of bread into the body of Christ and of wine into His blood, His body and blood are both really present: now the eucharistic species under which He is present symbolize the actual separation of His body and blood. Thus the commemorative representation of His death, which actually took place on Calvary, is repeated in every sacrifice of the altar, seeing that Jesus Christ is symbolically shown by separate symbols to be in a state of victimhood (Mediator Dei, 70).

But it is only at the moment at the consecration of the chalice that the liturgical tradition has left us with this deliberate insertion of the words, The Mystery of Faith, and without explanation either in the liturgical texts themselves nor any of the written and oral tradition of the Church from the early times in which this liturgical formulary came to be.  Our Lord has already been made present on the altar by means of the consecration of the Host, but in the consecration of the Chalice the symbolism of the separation of His Blood from His Body has been made perfect.  Perhaps the inexplicable insertion of these words can be construed as providentially indicating the mysticism of the Sacrifice and the Sacrament, the fact that past, present and future have, in a sense, coalesced and we are somehow participants in each moment, facing the East from whence the Orient on High has come and toward which we are processing, led by our High Priest and King, Jesus Christ.

The priest, in a sense, pauses or interrupts the institutional narrative, in a rubrical sense of awe, and comments on the stupendous reality before us.  We have achieved the Holy Grail.  We have arrived at the throne of God. How terrible is this place? this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:17).  Mysterium fidei!

The Eternal Word has undergone a transformation much like the one by which He became Incarnate.  Every Mass is a little Christmas.  But also the Lamb has been sacrificed and we are once again at the foot of the Cross.  The bread and wine have become the Body and Blood of Christ, and we, by some awesome privilege, are now called to enter the mystery and consume the sacrifice so that we might also be transformed into that which we consume.  We are no longer fixed in our place in history but are incorporated into the hour of Christ, and thus all time has a different significance and a greater power.

The Holy Grail

No wonder the Chalice of the Last Supper has become both the object of veneration and the inspiration for myths.  It is a mystical object because it contains a secret—not the gnosis of the heretics or the ancient, arcane and occult mysteries of the Freemasons, but the secret of our own transformation in grace.

In the most Christian version of the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail, Quest del Saint Graal, probably written by a Cistercian monk at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Holy Chalice is symbol of grace, or such at least is the interpretation of Etienne Gilson.  Medievalist Pauline Matarasso, on the other hand, asserts that the Grail of the Quest doubly manifests the mystery of the Eucharist in the Last Supper and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

However the myth is to be interpreted, the historical Grail is a vessel in which a mystery is contained, a secret, and in the first case that mystery is the Blood of Christ that has been shed for us.  But it is also our participation in the mystery as well.  The chalice of benediction which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16).  The period immediately after the Easter Triduum in which the newly baptized are still reeling from their full initiation into the Sacred Mysteries is called the mystagogia, in which they are called to more deeply penetrate and assimilate the mysteries they have newly experienced.  There is a need for this precisely because the Eucharist and our participation in it is the fundamental and universal mysticism of the Church.  Only those who can learn silence, adoration and most of all, who can enter in to the gift of salvific suffering are able to enter into the mystery of the Holy Grail.

If it is true then, in some sense that The Mystery of Faith is the Eucharist and our participation in the Sacred Mysteries, and if it is also true that the Chalice of Benediction, the Holy Grail, over which myserium fidei is spoken, is the mystery of grace and redemption, then might we not look to the most sublime vessel of grace in order to penetrate the mystery and enter into the secret?  Indeed, the mystics who have experienced the events of the Triduum in an extraordinary way, albeit in a way that in no sense constitutes part of the deposit of faith, place a special emphasis on the Eucharistic communion of Our Lady at the Last Supper on Holy Thursday.  She is often said to have been communicated by angels, as for example, Ven. Mother Maria of Agreda writes that St. Gabriel was sent to Her from the cenacle to give Her Holy Communion immediately after Our Lord Himself had consumed the sacred species.  In fact, the venerable mother says that the Sacred Host remained unconsumed in the body of the Blessed Virgin until the first Mass of St. Peter after the Resurrection.

