The challenge to find meaning in the midst of our lives can at times feel as elusive as a search for the Grail. Not only are we struggling to find out the location of such a desired relic, but we are also troubled by the suspicion that we are not sure whether we would recognise it if we did stumble upon it! In the midst of such uncertainty it can be tempting to abandon the quest as we feel overwhelmed by the multiplicity of paths on offer and their competing truth claims.
The desire to take up such a quest often indicates the beginnings of our awakening. As our dissatisfaction with the “answers” provided by family and society grows stronger, the hero within needs to separate themselves from the anesthetising effect of such dominant discourses. Some will be upset by our distancing behaviour and others may rage at our rebellion, but when we feel the inner-flames of purpose ignite, we know that psychic atrophy will result if we fail to pay heed to such stirrings.
I have recently been reading Lindsey Clarke’s excellent modern adaptation of Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Parzival, and within I have found deep wells of insight for those of us seeking to cultivate spiritual heroism. In the tale, Pazival’s mother seeks to protect her son from the demands of the world and the allure of knighthood by keeping him in state of naive ignorance. When he eventually meets three knights from Arthur’s court, he is so overwhelmed by their radiance, that he mistakes them for Gods. He is awakened by the brilliance of the sun reflected upon their armour and even the grief of his mother fails to divert him from his desire to pursue his destiny.
This idea of spiritual knighthood is an interesting one in that it offers helpful paths of transformation while also being fraught with dangers if not understood with considered subtlety. History is strewn with examples of groups and misguided individuals who have used the martial, combative focus of the knight in an externalised fashion. The recent horrors in Norway at the hand of Anders Breivik provide a sobering example of what happens when concepts of “honour” and “defence” are appropriated by the fearful or psychopathic. If we fail to see that our sword strokes need to focus on our own ignorance, then we may be prone to projecting our fear of ourselves onto some scapegoated “other”. Some may feel that the martial focus of knighthood is innately unhelpful, but it could be argued that our need to both attack and defend are so primal, that we need a means for transforming such desires.
As Parzival journeys along the road he finds that his certainties and self-perception are repeatedly challenged as he seeks to find the meaning of true knighthood and what it might mean to be worthy of the Grail. When he begins his quest, the literal and the masculine provide him bench-marks for how he should be in making sense of his universe. His first guru Gurnemanz is more than adept in teaching him the use of the lance and shield, but when considering matters of the heart and deep pain he is sadly lacking. It is this “stiff upper-lip”, don’t ask questions attitude that causes his initial failure when confronted by the wound of the Fisher King.
In keeping with the longings of the troubadours and the idealisations of courtly love, Von Eschenbach views the embrace of feminine wisdom as being critical in the transformation of our hero. The story of Parzival is full of wise female voices, and his struggle to integrate their insights is central to his endeavour to become a true Grail knight. Such transformation can be a far from gentle process as Parzival encounters women as wise-equals rather than as a protective mother. When he seeks to minimise his initial failure at the Grail castle, his cousin Sigune’s reproach of him opens up a sense of despair that drives his initiatory purpose deeper.
This process of seeking balance and necessary complexity is mirrored within the development of Tantric and Sufi traditions at similar points in history. The parallels between these traditions and the Grail mythology could be framed as a shared emphasis on psychological alchemy and a more nuanced understanding of gender roles. Time, hardship and mimetic evolution may have lead to the development of gender identities that are increasingly subtle and congruent with our inner yearnings, but I believe that the validity of these stories remain as expressions of how the dance of perceived polarity gets worked out.
In the same way that Parzival must contend with the repeated deconstruction of his self-perception as a knight, so his understanding of the divine must be abandoned and reborn. Parzival must take leave of his naive perception of how God intervenes in the world and embrace an apparently dark world where he walks alone. He must move from his child-like certainties and embrace the adolescent energy of the adversary. Only as he exercises the existential bravery of staring into the void can he begin to experience the numinous in a new way. Sitting with the mystery or “Runa” and letting it speak to our own depths in its own terms may feel challenging, but the pursuit of true knighthood will allow little else.
I don’t want to completely spoil the ending, but it behoves me to observe that as the Grail itself represents something at once subtle, mysterious while holding great powers of healing, so the very pursuit of it seems to demand the development of such qualities in its seeker. In these times of existential confusion, the development of our own internal poise can feel like one of the few means of making headway. Even if old certainties no longer ring true and we feel driven on by the longings of our souls, we can still walk a path of spiritual heroism: here we acknowledge the limits of our knowledge and yet still choose to live and act in good faith.