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
Why did Carol and I choose the particular name we did for
our little church? "The Holy
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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