Womb and Tomb

There is a remarkable passage of the great English Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins from his retreat notes apropos of this extraordinary grace of the Blessed Virgin.  In his notes he comments on the passage of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius concerning the apparition of Our Lord to His Blessed Mother at the resurrection.  There we read the following:

‘In corpore et anima’—On the pregnant principle expressed in the Mysteries and in this very one we cannot doubt at the Last Supper Christ invisibly but sacramentally communicated the Blessed Mother (as many estatics and others have been communicated) by the hands of angels or otherwise.  After this she would have fasted till the Resurrection and the Sacred Host have lain in her breast unconsumed.  In her then as well as on the cross Christ died and was at once buried, her body his temple becoming his sepulcher.  At his rising the soul entered the body in her as in the sepulcher and, issuing from her breast, the two presences passed into one.  And at the same time the windingsheet left empty fell upon itself in the sepulcher and the empty accidents were consumed in the Blessed Virgin.

“Warm laid grave of a womb life grey;/ Manger, maiden’s knee” is how Hopkins refers to the trajectory of Christ’s Body and Blood existence from birth to death (“The Wreck of the Deutchland,” st. 7, ll. 3, 4).  And in the context of his contention concerning Mary’s Holy Thursday communion, we should more clearly see the enclosed space of Our Lady’s Virginal womb, where the Eternal Word is enfleshed, as the foreshadowing of the sealed tomb and another manifestation of that inviolate Garden of Paradise which is Her Immaculate and Sorrowful Heart.

Elsewhere in his retreat notes, Hopkins suggests that the defense of this mystery or secret is, in fact, the great cosmic battle in which all souls are perpetually engaged.  As he reflects on chapter 12 of the Apocalypse where St. Michael attacks the fallen angels he writes:  “. . . It was a sort of crusade undertaken in defense of the woman in whom the sacrificial victim had lain and from whom he had risen, a sort of Holy Sepulchre and a heavenly Jerusalem. . .”

I certainly would not blame anyone who says that all this is just pious poetry from a Marian enthusiast.  Yet poetry says something true, even if not literally or historically, though many aspects of sacred history are also poetic.  St. Anthony Mary Claret was well known to carry the Blessed Sacrament continually in his body as in a tabernacle.  And it is a patristic teaching that the miracle of the Virgin Birth (“womb life grey”) is exactly parallel to the escape of Our Lord from the sealed tomb (“warm laid grave”).

The Secret of Mary

Indeed, the New Garden of Paradise is the Heart of Mary and it is like the enclosed space of the Cenacle where the first Mass was celebrated.  It is like Garden of the Agony of Jesus where He resigned Himself to the Chalice of Suffering.  And it is like the Garden of the Passion and Resurrection, where the New Tree of Life grows and bears fruit.  Her virginal womb is truly the Virgin Earth from which grows forth the Tree of Life, and, one way or another, it is the exemplar for the enclosed space in which the Victim and Victor is laid and from which He rises.  It is the true Grail of the Blood of Christ where we enter into The Mystery of Faith.  St. Louis de Montfort writes that devotion to Mary is the secret that the Holy Spirit unseals for us (The Secret of Mary, 20).  We are invited to enter this Enclosed Garden and Fountain Sealed, if we are willing to be humble in the face of the mysterium fidei.

The Easter mystery is all about sacrificial love, Christ’s, first of all, then ours in the Heart of the Immaculate Coredemptrix, the one in whom the mysteries we celebrate are fully realized.  The Great Sacrifice makes Jesus present as our food, and in Him, in our participation in that Sacrifice through Holy Communion, we are incorporated into the mystery, mysticism and transformation in preparation for our own resurrection.  This is what we celebrate as we witness the Bride of Christ decked out in all Her liturgical glory.  This is the real secret of liturgical reform and its only real object.

May the Peace of Easter be yours.

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.