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The Quest for the Grail


Text: Gospel of Thomas, saying: "Let him who seeks not cease seeking till he finds, for when he finds, he shall be disturbed; when he is disturbed, he will wonder; when he wonders, he will [finally] rest. And he will reign over the All." 

Why did Carol and I choose the particular name we did for our little church? "The Holy Grail Universalist Church." Why the Grail? Doesn't this smack too much of a Christian identity we pretend to have transcended? Because the Grail was supposedly the chalice used in the Last Supper. Later, legend said, it collected the literal blood of Jesus which flowed down from the cross. 

Yes, it does have some of that resonance, and that's no accident. Like I preached last week, we do not simply reject and renounce Christianity. No, as Don Cupitt says, "Christianity is our Old Testament." 

And yet at the same time, as anyone knows, the legend of the Grail soon came to refer not so much backward to Christian sacraments or spirituality, as forward to some new, great Truth on the horizon. When we compare something with the Grail, we usually mean to say it is the most desirable thing of all, at least to the one who seeks it, and also that it is an ever-receding will-o'-the-wisp. We will never find it, and yet we continue the search. 

Can it be worth it if the goal is unattainable form the start? Yes, it can. Lessing said why: for human beings, the search for truth is sufficient. We can bear no more without becoming corrupted by it, like Faust. Look at those people who believe they need not seek the truth because they already have the truth. You know them. Their names are Pat Robertson, Torquemada, Newt Gingrich, Khomeini. Absolute truth is absolute power, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. For us, as Clarence Darrow said, "Truth does have meaning--as a direction," not as a destination. For our task is to walk in the way, not to rest inert in the possession. 

So we are on a quest into the future to find the ephemeral epiphany of Truth, the Phantom of Truth, as I called it in my very first sermon at the Holy Grail, nearly a year ago. 

In theology today there is a shift away from Logocentrism to narrative theology. That is, theologians are beginning to grasp that abstract ideas feed the speculative mind alone. But we live our lives based on stories. Even if unconsciously we sort through many stories we have heard in our lives, whether fictional ones or biographical ones, and we think, "That's what I would like the story of my life to be like." And so you begin to live it, to act out that script in general terms. Or at least to want to. And that story is the meaning of your life. The meaning of your life is not some a priori truth about your life. No, it is like the meaning of a novel: what happens in it, what makes up the plot.  

And I am saying we are a congregation who have adopted as our story that of the quest for the Holy Grail of greater truth. Individually we have all chosen various plots and subplots for our lives. This is true whether we got those stories, those scripts from the Bible, from old movies, from soap operas and Harlequin Romances, or whatever. 

Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting that you are some kind of pathetic dweeb who tries to live out a story because your life has no meaning otherwise. No, there are people who do that, but that's not what I mean. I mean what Joseph Campbell said. His theory was that the great epics, myth, stories had emerged from within us. We were not pathetically trying to ape some fictional tale more exciting than our own dreary lives. Just the opposite: we spun out the myths like a spider spins out her web. It is our own story from page one.  

Most stories are quest stories of some kind. We begin with an uneventful equilibrium. Something upsets it. Then the hero tries to rectify things, in the process undertaking a quest that will not only get him to the moment of challenge, e.g., in the witch's castle, but which will also prepare him, by trials and ordeals, to be ready to meet the challenge when the moment comes. He is in store for one or more setbacks, defeats. But he learns from them, grows stronger from them and, in the end, he triumphs. This is true of almost all stories one way or another.  

Why so universal? Jung told us why: all stories emerge from human imagination, that is to say from the human unconscious. And the subconscious is a deep basement filled with a lot of forgotten things: archetypes, basic images that are the building blocks of dreams and myths. They are like the DNA built in to us that stimulates and controls our moral and personal development. Stories, myths, help us to awaken these archetypes and images and to help us to access them so we can get on with the business of becoming, first, an ego, then a Self.  

And how do we awaken and access the images within us? Knowing about them isn't enough. Reading a book on Jungian psychology is not enough. This is where rituals come in. They are the plays for which myths are the scripts. They enable you to internalize the myth by acting it out. That is beautifully seen in the rituals of baptism and the Eucharist where you are symbolically acting out the myths of Christ's redemptive death and resurrection. 

Joseph Campbell saw all myths as being about the individual human life cycle. Many of the most important myths were indeed told as part of the puberty rites, when a youngster officially became an adult in his culture. The youth was making a great step of personal evolution, maturation. And there had to be a story to show forth the greatness of this threshold crossing. Just as all the heroes of myth meet with initial setbacks, lick their wounds, learn their lesson, and then succeed in the quest, the young man undergoes difficult rites and ordeals to show him his limits, but that he is a man anyway.  

And so with the next step: marriage. Why do you suppose that so many stories, ancient and modern, are based on the fundamental theme of the heroine rescuing the princess and gaining her hand in marriage? Evolution programmed into us the desire to find a partner and reproduce our kind. Here is the sociobiological reason for love, romance, and marriage. And the myths of the hero's quest for the damsel in distress tells us we are to be about this business. Who is the evil wizard of wicked dragon or tyrant from whose clutches the maiden must be rescued? Why, none other than the father of the bride. The young suitor must overcome all parental objections.

The stories of a savior or prophet going to heaven to return and share his heavenly vision is a blow-by-blow guide for the departing soul during the Last Rites. Look at the Tibetan Book of the Dead if you doubt that. If a myth tells of "heaven and its wonders, and hell," it's because "forewarned is forearmed." So the myths are about the human life cycle. The myths and the rituals in which you act out the myths are ushering you across all those thresholds. Because you dare not linger there. You must keep going, keep developing, or you will die, at least spiritually, emotionally. What is the problem with dogmatic, literalist religions? They are stunted, stuck in an earlier stage than they should rightly be in. As Paul puts it, they should have long ago "put away childish things." 

