The Search for the Holy Grail

 

 

 

The Search for the Holy Grail

 

Is it possible that the authentic chalice of Christ’s Last Supper, the cup in which the Eucharist was established, has survived two millennia, hidden for a thousand years in small monastic chapels high in remote mountains, just as the legends indicate?

Our cultural fascination with the Holy Grail, with visions and secret mysteries and esoteric brotherhoods, belongs mostly to the realm of legend. But the spiritual longing that this fascination awakens is real. And though it is indeed a thing hidden from the eyes of the world, that which is able to quench this thirst is also very real. I don’t mean the Grail itself, but rather the Vision of the Grail.

And yet the physical Grail itself, as it turns out, is quite likely a real thing.

One has to be willing to sift through ancient traditions and hagiography, and separate the wheat from the chaff. If one could distinguish between what is possibly reliable tradition and what is clearly legend, that might be wiser than simply dismissing all ancient oral and written records as sheer fantasy. Then one could take a closer look at the old traditions. This of course requires skills and tools adapted to oral and sacred traditions, such as the modern scholar has developed for the examination of both secular texts and oral tradition. Secular scholars are often out of their depth, however, when it comes to examining sacred traditions. Their methods for discerning evidence, though often needed, just as often lead them to ignore the value of tradition. It was the general suspicion of tradition (some of that suspicion justified) that led to the establishment of the scientific method.

The spiritual longing awakened by the Quest of the Holy Grail, however, is not so much one preoccupied by the authentic relic. Instead, it is a longing for the Vision of the Uncreated Light – bathing not just the soul in light, but rather immersing soul and body and the whole person in a sudden awakening to the Divine Energies of God. The result is a total transfiguration of the whole person. The legendary mystic experience of Galahad is a distant memory of the profound theophanic (“God-revealing”) experience which was poured out on mankind on the Day of Pentecost. St. Paul was blinded by it; St. Stephen the Proto-deacon was transfigured by it at the moment of his martyrdom. The experience of God as Light – Uncreated Light as distinguished from the light of Creation on the First Day – was common in the lives of the early saints. But when St. Gregory Palamas, in the fourteenth century, explained the theology of the Uncreated Light of Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor as the experience of the saints, the Western scholastic theologians rejected it. The Roman church no longer had access to the sanctity of its own Celtic saints of the earlier period, like that of the divine visionaries Columba and Adamnan. The scholastic poets, Dante and the Grail authors, continued to thirst for the Vision of Uncreated Light, but the experience was now removed to the world of legend and allegory.

 

Symbol or Authentic Relic

 

If the Holy Grail survived, its history would be that of an Orthodox Christian relic. But the contemporary popularity of the Grail has abandoned the relic. It has become a symbol. That is essentially the same as saying that the Grail is an allegory for some profound but elusive spiritual experience. This is the victory of the Gnostic interpretations of the Grail. Gnostic spirituality rejects the material world in favor of pure spirit. The visible, physical world is no more than an illusion, a prison for the soul.

Gnosticism borrows heavily from Greek philosophy (see “What is Gnostic Christianity” at https://orthodoxillumination.wordpress.com/2012/12/31/what-is-gnostic-christianity/). In Platonic language, physical objects are a mere shadow of the Archetype. Symbolism is the language of the Real World, which is unseen and purely spiritual. Therefore the actual relic of Christ’s Passion is not as important as the symbol of the chalice or the “inner meaning” of the story of Christ’s sacrifice.

The importance of an Orthodox Christian relic, on the other hand is precisely that it is a physical, material object that has been endowed with Uncreated Power (or Spiritual Grace). In the Orthodox view, the physical world and the body are not illusions, nor are they intrinsically evil or contrary to the spiritual world. Rather, they were created pure and good in the beginning, but are fallen. The cause of the Fall was not physical blindness, but rather a spiritual blindness – pride. God Himself became incarnate to redeem man and the world, and His ultimate gift is the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit in man. The relics of the saints, like the relics of Christ’s Passion, and like the consecrated physical oil, water, bread and wine of the Sacraments, have invisible Grace in them. The healing that comes from an authentic relic is real, not imaginary – it is a healing that is not only physical but also brings a profound awakening knowledge of inner realities that we call Faith.

