A Lenten Grail Quest

Ecclesiastical and political conditions make this Lenten season even more penitential, with no promise that anything shall be solved anytime soon.

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As I write these words, it is Lent of 2024. As with everything in life, some things are perennial, others temporal—linked to a fleeting moment in time. So, in all the Rites of the Church, East and West, it is that penitential period which has followed Pre-Lent or Shrovetide, Christmas, Advent or St. Philip’s Fast, and the ever-varying (by both Rite and Year) Sundays after Pentecost. We look forward from the time of purple vestments to the great drama of Holy Week and the joyous Resurrection on Easter—which itself shall be followed by the great feasts of Ascension and Pentecost, after which shall follow Corpus Christi, the Sacred Heart, and the Precious Blood.

But to get to these feasts of triumph, we must pass through Lent. And in 2024, ecclesiastical and political conditions make the season even more penitential, with no promise that anything shall be solved anytime soon. In Europe, most of the dominant elites and the European Union they control become ever more removed from the concerns of their subjects and appear hell-bent to destroy or replace them. The upcoming European parliamentary election will probably indicate growing strength on the part of “Far Right” or “Populist” groups, to which the effete elites shall doubtless respond with more pressure—while radical Muslims continue to play jokers in the deck. 

In the United States, we are drifting ever closer to a presidential election which promises to be quite a show—and not in a nice way. However it turns out, almost half of the population will refuse to recognize its legitimacy—and the temptation to deal extra-legally with the losers will be great for whomever manages to get inaugurated. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine continues unabated. You might say we are dealing with a long political Lent.

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One often feels, when the political world seems too dreadful to contemplate, that one can seek refuge in one’s religion. For today’s orthodox Catholic, that refuge is hung about with thorns. The leaders of the Church, in a hurry to finish their work before they are deposited in the cemetery, are increasingly nasty to adherents of the Church’s traditions—and so driving an ever-wider chasm between the current pontificate and that of Benedict XVI. 

Attempting to force Catholics to choose between popes is not the brightest strategy, and it shall doubtless fail to achieve its goal—unless that goal be the ruin of souls (those of the perpetrators as much as the victims). But from the Austin, Texas, murder of its cathedral’s Latin Mass community to Westminster, England’s banning of the 1962 Holy Week Rites (announced in Lent, no doubt to deepen the penances of its subjects) this is shaping up to be quite a hard Lent, indeed.

In the midst of all the dreck being administered from on high, it would be easy to despair. But here we would invite the reader to look at a Medieval Catholic legend for both inspiration and guidance. I refer here to the Holy Grail. Although there are many versions of the story, most agree that it was the vessel or cup used by Christ at the Last Supper—and so that in which He first Transubstantiated His Precious Blood. The next day, at the Crucifixion, St. Joseph of Arimathea used it to catch some of the Blood that flowed from His side. In the stories, he brought it to Britain, where it became the goal of a quest by King Arthur’s knights.

There are many versions of the story, but a large number of them depict the Grail as being kept by a wounded king, on account of which wound his realm is a wasteland. By itself, the Grail—from whence comes food and drink—can keep the king alive, but it can neither heal him nor the wasteland. The various knights must make their way through this dry, arid waste to find their goal. 

Before setting out, in a number of versions, they find themselves at a place called Chapel Perilous. Therein, each knight must face himself alone and discover whether or not he is worthy of reaching the Holy Grail. In those versions where Parsifal (or Perceval) is the major character, he encounters the Fisher King, who tells him where to find the Grail. When Sir Parsifal finally arrives at the Grail Castle, he finds the situation earlier described—wounded king, Grail procession, and miraculous meal. 

Although he wishes to ask: “What is this Grail, and Whom does it serve?” he was instructed by his mother never to ask questions, and so he says nothing. It is obvious that the king, his daughter the Grail Maiden, and his court were expecting something from him. Parsifal awakes the next day outside the castle; the Grail Maiden rebukes him for not asking the question; had he done so, the king and the Land would have been healed. Parsifal goes mad with the realization of what he has done.  

He rides back to less enchanted lands and becomes a murderous knight, fighting to the death any other knight he encounters. Finally, he runs into a knight who refuses to fight him, “in honour of the day.” Heedless of the other knight’s words, he charges him, only to be defeated. The other knight, Parsifal lying on the ground before him, points his sword to Parsifal’s throat and says, “now for the love of God, will you desist?” But Parsifal insists that the victor kill him. He refuses, saying he cannot, in deference to the day. “What is this day, then?” demands Parsifal. “Good Friday,” replies his former opponent.  

At that revelation, Parsifal’s mind clears, and he begs the knight’s forgiveness. Said knight refers Parsifal to a nearby hermit who hears his confession and counsels him. Thus strengthened, he sets out to return to the Grail Castle. Arriving, after various adventures, once more at the Grail Castle, he asks the question and the king and Land are healed. Parsifal takes the Grail Maiden as his wife, brings her to Camelot to meet King Arthur, and eventually succeeds his father-in-law as king. In versions where Sir Galahad is the center character, Galahad dies and is taken to Heaven after viewing the Grail and seeing Our Lord therein.