Once Paul Beatty, a prominent Unitarian pastor in Pittsburgh, claimed that Secular Humanism was his religion. He had no beliefs at all in the supernatural, held mysticism in no high regard. He preached a purely rational and ethical approach to life. But why then say it is your religion? What made Beatty, the editor of the journal Religious Humanism, any different from, say, Paul Kurtz, head of the American Humanist Association? Kurtz said nothing did, that it was confusing and misleading for Beatty to call his belief in Secular Humanism a religion, as if a commitment to something automatically made it a religion. Beatty responded by pointing out the need in all cultures, for all human beings, to undergo communal rites of passage, being prepared by the community for your new stage in life and welcomed by that same community when it comes time for you actually to take your place in its affairs.  

And Beatty said that since the weekly gatherings of Secular Humanist Unitarians to support and affirm one another in a ritual fashion is by itself enough to make Secular Humanism qualify as a religion. What is religious about humanism if the extent to which it provides edifying fellowship and rites of passage. And that, if you haven't noticed, is pretty much where we have come out in recent discussions about what keeps us together as a spiritual community in the absence of any traditional dogmatic beliefs. 

I said a couple of weeks ago that you and I are on a quest together. And the myth, the story of the quest for the Holy Grail is the perfect image for that. 

But we are also all on our private quests, our personal stories. And in the quests of the group and of the individual, one thing we must remember is that the passages from one stage to another may be difficult and frightening. For me the journey from the Baptist fold to the Universalist was quite traumatic, though I am thrilled it happened. 

This afternoon, at a memorial service, I will preach that every death is also in the same moment a new birth, of new options, changed scenarios, fresh challenges. Now I am saying that beginning is also at the same time an ending. When we have been reborn into a new life-stage, we must also be willing to leave the past self, the past circumstances, the past self-conceptions behind. We often hesitate to advance to a new, higher level because the content of it is unknown. You don't know what will happen when you become an adult, marries, a parent, a senior citizen. And so you think that maybe you'll play it safe and hang back. Where you are now, where you have been stuck, may not be very good, but at least it's a misery you know. But the future? You can't know it till it comes! And you may not like it! So you'll just pass. But really you know you don't have that option. The baby has been conceived. It is already growing within you. The baby is your future. Will you abort it simply on the possibility it may be born retarded, malformed?  

When Carol was pregnant with Veronica, something we hadn't planned, the doctor warned her that some medicine she had been taking just might have a deforming effect on the gestating baby. She might want to consider an abortion. But neither of wanted to do that. I admit, as soon as Veronica appeared in the birthing room I lost no time in counting her fingers and toes. Sure I had anxiety about this new future which had just arrived, but I have always been relieved that we did not fear the future so much as to turn away from it. 

Not every transition in your life brings physical pain like the labor pains of childbirth. But there are amotion insecuries, there are whispering voices from the past which does not like the prospect of being left behind, of being abandoned for next year's model. With a siren voice the past beckons and seduces you to return to the familiar embrace of the past. But that is a temptation. A temptation not to keep going, not to keep going. And that temptation you must resist! 

There are stories all about this threshold struggle, the anxiety you feel on the verge of a new stage of your life. One such tale is that of the Israelites whom Joshua and Caleb try to convince to cross the Jordan and displace the Canaanites. But out of fear of the future, the old days of slavery in Egypt suddenly started looking pretty good in  retrospect! The past was bad. It was the house of bondage. But at least they were used to the pain. Who new what new pains might not await in the next stage? In the Promised Land? So they turned back and forfeited the promise. 

Another ancient story to help us see and defeat the temptation of the past is the story of Siddhartha Gotama sitting beneath the Bodhi Tree. He has undertaken a quest that led him away from the sated stagnancy of comfortable affluence, through the spiritual wasteland of Hindu asceticism and philosophy, and finally to sit under the shade of this tree. There he vowed to park until he found the enlightenment he sought. And that very night the light began to dawn. He was on the threshold of that new and final stage of growth: enlightenment.  

But, just as Bunyan's Christian still had to avoid a shoot directly down to Hell on the very verge of the Heavenly City, so Gotama is suddenly ambushed by Mara the Tempter, a kind of embodiment of the worldly existence he has left behind for better things. Mara tries half a dozen temptations calculated to make Gotama retreat from his goal and flee into the familiar but unenlightened past. But in the end none works. Gotama presses on to full enlightenment. He becomes the Buddha. He never had such troubles, such obstacles to overcome till the very last step of his quest. And so with you. If suddenly the joyous anticipation of a new era of life seems spoiled by doubts and second thoughts, excuses for hanging back, remember this wouldn't be happening unless the change was indeed ready to happen.  

The Gospel of Thomas echoes the same plot. It pictures the questing soul, one riding forth to capture some great Grail of Knowledge or illumination. And it warns the eager quester to be prepared for rough going. It anticipates you will ready to turn back, to give the whole thing up. And it urges you not to: "Let him who seeks not cease seeking until he finds." Why might he want to cease prematurely? Because of the initial shock of truth so new that one had never imagined it. One is disturbed at intimations of this truth. Like freshmen religion students who start to see the implications of what they've gotten themselves into. Their Sunday School creed may not survive the scrutiny. So they may drop the course and take some other course that won't threaten them. 

You will be affronted, caused to marvel, Thomas warns. But press on, because this stage will give way to the stage of knowledge. In fact, it will lead to that stage. The shattering noises you hear around you are simply the sounds of the egg breaking. And now you must blinkingly step out into the light, even if you are at first clumsy and uncertain. And then, only then, can you reign: only once you have conquered, triumphed over all things that stood in your way, chiefly your own fears.


Robert M. Price

November 19, 1995




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