The fullness of Faith is sanctification of the person, and one possible result (among the many blessings held in store) is the Vision of God as Uncreated Light.

Relics of Christ’s Passion and the remains of the saints – this is a hard saying for anyone with Gnostic leanings, even with the semi-gnosticism that exists in some Protestant doctrine – these are evidence of the transfiguration of the flesh and spirit.

 

The Gnostic Symbol

 

Gnostic interpretations of the Grail, of course, go back to the very first appearance of the legends in the twelfth century. The “rules” of Courtly Love, setting the beloved lady out of reach, were influenced by ideals of goddess worship spread by the troubadours from the Arian and Albegensian Gnostic strongholds of the Pyrenees Mountain region between Spain and France (see Love in the Western World by Denise de Rougemont). The grail maiden is clearly a goddess figure. The undercurrent of adulterous love in Courtly Manners is an interesting corollary of Gnostic spirituality, which on the one hand insists on strict asceticism, while on the other hand, since the flesh is evil anyway, abandons itself to the appetite without consequence. The modern fascination with Gnosticism, too, is obsessed with sexuality, while ignoring the fact that Gnostic spirituality has always regarded the material world as illusory and evil.

Wolfram von Eschenbach went even further towards identifying the Grail with Gnostic symbolic mysticism in his Parzifal. This was the source that Wagner used for his famous opera. In Eschenbach’s allegorical tale, the Grail is given a new history. The chalice was made from a stone that the neutral angels brought to earth from the heavens in the beginning of the ages. The very idea of angels that are neither “good” nor “evil” shows importations of near-eastern mysticism, and it strays far from sanity into a realm of spiritual danger. Eschenbach’s understanding of the Grail’s holiness gives more emphasis to the etheric origins of its stone than to the liturgical value of the sacred cup. This has led to widespread popularity in the belief that the Grail is more connected to the alchemical philosopher’s stone than it is to Christ’s passion.

 

Celtic Myth

 

In the last century and a half, scholars have identified pagan Celtic mythological strata in the grail legends. Their research is not only convincing but also even quite helpful in helping unravel some of the strangest story threads in the romantic landscape.

This has further resulted in contemporary theories of the Grail as a symbol, in this case a mythological type. Roger Sherman Loomis pointed out that “Corbenic”, the name of the Grail Castle, is a Latin-Breton corruption: Cor-Benoic, a shortening of  Latin cornus “horn” and Welsh Bendigeidfran or Brân Fendigaidd, “Bran the Blessed”, literally “Bran the Blessed Raven”. This is the Celtic underworld god Bran, owner of several magical life-giving vessels. Among them is a cauldron of regeneration (in which dead warriors were restored to life) and the horn of Bran, the fertile cornucopia, the horn that pours out all nourishing foods. In Loomis’ view, this fact alone proves that the horn of Bran was the prototype of the Grail, that it was actually this magical horn pouring out all blessings that was originally kept in the legendary Corbenic, which was named for that vessel. Celtic scholars have so convincingly identified elements of fertility ritual in these medieval stories that the idea is now fixed in popular imagination. The grail chalice as a fertility symbol of female fecundity escalated its popular transformation into modern Gnostic goddess worship, influenced by Robert Graves’s The White Goddess.

Loomis concluded that the clerical authors who first translated this ancient oral lore into writing simply substituted the Christian chalice for the mythological vessel. He believed they also substituted a spurious etymology for “Corbenic” as the “blessed body” (cors-benoic) of Christ.

His opinion was that there was never any authentic Christian background to the Grail legend at all. It was nothing more than ancient myth, over which a very thin Christian veneer had been laid (The Grail: from Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol).

Charles William vigorously contested this thesis with sound research into medieval texts. He proved that the early scholastic authors of the Grail legends before Malory – Chretien de Troyes, Robert de Boron and the Cistercian authors of the Vulgate Cycle – wrote during an age when scholastic theology was preoccupied with the Eucharist. Mystical theories on the “transubstantiation” of the bread and wine, a term associated with scholastic theology, originated and blossomed in the same era that produced the Grail writings.

