Quest for the Holy Grail
Quest for the Holy Grail
by Jack Courtis
The Quest for the Holy Grail is a system of self transformation that can be reconciled with other similar systems in the Western esoteric tradition. It is a cosmological scheme that is comparable with Tarot, Kabala and Astrology. There are also hints of a connection with Alchemy. All of these systems or schemes follow a unifying principle that points to one underlying reality. The Holy Grail in its 5 Transformations, is one approach to that reality. To achieve the Grail, is to understand reality. To understand reality, is to be transformed and to be saved.
The whole point of the Grail tradition is that each of us can take the initial step towards salvation by our own efforts. This is independent from the Church teaching on Divine Grace. However, our own efforts towards salvation, only take us as far as Tiferet on the Tree of Life, in this scheme known as the Grail Castle. It is important to mention at the outset, that the effect of attaining the Grail is identical to the intended effect of Holy Communion. The paradox is to explain why the Grail Knight finds it necessary to go on a quest for something that he or she can presumably obtain in any church at any time. The answer to this paradox, is that the Grail Knight is looking for a level of mystical experience that cannot be found in the Church.
The West first heard of the Grail between the 1lth and l3th centuries, in the form of a series of writings of different styles and interpretations. There are 16 major literary works of this period. The most important are, "Le Conte del Graal" by Chretien de Troyes and "Parzival" by Wolfram von Eschenbach. It is not the purpose of these discourses to repeat any of the Grail literature. The Seeker on the Quest must find and read the material. These discourses will point to one direction in the inner landscape. An explanation will be given of this landscape which will give it a particular meaning. After all, the legend is a myth, but the Quest is a process of attainment.
We all share the landscape of the Grail. It is important to understand that the knights and ladies we meet, the castles and forests we discover and the ritual objects we use, are all symbols of our own inner spiritual state. As the foolish knight Parsifal, we begin the Quest by discovering the Waste Land. We must redeem the Land, but we can only do that by redeeming the wounded king. We can only do that by redeeming ourselves. Let us begin the Quest with a short paraphrase of Chretien's description of Parsifal's experience in the Grail Castle.
Parsifal has begun his training as a knight, but he has a lot to learn. More through good luck (or divine providence) than good judgement, he stumbles across the Fisher King who leads him to the Grail Castle. Parsifal does not know where he is but he meets a king who suffers from a dreadful wound. The king is in terrible agony. He cannot be cured and he cannot die. However, once a day the Grail procession comes and gives temporary relief. This is what Parsifal sees.
The wounded king lies on a couch in a hall surrounded by 400 men. The wounded king gives Parsifal a Sword which he accepts unthinkingly. A procession now passes through the hall. It is led by a squire who carries a Spear that drips blood. Two squires follow each of whom carries a 10 branched candlestick. Next comes a damsel carrying a Cup that blazes with light. Finally there comes a damsel carrying a Dish. In his foolishness, Parsifal fails to ask the Question. He is cast out of the Grail Castle and in despair, he begins his own redemption.
It is not until Parsifal fails to ask the Question, that he is able to experience the possibility of suffering with its evil and redemptive consequences. As the foolish knight, he is both innocent and blameworthy. In the end, Parsifal succeeds precisely because of his innocence and ignorance. He experiences all of the Christian initiations by imitating Christ.
It is worth noting that Wolfram differs from Chretien on a number of points, the most important being that Wolfram sees the Grail as a Stone (Philosopher's Stone of Alchemy; Cube of Space of Kabala?) or an emerald (The Emerald Tablet of Hermes?). This is important because in one of the late writings on the Quest, the "Perlesvaus", it is said that the Grail undergoes 5 miraculous changes. This tells us that the Grail does not have a fixed form. It is in continual flux. Here is one view of what this means:
If the Stone of Wolfram is assumed to be a cube, then it immediately correlates with the Cube of Space of Kabala and accommodates the 22 letters and the 22 paths of the Tree of Life. If the Stone takes essentially the place of Chretien's two 10 branched candlesticks, it is the 10 Sefirot of the Tree of Life in its male/female aspects. Either way, we are being led to the same unifying principle that is implied in the Quest. We are subtly led to unstated implications, never explanations. The 22 major Arcana of the Tarot emerge for our consideration. Alchemically, this is the Quintessence which activates the 4 elements of Fire, Air, Water, Earth. This leads us to the ritual objects: Spear,Sword,Cup, Dish.
