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.
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.
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.
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.