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The Grail

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The Quest for the Holy Grail represents the spiritual side of chivalry.
     The grail itself, even as it appears in fiction, is not easy to define. Its roots are found in many different cultures and from many different places. This makes it a universal archetype, underscoring its universal relevance. It is worth the trouble of discovering.
     It has been portrayed as a platter, a stone, a jewel, but most often as a cup. The Christian version asserts that it is the cup of the Last Supper, brought to either England or France by Joseph of Arimethea. Legend has it, that this cup preserved the actual blood of Jesus.
     Still another rendition claims it was not the blood of Jesus, but his bloodline that the grail carried, the grail being Jesus' supposed wife, Mary of Magdalene.
     The power of the grail, even today, comes from its obscurity. Not clearly defined, yet drawing its appeal from scores of ancient references, it is capable of symbolizing the very real mystery of life, and of existence itself.
     The details of the stories cannot be recounted in a short article like this. For one thing, they differ from one another significantly.
     One of the more popular renditions has the Holy Grail appearing before the Knights of the Round Table one Pentecost. It appears in a beam of light but is covered by a veil. It rewards the brave knights with the food of their preference, and then disappears.
     The knights are amazed, but realize that the vision was veiled because they were not worthy to see it directly. Almost to a man, they commit themselves to a quest to find the Holy Grail and see it unveiled. It was during this quest that they would have to prove themselves spiritually worthy. The next day, each of them took leave of his mistress or wife and headed out alone to face the wild forest of adventures.
     Only three achieved their goal, they being Sirs Galahad, Perceval and Bors. Lancelot did his best, but was allowed only to approach the door to the room where the Holy Grail was being held.
     Each of these "grail knights" had to face serious challenges during their quest. Demons tempted them. Deciding the right action under duress challenged their chivalry. Dreams haunted their sleep with lessons they had to learn. Hermits guided them through spiritual dilemmas. Many met and fought among themselves. A number of them died.
     The story represents our own encounter with the mystery of life that usually occurs during our teenage years. We might see its suggestion of timelessness in a beautiful scene of nature. It moves us to the core. Unfortunately, we cannot understand it. Our understanding is veiled. We may be frightened enough to turn away from the memory. Or we might appreciate it, and then place it aside as too indefinable to have significant meaning. Or, if we are fortunate, we accept its significance, and like the grail knights, dedicate our lives to finding it again again, only this time unveiled, to understand its profound mystery. From that point on, our experiences in life contribute to our quest.
     Another popular version describes the quest of a young knight named Perceval. He was a guest of the Grail King, a man who had long suffered from a serious injury to his manhood. During feast, Perceval witnesses a strange procession walk through the hall, young virgins holding such implements as candelabras, a platter, a spear the bled of its own accord, and a cup that glowed with light.
     Now, the situation was that the Grail King would be healed if Perceval asked a certain question. Trying not to be rude, Perceval held back his natural curiosity, and said nothing.
     Some time later, he learned what had been expected of his, and realized that he had failed the Grail King, whose serious wound might have been healed. Feeling terrible, he dedicated himself to finding the Grail Castle again and asking the right question. After a number of adventures, he does just that and the Grail King is healed.
     There are a number of lessons to be learned from this story that I will not get into here. One of the most interesting, however, is that the hero (Perceval) achieves his final quest not by answering a riddle or performing some great deed, but by asking a question.
     The questions are either a simple "What ails thee, Uncle?" or "What is the secret of the grail? Whom does it serve?"
     The answer is not as important as the inquiring mind that asks the question. Here we find the central element of Western philosophy, encompassing individuality, freedom, compassion, curiosity, and good will. It defines the personal goal of who we are as men. The ultimate achievement of life has nothing to do with power or riches or prestige. It has to do with the quality of who we are as people.
     But what of the grail itself?
     Removing it from its several religious connotations, the grail represents the visible manifestation of the emptiness which it contains. This emptiness, in fact, is the mystery of existence: that all the universe and the life within it came from nothing—which we are all still part of. This is the essence of the mystical experience which we all partake in at some point or points in our lives. This is the religious experience which enthralled the prophets and the saints; the nirvana of the Buddhist; the Valley Spirit of the Taoist; the Suni's whispering of the reeds; and yes, the existential fascination of the philosopher and scientist. It is real, but elusive. It offers true answers to the mysteries of life, but not with words. We are connected to it through the grail inside us, the conscious emptiness which flows beneath our thinking minds, making thought and self-awareness possible.
     Once we find the grail and see it for what it is (as much as possible, we become reconnected to the source of our own being. We uncover the most sublime spiritual attribute there is: an affirmation of self from outside ourselves—and from inside as well.
     The final lesson of the grail is this: there is a grand mystery to life that calls for our awareness and participation, and therein lies our fulfillment of life. We are part of it, and should live our lives accordingly. There are special moments when this mystery confronts us directly. Instead of turning away, we should embrace these experiences as something meaningful and apply them to our understanding of life.
     It is then that life expresses itself as a Quest for the Holy Grail. Our every experience, no matter how mundane, becomes a spiritual lesson. In such a quest, our every action is judged by our dedication to truth, either adding to or subtracting from our spiritual growth.
     The experience does not have to be seen as something religious. We all experience it. As a matter of fact, those who see the mystery but do not describe it in religious terms probably gain a more disciplined understanding than those who do.
     The questions then change to the more practical:

What do you do with the secret of the grail?
Whom do you serve?

See also: Grail Consciousness


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