The Quest for the Holy Grail
by Sr. Madeleine Grace, C.V.I.
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The saga of the holy grail has been told and retold in various cultures and languages for hundreds of years. The appeal of the quest is universal because it expresses at its deepest level our human desire for union with God.
But what is a "grail" and why would anyone want it? Why, according to the legends about King Arthur and his time, was it so highly prized by the knights of the Round Table?
The grail itself has been depicted in a variety of ways, including a chalice or a ciborium with the consecrated host inside. Frequently it's described as "the platter in which Jesus Christ partook of the paschal lamb with His disciples." Due to popularization by poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) and composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), the grail has often been portrayed in art as a chalice.
Whatever the type of vessel, this container is supposed to have held the blood that flowed from the wounds of Christ. The legend says it was brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea when he preached Christianity there. As far back as the first century, the Fisher kings, or the grail keepers, were known custodians of the holy grail in the Castle of Corbenic.
For the medieval mind, since the grail was supposed to have contained the Blood of Christ, it had also held His "soul" and possibly His divinity. It possessed unlimited powers of healing and was a means of transmitting direct knowledge of God, "a spiritual essence."
The search for the grail becomes the awareness of Christ abiding within.
Corpus Christi, or the Body of Christ (the grail is often depicted as a consecrated host), was credited in medieval times with miraculous nutritive powers.
What is the ultimate quest in the story of the grail but an unachievable mystical union? The journey may be approached only by those who have been purged, are celibate and show an obedience to the Lord. The quest for the grail is compared to the Gospel story in which a wedding garment is necessary to enter the marriage celebration (see Mt 22:2-14).
In this journey, the wedding garment is seen as the graces and virtues Christ bestows on those who serve Him. In effect, the quest is a spiritual goal representing interior wholeness, union with the divine. Those knights who are "weak in faith and erring in belief. . . cannot attain to the adventures of the Holy Grail."
The home of the grail is in the unexplored area of the soul. In variations of the story, it is seen as a temple or castle, in a remote and mysterious place. Ultimately, the grail is identified with the words of Paul, "I live no longer, Christ lives in me." The search for the grail becomes the awareness of Christ abiding within, and this presence is seen most readily in a reception of the Eucharist.
This is what brings about a spiritual and physical nourishment; what "fills the soul to overflowing and sustains the body, too." Each person is called to change one's "inner state" to receive the "different food" particular to personal spiritual needs. This means the grail shows God's gift of himself to us, His love for us, His grace. This blessing is described as a gentle rain, finding its source in the Holy Spirit. The imagery seems to have been drawn from John 4.
The story teaches that this incredible grace is available to all those who seek it, even those who have refused it in the past: "They have lapsed into dissolute and worldly ways, despite the fact that they have ever been sustained by the grace of the Holy Vessel."
The quest, then, is seeking after God through "complete and joyous self-abnegation" among those who are on the same journey. It is a universal pilgrimage for those who realize the absence within, and readily speaks of the preparation necessary to behold the Almighty.
In one of the last scenes of the story, Christ conveys to the small group gathered before the grail that many have been filled with the grace of the Holy Grail, "but never face to face as you are now."
What does it say of the Eucharist to readers today? Many people are content with a frequent yet casual reception of Communion, but preparation and appreciation are what the sacrament deserves.
The quest of the grail also illustrates that God dispenses grace to each and every person as that individual is capable of receiving it. Certainly, the Eucharist is seen today as a fount of grace for communicants, "the source and summit of the Christian life." In the story, one noble knight —Galahad — exemplifies the reality that the wholly dedicated and pure in heart can attain that union with the divine. The Eucharist provides the pathway for it.
The quest in modern times may convey less adventures, and hopefully less bloodshed, yet it is the universal thirst of the person seeking God.
Sister Madeleine Grace writes from Houston, Texas
Why Was This Tale So Popular?
Why did the legend of the holy grail appear in the 12th century and become so popular that it is known throughout the West within 100 years?
A plausible theory deals with the change in the celebration of the Eucharist at that time. Prior to the 12th century, the Mass was celebrated with the priest behind the altar facing the congregation and the ritual actions of the celebrant were visible to the people.
When new cathedrals were built — picture the long nave of a Romanesque church — the altar was placed at the far end and the position of the priest changed. Now he stood in front of the altar, facing in the same direction as the people. A "veil of mystery" separated members of the congregation from what was taking place on the altar.
In addition to liturgical change, the Albigensian heresy may have influenced the popularity of the legend. Members of this group professed that the outer world was evil. The purpose of redemption for the Albigensians was liberation of the soul from the flesh and the end of a mixed state (soul and body) brought on the by the devil.
The legend of the grail leads one to the inner quest, that the soul might be cleansed to prepare for the reception of Our Lord. — Sister Madeleine Grace, C.V.I.
Where the Story Began
The legend of the Holy Grail first I appears in the poem "Perceval" by Chretien de Troyes (1180-90), and then in the Christianized version by Robert de Boron (1190).
German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach (c.1170-c.1220)as well as an anonymous Cistercian author (c.1200) both incorporated the legend of the grail with the stories of Arthur and the Round Table.
The assumption that a Cistercian is the author may be due to the fact that a Cistercian spirituality pervades the work.
Manifestation of this spirituality is seen in that chastity is the first of virtues and there is a continual emphasis on asceticism, frequent prayer and reception of the sacraments.
The "Charter of Love," a document that is part of Cistercian history, is portrayed in this epic in the infinite mercy of God toward the sinner. The work was written an era when Cistercian expansion had reached a high point in Europe.
Some versions of the legend identify the grail with the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, which later belonged to Joseph of Arimathea.
The effects upon those who see the grail are meant to correspond to a certain extent with the effects of Holy Communion upon communicants.
Placed within the historical context of chivalry, humility and compassion are portrayed as the noblest virtues of this era. — Sister Madeleine Grace, C.V.I.
The Legend of the Holy Grail
The best-known version of this legend says that after the Resurrection, Joseph of Arimathea and a number of disciples traveled to England, bringing with them the cup Jesus had used at the Last Supper.
The pilgrims settled in Glastonbury, where they built a. church dedicated to Mary and enshrined the miracle-working grail in it.
This story was grafted to the much older legend of King Arthur. Within this version, the grail was kept in a castle at Corbenic and guarded by a Fisher king, a descendant of Joseph of Arimathea. The Knights of the Round Table had to journey to this site, but the grail could only be found by those knights who had a pure and holy purpose.
When three of King Arthur's men — Galahad, Perceval and Bors — made their way to the castle, they found the Fisher king wounded and in need of healing. His recovery depended on a certain question being asked and answered correctly: "Whom does the grail serve?"
After the king was healed and the desert land he ruled over began to blossom, the three knights took the grail away to Sarras, a holy city in the East. Galahad died a holy death after having been crowned king of Sarras, and Bors returned to Camelot to tell King Arthur the story of the quest. — Sister Madeleine Grace, C.V.I.
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