Each ritual object symbolises one of our activating principles. In the Quest they are used in the Grail ritual. This points us in the same direction. The 5 Transformations of the Grail suggest our own transformation.
The Stone/Candlesticks, are the Ain Sof Aur. The other 4 ritual objects point to the 4 Worlds of Emanation, Creation, Formation and Action. These are the principles that activate our beingness, our psychic centres. How do they work? As part of ritual, each object acts as the focus of attention and the trigger for effective imagination. In its turn, imagination is the living of the myth. Reality is explained by myth. To grasp reality is to experience transformation. Here is one example of the myth of the inner landscape:
Let us now explore the land of the Grail and meet the characters.
This is the holy city of the Grail. It lies "across the sea" which only the chosen may cross. It is the New Jerusalem kept from us by the abyss. We can pass over after the "dark night" experience. When we enter this city, we are in good company. Only Galahad, Bors and Parsifal have been chosen and stand before the place of the supreme mystery.
Galahad, Bors and Parsifal go to Sarras on a ship made from timber that was taken from the Tree of Life. This is the same tree from which the timber was taken and the cross was constructed for Christ’s crucifixion. The ship is for the Grail Knights, their path to God.
We have a choice - to serve the Grail or to go higher to even greater mysteries. Perhaps we may return to the outer world bringing the light of the Grail with us. We enter Sarras knowing little; we return to the world with what we have learned. We are obliged to show the way to all Seekers.
Sarras is not the only place of the Grail. It is also found in the Waste Land as well as the Grail Castle. The Grail is the principle of wholeness and is therefore the entire inner landscape as well as the individual locations. But why begin with Sarras? Why start with the end of the Quest? This is how the Tree of Life is constructed.
Outside the castle, is the Fisher King. He watches silently as we approach the razor sharp bridge that takes us to the hall of the wounded king. But first, we must pass the gate-keeper who knows our true nature and our real objectives. These three, are different aspects of the same figure. This is a mystery.
Inside the castle, we witness the Grail procession. We must truly see in order to understand with wisdom and to be wise with understanding. Only then can we know. With knowledge we can ask the Question. Then the wounded king is healed and the Waste Land is redeemed.
The Grail Castle is not generally understood to be a church. However it is clearly the focus for sacramental devotion. Its occupants have a great treasure which is a life giving secret. The women are the bearers of the Grail mystery and the men are the guardians of that mystery. This treasure is secret because it gives life and death, joy and suffering, because as a vessel it is both empty and capable of being filled by anything.
The Grail Quest must be seen in the context of the western Church that emphasises the expiation of sins through the sacrificial death of Christ. This is to be contrasted with the eastern Orthodox Church that emphasises the restoration of man to divine life. The quest for the Holy Grail can be seen as a corrective to the western over-emphasis on sin by introducing the eastern concept of "theosis" (God-becoming). This union with God is precisely the point of the Quest.
Let us visualise the Grail Temple. It is the inner aspect of the Grail Castle. The Temple stands at the top of a mountain surrounded by impenetrable forest. Access is by way of a razor sharp ridge. The Temple is capped by a great dome. It has 22 chapels in an octagonal form. Over every pair of chapels stands an octagonal bell tower. At the summit of each tower is a ruby surmounted by a cross of white crystal, to which a golden eagle is affixed. Two doors lead into each of the chapels. Each chapel contains an altar of sapphire and faces east. The main chapel itself stands in the east and is twice as large as the others. It is dedicated to the Holy Spirit who is the patron of the Temple. The chapels to either side of it are dedicated to the Holy Virgin and St. John.
This is the place where all myths are true and all truth is rightly grasped.
This was once ruled by the Fisher King. This is where the Quest begins. The land is made waste by the unthinking act of one of the knights who strikes the Dolorous Blow that maims the wounded king in the groin. His sterility is reflected by the state of the land.
Of course, the Waste Land is our own inner state. It is that sterile place where imagination and love have ceased to flow. It is the scar on our soul caused by some wrongful action, either self inflicted or caused by another. It is also the world in which we live, loveless and forlorn. We all know this place because we all have hurts and sorrows.
And yet, the Grail exists here. To see the Grail in the Waste Land, is true wisdom.
This is the work to be done, to go behind appearances and see reality. We must bring reality out into the open to be shared by all. Thus when the Seeker asks the Question, the wounded king is healed and the land is restored.
"Quest" and "Question" are in truth, identical.
In the myth being developed in these discourses, there are 3 places and 7 characters who relate to the Sefirot on the Tree of Life. We have looked at the places. Next, we will look at the characters.