Williams also rescued the word “graal” from etymologies foreign to Church Latin. The word had only one meaning in medieval Latin, which was that of a Eucharistic vessel (Arthurian Torso, essays included with Taliesin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars). In its first appearance in Chretien, the Grail is clearly nothing else but such a vessel. Williams also addressed apparent confusion concerning the Grail vessel in subsequent early texts, such as the “Continuations” to Chretien’s unfinished story. Sometimes the Grail seems to be a chalice, but sometimes it is a dish. Williams pointed out that the liturgical vessels in use in the age in which these stories were written, the chalice and paten, were remarkably similar. The liturgical dishes holding the wine and bread for transubstantiation were both shallow bowls supported on a stem; and both were referred to as “graals”.

All the Grail romancers were, after all, scholastic writers; almost all were Latin priests and monks. Of course they were scholastic poets, too. Charles William’s thesis does not overthrow the theory of influence from Celtic Breton bards in Chretien’s Arthurian romances. But it does give considerably more weight to Christian liturgical thought and imagination in the formation of these stories.

 

The History and Hagiography of the Holy Chalice

 

Williams and Tolkien and C. S. Lewis did not really go further into their search for the Holy Grail. It did not matter whether or not there weas any history behind the legends. They, too, were satisfied to enshrine the Grail as a symbol, though the greatest literary symbol of Western thought.

But the Holy Grail, even the idea of the Holy Grail, was never just a symbol.

There has never been any reason to dismiss the possibility that such an important relic might have a real history. As a matter of fact, that history is less likely to have been lost in the mists of legend than has been imagined by students of English literature.

It is always possible that the history of the chalice on display in the Valencia Cathedral in Spain, like so many other productions of medieval imagination, is a clever forgery. But it seems more likely that the traditions recorded in connection with that relic are authentic. These traditions point back to an earlier age when hagiography was more trustworthy. And they are without the kind of chimeric phantasms that are associated with medieval Romance. They consist of early Church history and lives of saints, of the kind that is accepted in Orthodox culture.

According to these traditions, the Holy Chalice of the Last Supper was among the church treasures hidden by St. Lawrence the Deacon just before his martyrdom. The tradition claims that St. Peter brought the holy chalice to Rome, and St. Lawrence arranged for it to be taken for safe-keeping to his native Spain. During the Moslem invasions of Spain it was removed to several remote monasteries in the Pyrenees Mountains and guarded there. It was returned to the Valencia Cathedral in the late Middle Ages, and rests there on display today.

The details surrounding the life of St. Lawrence belong to the earliest layer of hagiographic tradition in Rome, and are highly regarded by Orthodox scholars. Though this early layer of saints’ lives has come down to us in fragments, we know that at one time it was extensive. Some of the most complete texts are preserved in the poems of Prudentius. As early as St. Clement the second Pope of Rome after St. Peter, these genuine Holy Fathers were themselves active in gathering information on the lives of the martyrs, and they were also among those martyrs.

 

From Hagiography to Legend

 

What is interesting here is that Chretien de Troyes, who first writes about the Holy Grail, was instructed, as he writes in the introductions of several of his romance, in the so-called Doctrine of Courtly Love by his patron, Marie de France. This doctrine had been spread by troubadours, who originated in the same Pyrenees Mountain area where the Valencia Chalice had been kept during that same era. The fact is well known, and has led many scholars and pseudo-scholars to search for origins of the Grail legends in Cathar strongholds. But no mention has been made at all of the Valencia Chalice, which was kept in that very neighborhood at that same time, and guarded by monastic or semi-monastic brotherhoods. This is curious, since it seems a far more likely history than any of the fabulous histories that have been so far proposed.

Though the earliest Grail stories are associated with adventurous searches made by King Arthur’s men, they do not claim that Corbenic was in Britain. Chretien never gives a location for the Grail Castle. It is found by Perceval of Wales, but it seems to reside in a foreign land, difficult to locate. In the Vulgate Cycle’s High History of the Holy Grail, it is necessary to cross the sea to find it. In other legends, it is in Serras or Serai, a name with intriguing Moslem associations, such as might be found in Moslem Spain.

