Thursday, February 20, 2020

The King Arthur "Grail" as metaphor

The grail has become a current metaphor as it was more powerfully prevalent in the  Middle Ages to address our purpose and destiny. Two recent examples come from writers who moved the word grail to very different places. 

The first was a sports writer about the success of the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl: “The other motivating factor was to win the ring for their “teddy bear” coach, Andy Reid, who had waited 21 years for the NFL “grail.””

The second was an opinion letter to the New York Times starting with this title:  “The Whole-Grain Grail: A Sandwich Bread With Mass Appeal” We have a certain kind of bread as a grail. 

For me we have quite a jump from the original where the grail was the cup, chalice, associated with the blood of Christ. The legend goes that it was Joseph of Aramathia who provided the cup and brought it to England. During the Middle Ages the knights of the Round Table made a search for the grail. Percival was the main one to make the find in the grail castle. To encounter the grail required an answer to the question, “who does the grail serve?” The grail was a cornucopia of fulfillment. The answer, “The grail serves the grail King.” Namely Christ the King. 

The full story and the shortest of the stories I am told is the French account by Chretien-De-Tropes. Different countries of Europe had a version of the story. One writer said the story defined the religious perspective of the age. Our counterpart was the period of time when servant leadership caught the imagination and emphasis. Another variation was management by walking around as found in the HP Way by David Packard. A number of the authors made reference to Christ calling us to be servants.   

Perhaps the more recent popularized version of the legend was Monty Python and the Holy Grail movie in 1975. It was popular at the time and a money maker. A group of us went to see it at our local theater followed by a discussion about the movie.

The current use seems to undercut the theological and mystical origins of the legend, while still keeping the focus on a serious search. At the same time meaning and purpose are held within the scope of the grail as metaphor. 

For me the Holy Grail relates to our deepest and ultimate search. The current writers did leave off Holy. In one book on the interpretation the shortest legend, and at my age I do not remember the name of the book or the author, I remember the basic story. It takes us through Percival’s Ilife stages in symbolic language when he changes from being a knight to becoming a monk in a monastery. There he is coached to ask the grail question. “Who does the grail serve?” And the answer: “The grail serves the grail King.” 

At the weekly Eucharist I am reminded of the question and the answer in the Daily Office Scripture readings. Thereby I am continually nurtured and enlightened on my journey.

On the other hand, going back to the two recent writers, I celebrate these two metaphorical findings for keeping the word alive. Perhaps others will become more curious and search for the longer story and deeper meaning of the Grail. They have been reminded by the NFL and wheat bread.   

Marlin Whitmer
Retired Hospital Chaplain

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