In many ways, the Church of today is like the Wasteland. Our Lord continues His daily appearance on all the altars of Christendom and so continues to sustain His spouse. But this alone cannot heal her. In many ways, for each of us—called by our Baptism and our Confirmation to serve Our Holy Mother the Church, Our Lord, and Our Lady—the confessional is the Chapel Perilous. The Fisher King, who provides Parsifal with guidance, is an image of the pope, whose office provides direction. 

The question that must be asked is: “What is the Church and Whom does she serve?” The answer to that question from the time of Christ to the last century was: “The means Christ established to save human beings from the effects of the Fall, purchased by His Blood, the merits of Which the Church applies to her members via the Sacraments.” In a word, she is the Ark of Salvation. 

Since having lost sight of that reality, the clerics who refuse to believe it have had to come up with all sorts of reasons to justify their existence—and to change the Church to reflect those reasons. Hence, rather than evangelizing the World—as the apostles and countless succeeding generations of missionaries did with great success—the current leadership, as exemplified by Cardinal McElroy in his recent address to the Catholic Religious Education Congress in Los Angeles, believe the Church must change to suit the World. This attitude, in turn, has produced the Wasteland in which Catholics currently live.

But the Holy Grail gives us quite a few lessons to help us survive in the Wasteland—and one day to heal it. As we wander in this Lenten Waste, we must keep our eyes on what it is preparing us for: Holy Week.  Parsifal’s sanity is restored when he is reminded of Good Friday—Our Lord’s Passion and death for us. What made the Grail holy is that it was the repository of both the first Eucharist and the Holy Blood that flowed from Christ’s side. The actual vessel may well be in Valencia, Spain, but its contents are nearly omnipresent, and every chalice at every elevation becomes a Holy Grail; every place of Perpetual Adoration is a Grail Chapel.

Not merely the semi-fictional Grail Knights but the real-world Cavaliers who attempted to emulate them saw in Christ’s Sacrifice both their Salvation and an example to follow. The Passion is key to understanding Chivalry; it gave its name to the Crusades and is why the Cross—of one color or another—is the badge of most orders of Chivalry, and the orders and decorations invented in imitation of them. As Dom Gueranger put it: 

Thou, O Cross, wert the rallying-standard of all Europe in those sacred expeditions which borrowed from thee their beautiful title of Crusades, and which exalted the Christian name in the East. While on the one hand thou wert thus warding off degradation and ruin, on the other thou wert preparing the conquest of new continents; so that it is by thee that our West remains at the head of nations. Through thee, the warriors in those glorious campaigns are inscribed on the first pages of the golden book of nobility. And now the new orders of chivalry, which claim to hold among their ranks the élite of the human race, look upon thee as the highest mark of merit and honor. It is the continuation of today’s mystery, the exaltation, even in our times of decadence, of the holy Cross, which in past ages was the standard of the legions, and glittered on the diadems of emperors and kings.

The relics of the Cross and instruments of the Passion were likewise held in the greatest honor. So, too, were relics of the Precious Blood—whether from Eucharistic miracles, bleeding statues of Christ, or relics of the Blood He shed on the Cross. So many of these still survive for our veneration today, despite the Wasteland and those who have created it. If you are fortunate to live near such a one, take advantage of the opportunity this Lent. Many such are actually held by some of our art museums, due to the great beauty of their reliquaries. But whether held in museums, local parishes, shrines, or monasteries, you can make a Grail Quest of your own during Lent, using the internet to try and find some of these treasures (as well as relics of various saints) in your own area.

Holy Week and Easter shall arrive at last at the end of the month. In whatever manner we are able to keep them, let us do so to the best of our ability. But let us also not forget that the calendar has many other Grail gifts to give us. Pentecost was the day upon which the Holy Grail appeared at Camelot to begin the quest. Corpus Christi is a Grail feast par excellence; in fact, it is little wonder that the feast began about the time the stories became popular, nor that its procession resembles the Grail processions in the stories. The feasts of the Sacred Heart and the Precious Blood also remind us of the ever-bleeding Grail. The fact that the former symbol has long been a badge of Catholic militance in many countries should remind us of the knights.

We shall need all of these things to help us heal the Wasteland—in our immediate spheres, if nowhere else. Above us, we have the Blessed Sacrament, the contents of the Grail to sustain us in our long ride through this Lent which seems never to end. To steal another Eucharistic metaphor from an entirely fictional Catholic story, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, we may think of the Blessed Sacrament as being like lembas

…this way bread of the Elves had potency that increased as travelers relied upon it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind. 

It shall sustain us through this Lent, through the Wasteland our masters have created until they end or we do, and at last to the Kingdom of Heaven, if only we remain faithful to the Quest.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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