If lore of the Holy Grail came from fact and history in the Pyrenees Mountains, it would no longer seem unlikely that a connection with the Knights Templars existed. Such a history would date from a time when that Order consisted of crusaders and defenders of the Catholic faith against Moslem invaders. The guarding of such an important relic would have been a priority for a militant order of crusaders. The pseudo-history of the Templars as an esoteric brotherhood with initiatory rites centered around the Grail, however, belongs to a later mythology.

Even Eschenbach’s stone chalice, the “authentic” history of which he learned in Toledo, very likely arises from this source. The Valencia Chalice is an agate cup of near-Eastern origin, of a kind in use during the century before Christ. The metalwork stem and base in which the cup is mounted has been proved to be of medieval manufacture, but scholars are convinced that the stone cup itself is older. It is something that only a wealthy merchant (such as Joseph of Arimathea) would likely have possessed, and the knowledge of its existence and history would have been more prevalent in Spain than anywhere else.

 

Joseph of Arimathea and Glastonbury

“Here facts fall and dissolve: the instant one stands in the shadow of these mighty crags of riven masonry [at the ruined abbey of Glastonbury], all the inheritance of a thousand years comes back, and we know that here also walked St. Joseph of Arimathea… and that beneath the vanished vaults once rested the Holy Grail.”

– Ralph Adams Cram, The Ruined Abbeys of Great Britain, quoted in Patience and Fortitude, a history of libraries by Nicholas A. Basbanes.

 

Scholars have always been suspicious of the association of Joseph of Arimathea and Glastonbury with the Holy Grail. That is because there is absolutely no mention in hagiography or lore, no written or oral evidence anywhere found, of the Grail in Britain before the Twelfth Century, that is, before the Grail legends entered the literate imagination. The association of the Holy Grail with Joseph of Arimathea became popular after Robert de Boron, who first connected the history of the two.

The traditions of Joseph of Arimathea in Britain, on the other hand, seem to have a life of their own, one that appears quite ancient. The oral lore in Cornwall and Somerset, recorded by Anglican scholars, is substantial. Such oral lore often has an existence and history independent of written sources, and has been given more credence since the ground-breaking research of Milman Parry and Albert Lord into the nature of oral tradition.  Eastern Orthodoxy, too, has accepted the tradition of Joseph of Arimathea’s mission to the Glastonbury area. It was recorded in the Russian hagiography of St. Dimitri of Rostov during the reign of Peter the Great.

The earliest written record that we have of this tradition in Britain is William of Malmesbury’s The Antiquities of Glastonbury in 1125. It predates Chretien’s Conte del Graal (1181?) and Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie (slightly later than Chetien), where the history of the Holy Grail is first given. Though The Antiquities of Glastonbury is not free of mythological material, William of Malmesbury was a careful chronicler of tradition and by far the most respected scholar of his era, even in the opinion of scholars today. He can be relied upon to have given us nothing but what he found in the library of Glastonbury Abbey a half-century before the first Grail legends were written.

Here we can at least see that the tradition of the Arimathean is ancient and strong. But the relic of the Holy Grail is not included in this lore. Instead, that tradition records that Joseph brought to Glastonbury the blood and sweat of Jesus, which he collected when he buried the body, in two vials.

It is easy to see how such a tradition could have been confused with that of the Holy Chalice. It is the blood and water that came out of the side of Jesus that are mixed in the liturgical chalice during the performance of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, as it has been for two thousand years. So when de Boron wrote that Joseph collected the blood and water, he assumed that Joseph collected them in the Holy Grail.

Where did the French cleric Robert de Boron get the Grail for his story? From his own imagination, after reading Chretien and hearing Breton bards, or from tradition? We don’t know. But this review of the evidence suggests that the traditions of the Holy Grail and Joseph of Arimathea might have been mixed together in France, not in Britain. Arthurian traditions and those of Joseph of Arimathea clearly came from Britain; but the history of the sacred chalice has a much stronger claim from Spain and the Pyranees Mountains, and later becoming recorded in popular literature in France.

