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The Grail Never Fails: Continue the Search in the New Year

BY Dennis Patrick Slattery December 28, 2019

The Grail


The Grail by Alice Popkorn. Used through a Creative Commons license

As we begin the new year, I express my gratitude to Evans Lansing Smith for so skillfully editing Joseph Campbell’s research and writing on the Grail legend. Lans’s Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth (2015) is a honeycomb of sweet delights and discoveries on this rich, ancient archetypal object. 

Romance of the Grail coverCampbell’s insights on this eternal image attest to how much the human soul needs nourishment from the realm of symbols like the Grail. Symbols aid in our remembrances; they also encourage us in reassessing both our life’s matter and its meaning. As “transport vehicles” (Campbell’s term), symbols help us in our quest to awaken to a fuller consciousness, typified, for instance, by the ring worn by the Pope, the “Ring of the Fisherman.” As Campbell reminds us: “It represents the spiritual principle going down into the unconscious waters to pull souls, or beings, out of the unconscious state into the realm of light” (Romance, 160). 

To quest for the Grail is a lifetime pilgrimage; it includes seeking not just the after life’s meaning but also its purpose. Campbell goes on to suggest that one of its manifestations is “The Grail as chalice, the body and blood of Christ.” (Romance, 162) Behind this miraculous image is the ancient cyclical pattern of death and renewal, the place we are temporally in now, between the dying off of last year and the scintillating promises of the year to come. Endings and beginnings are rich archetypal situations, not unlike those lyrical moments we pause at repeatedly in life: perhaps we lament for what was not achieved or realized in our past, coupled with a yearning for what is possible to birth or renew in the year before us.

In the tension between these two emotional and psychic states is where our personal myth both resides and struggles to evolve. It is a land that includes a host of  re’s: revision, renew, reknow, respond, reflect, reject, recalibrate and resolve. It is equivalent to a sacred time, a temporal temenos, a time to turn about and around. The ancient Roman god Janus appears most poignantly at this juncture. He is “the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages and endings” He was also the patron guide “over the beginning and ending of conflict, and hence war and peace.” Unique to Roman mythology, he had no equivalent in the Greek pantheon. In the Roman cultural imagination,  the time of an old year, an old life passing, and a new one striving to be born is marked by divinity; it is where the divine and human move through a transition together, with complementary energy being more abundant than that of conflict. 

I see some correspondence here between the time of transition and the Grail cup in our lives. We cannot pass on it if we are to live a full, conscious existence. We are asked to grasp it with both hands as well as drink its content, bitter or sweet, pleasant or putrid; it is indeed the cup of life itself, the cup we are in quest of as we awaken to those parts of our daily journey yet to be lived, yet seeking only us, not another, to live them in the plenitude of being. 

Our Grail cup may be made of simple clay fired in the kiln of our destiny, or it can assume the shape of a golden, gem-laced work of art with precious stones beyond price. We can ask the question Perceval articulates in order to heal the King: “Who is served by the Grail’? (Romance, 165). But we might also ask this question: “How do I serve the Grail?” as a major advance to healing ourselves, by letting die our impulses of self-serving.

I like very much Campbell’s observation that certain legends note, wherein “questing heroes may ride back and forth over the very ground of the Grail without seeing it” (Romance, 167). Questing may be understood as noticing what is beneath one’s feet when one’s eyes are focused on a far horizon; it requires a major effort to turn from the horizon to the wet turf along the side of the road we travel. “That’s what the Grail can do,” Campbell believes (Romance, 168). It is the vessel of plenty, a symbol of the spiritual conduit that causes the inexplicable dimensions of the eternal to turn in towards the inexhaustible forms of the temporal order of being. 

Just perhaps, the national impulse to exact a series of “New Year’s Resolutions” out of our failures, shortcomings and unachieved potentials as well as our desires for a more meaningful life, are well-meaning secular contrivances at setting our compasses to continue the quest for the coveted Grail, whose search into the New Year defines who and what we are.

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