The Holy Grail - Back to Basics!
by Rt Revd Dom Alistair Bate OSBA, MA.Div
First of all we need to acknowledge that whilst some pre-Christian Celtic folklore is inevitably associated with the Grail myths, the Grail is nevertheless primarily a Christian symbol. The stories emerged in the high middle ages, a time when the Catholic worldview was completely unchallenged in western Europe and many of the layers of theological meaning which we shall explore in this article would have been perfectly obvious to those who first heard and shared the stories. In contrast, these days, the fundamental mystical meaning of the myths is in danger of being lost as secularised enquirers get side-tracked by irrelevant fancies such as those popularised by the “esoteric history” genre.
At its most fundamental the Holy Grail is our highest aspiration and ultimate reward and naturally enough as we do not all share the same highest aspirations, the Grail will be envisaged in different forms by different people, who also reach a diverse range of interpretations. However, on one point Grail seekers normally agree - that the Grail is the fulfilment of our heart's desire, a source of abundance and blessing. That which the medieval writers understood and which nowadays only true Christian initiates understand is that our ultimate goal and reward is none other than union with the God who poured Himself out so completely in the mysteries of creation and redemption. As our ultimate reward, the Grail is therefore an eschatological symbol, but this is a realised eschatology, the journey and the goal are inseparable and to an extent the same, for the symbol of the Grail itself shows the Way.
It is well known that in the developed Grail tradition the Grail is identified with the chalice used by Our Lord at the Last Supper, which of course links it inextricably with the eucharistic blood of the Mass. Less well known perhaps is the story that the Grail was also the vessel used by St Joseph of Arimathea to gather the blood and water which flowed from Our Lord's pierced side on the Cross.
It is no accident that the Avalonian legend tells us that after St Joseph of Arimathea brought the Grail to Glastonbury it was placed in the Blood Well, later renamed Chalice Well, a place where the iron rich red tinted water no doubt reminded the initiates of the water and blood which flowed from the side of Christ, as well as the two major sacraments of baptism and eucharist. Perhaps too they were reminded of the mingling of the water and wine at the ancient offertory prayer which brings to mind our ultimate hope and destiny, “ By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
The Mass is first and foremost a re-membering of the passion, death and resurrection of Our Lord and those actions ordained from before the beginning of time by which God would pour himself out in the act of creation and even more so in the acts of redemption, by which the world is nourished and sustained. This was understood and elucidated very clearly by the great Russian theologian, Archpriest Sergei Bulgakov, who in his essay on the Holy Grail wrote, ““All of nature thirsts for the body and blood of Christ and receives them in communion in the blood and water that flowed out of his side when he was on the cross”. “For Bulgakov the world itself is the Grail into which is poured the life-giving water and blood of the crucified and resurrected Christ. The Christian initiate then, is one who has mystically realised that in receiving the blood of Christ in Holy Communion he receives not only the transformed Body and Blood of Christ, but also His Soul and Divinity. In other words, as we consume God, in the consecrated elements, he consumes us in mystical union. Just as the life of God is poured into the Grail of the World so through the working of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments, the life of God is generously poured into those individuals who are open to grace.
Each of us is called not only to seek and find the Grail, but also more importantly to BE the Grail, and our perfect exemplar in this work is the original "Grail Maiden", Mary, often called in the Liberal Catholic tradition “the World Mother”. Mary's “Yes”, her purity of heart and readiness to receive the Holy Spirit made her a unique and chosen vessel. As God-bearer, she is the Grail par excellence in whom God close to dwell when he took manhood upon himself and it is from this Grail that all the graces in this world are dispensed.
So, for the Christian, the Grail is a multi-layered symbol which encapsulates the highest mysticism of our tradition. It teaches us that divinisation is accessible. God pours his life and divinity into the universe, the world, the World Mother and even each of those little ones who are open to receive him. All that is needed is humility, faith, purity of heart and singleness of intention.