“One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he was simple minded, he didn’t see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, “What ails you friend?” The king replied, “I’m thirsty. I need some water to cool my throat”. So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king. As the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked in his hands and there was the holy grail, that which he sought all of his life. And he turned to the fool and said with amazement, “How can you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?” And the fool replied, “I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty” –Richard LaGravenese, from the movie The Fisher King (1991)
The spiritual journey is not unlike the quests of legend and myth.
Often, as Gnostics, we are inspired by the tales of old but struggle to place ourselves in them fully or to recognize our own journeys in them, missing also at times, even with their lens to assist us, the sight of a discernible impact in the seemingly barren realm around us.
The esoteric schools and churches wisely caution against anything that smacks of enlarging one’s own destiny or placing oneself too much at the centre of things. I have also given this advice so I don’t intend these words to counter it.
And yet, we are the centre point of our own stories and we have the opportunity to play valuable roles in the stories of others even if small- by what we do, where we succeed and just as importantly, where we fail- and these times reverberate across the landscape of multiple lives and settings.
Key in both these settings are our central moments, our spiritual landmarks if you will, and how we respond to them.
In my own spiritual path, I’ve been asked what has been the central moment of my own work and journey.
It would be very easy to think that it might have been when I became a priest or a bishop or to be found in some of the successes I’ve been fortunate to be a part of, thanks to the talent, drive and determination of so many laity and clergy in the AJC.
It is none of those moments, joyous and profound though they may be.
At the heart of many esoteric systems, medieval Christian myth, and modern era fantasy stories lies the Holy Grail.
This object, at times a platter or dish, in others a cup, or still yet a stone, is the object which in the medieval stories, restores the Wasteland to full flower and flourishing. The Fisher King, Amfortas, lies wounded, and that wounding is a microcosm of the Wasteland itself. The land and the King are one, and they suffer together.
In the rich history that is the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, wherein is found the Crusades, the foundation of many notable religious and military Orders, the height of Western church power, the Cathars, a new flowering of devotion to the Theotokos, the appearance of Trobairitz and Troubador, and far too many saints to list- rises the Grail Castle, and with it, the Grail. It’s worth noting that Grail wouldn’t get its title of Holy until the telling of Robert de Boron.
It is also where those who would quest for the Grail would become royal household names. The Knights of the Round Table.
Not unlike the archetypes and symbols found in the diverse personalities and characters of each of the twelve Apostles, the Knights of the Round Table who would quest for this supreme spiritual relic, each have characteristics which can easily render them as symbolic of ourselves at different points in our journeys.
The most notable of them in terms of the legends of the Grail being Sir Percival and Sir Galahad, both of whom, so the story goes, succeed in their quest for this most fabled of objects.
In the tale of Sir Percival, the original hero or successful seeker of the Grail in the myth, Percival fails the first time around in his original test, which would have seen the Fisher King healed and the land with him.
Percival in this telling, is taught prior in his travels and training to not ask needless questions, and as a result fails to ask a necessary question at the necessary time (and fundamentally to distinguish between the necessary question and the unnecessary question) when he encounters the Fisher King and the procession of the Grail.
The question varies upon the telling or version but each of them are, I would like to think, linked in purpose.
“What ails thee?”
“Why do you suffer so?”
“Whom does the Grail serve?”
In this regard, Percival’s initial failure is not unlike many initiates and seekers throughout the ages, myself included.
In our visions, our encounters or our experiences of the Divine which we call Gnosis- that transcendent, liberating and experiential knowledge of the Divine, when we reach that important landmark in our journey as Gnostics, it isn’t the experience which risks leading us astray, for it is that which saves, but rather our response to it- what we do with it.
Gnosis is no guarantee of making the right decisions from there on out, and the spiritual world is full of people who have failed to honour or follow up on their experience.
The purpose of this salvific landmark of the path is not a prize won or attained for its own sake nor is it for personal refreshment or restoration alone, and the heroes of the story do not drink from the Grail.
As I have often reflected in other writings, in the great stories, scriptures and myths of the spiritual path, we as seekers in time and at turns, play many of the characters (and embody their characteristics for good or ill).
In the spiritual story of the quest for the Grail, we are both Sir Percival and King Amfortas
We quest for that which will make us whole, that which will make present the Kingdom of Heaven, that which will bring forth the person of the Christ within us, and make clear his presence in the face of our fellow humanity, that which transforms the Wasteland of the Kenoma into the Kingdom of the Pleroma.
The pursuit and attainment of Gnosis, a grail of sorts to the spiritual path, achieves its richest flowering when we turn it to the service of others.
Did you think the salvation that the experience of Gnosis heralds was that so you could stand on the heap of your history at the end of your path, alone while the wasteland burns?
Healing the wounded King who lies in the Grail Castle of our hearts and minds requires us to also be Sir Percival- when on our quest we are confronted with the wound of another and the Wasteland of the world, we ask the question of necessity. With the experience of knowing comes the obligation of action.
The land and the King are one and they suffer together.
They also heal together.
And our wholeness is intrinsically linked to the wholeness of the realm around us, and the people in it.
When you ask “What ails thee?” or “Why do you suffer so?” you also ask and answer the question of whom the Grail serves.
It serves your sisters and your brothers, those less fortunate than you, those above you, those just like you, those not like you at all.
The Grail carries with it an obligation of service but what service exactly? The answer is encoded in the story. From that point, from that moment, it is no longer about you.
Sir Percival, in asking the question of necessity, doesn’t give Amfortas a lengthy exposition on all his problems or the things he needs to fix in his life- he simply recognizes and gives way- What ails thee? How may I be of service?
I’ve been fortunate to have several experiences that have served as landmarks on my spiritual journey, the points by which I try to be guided and also to assist others, even though it only may be a matter of small value, such as a caring question of concern, an opportunity for another to begin the healing of their own wounds for themselves.
So it wasn’t my ordination or consecration or any such event that moved me the most but rather the opportunity, the duty, and the privilege of which I am in no wise worthy, to give communion in the Eucharist to another, for the very first time.
This wasn’t an experience of Gnosis, but the grail question of necessity applied on your journey opens a path for that experience to flow. Planting a seed is not the same thing as having grown a tree. Liturgy opens a space where the invisible can be made visible- it creates moments and spaces where Gnosis can occur.
Stepping out of the sanctuary, this is true also of being attentive to the wholeness of the world around you, giving way to another, asking the question of necessity and making the connection to another human being.
It isn’t about you saving them, it isn’t about you at all. It’s about opening a space where they can enter into that transcendent, liberating and experiential knowledge of their own accord.
If the wasteland were to take from us all the pointers that we are fortunate to have- our practices, iconography and scriptures- how would we rebuild, how would Gnosis and the Kingdom re-flower?
By the experience of one human being to another.
Through liturgy and practice we have a time honoured means of opening a path to Gnosis, but one of the quickest way to see Christ in the face of our fellow humanity, as our liturgy (itself called the Grail of Undefiled Wisdom) recalls- is to place ourselves at the service of our fellow travellers, and ask the question of necessity, without fear of the answer we may find.
+ IOHANNES IV
Sovereign Pontiff and Patriarch
The Apostolic Johannite Church