An examination of the documents associated with the Valencia Chalice could possibly answer the question better.

 

Relic and Vision

 

The reality of the Holy Grail, both the authentic relic and the Vision of God, is to be found only in the true Church of the Holy Orthodox Tradition. Outside of this, it is nothing but symbol and legend and, ultimately, delusion.

Orthodox sacred relics often have extraordinary power for physical and spiritual healing; but this is not a magic power. They exist, as do the Sacraments, in order to overcome the effects of the Fall. God became incarnate for this purpose, and he left behind Sacraments and Sacred Relics as a sign of the Resurrection.

Still, a relic is only a relic. It is venerable, but it is not the Only One and True Godhead. The distinction is important.  Saints and relics are venerated; only God is worshipped. One can enter God in the presence of a saint or relic, and suddenly that saint or relic is far more awe-inspiring, but the saint or the relic still is not God Himself.

And yet God comes through them. God is in the relic – His Energies, not His Essence. Yet one who comes into the presence of relic can, if his heart can be touched, awaken to God Himself. It is an awakening of the higher mind that is in the heart, the spiritual mind, the nous, which has the ability to communicate with one’s good and powerful Creator.

The Holy Chalice of Valencia is quite likely the authentic Sacred Relic. Venerable as that would be, it should be distinguished from the Blood of God which it contained, or the Sacramental Blood in every liturgical chalice.

Even the awful and mysterious Life-Giving Body and Blood of the Uncreated One must be distinguished, through Palamite theology, from the unapproachable God in His Essence.

But this same Palamite Orthodox theology that assures us that God Himself comes, wrapping us in His Uncreated Light and transfiguring our whole being into something strange and new.

 

Behold, This Has Touched Your Lips

 

Contemporary Orthodox theologians speak of Communion with God as the fundamental existential experience. Here they are borrowing the language and concepts of modern philosophy and transfiguring these words with new and loftier meaning. In the same manner, ancient Greek theologians transformed ancient philosophical terms into a new language, so that the theological hypostasis (Person of the Godhead) has a meaning that transcends that of the philosophical hypostasis (ground and foundation of being). Existential realization, in this new and enlightened understanding, is transformed from the secular philosophical idea, which is nothing but a realization of personal existence. “I think; therefore I am”, a tremendous and hallucinatory delusion according to the wisdom of the Fathers, is primarily one of absolute interior isolation. Theological existentialism, on the other hand, is the far more profound experience of realizing that one’s existence is grounded in his relationship with his own Creator. It is the granting of unique personhood that is given from the knowledge that God in His Unknowable Essence is Person (hypostasis). And this is how one recognizes true Christians, because their very personal relationship with their Creator fills them with tremendous love.

The fullness of this relationship in intimate experience of God, in the transfiguring Vision of God, remains elusive. It is a rare experience reserved for those to whom it is given at God’s discretion. In the legends, only a few are worthy of the final vision of the Grail. That is why Lancelot was not able to attain it, because he refused to repent of his carnal desire of another man’s wife. This does not mean that God wishes such an experience to be exclusive. Moses, who entered into Vision of God for forty days on Mt. Sinai, when told that others prophesied among the tents of the people, said: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”

The vision of the Holy Grail occurred on Pentecost, according to the High History of the Holy Grail. In Perlesvaus as well it occurs during the Pentecost season, between Ascension and St. John’s Day. Many medieval paintings of the appearance of the Holy Grail over the Round Table are similar to the traditional Pentecost icon, except that there are knights rather than apostles and a luminous vision of the Sacred Chalice rather than luminous tongues of flame. The illumination of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was the beginning of the New Testament Vision of God bequeathed to mankind. Thousands were included in the Divine Experience of that day, and from there it spread throughout the world. Not everyone partook of that spiritual fullness, but it was far more widespread than it is today. Even today, Divine Illumination occurs, neither myth nor legend, and not just in the haloes of icons, but in a reality far beyond human imagination.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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