Monday, January 21, 2008

Wolfram’s Grail

On Thursday 18 October 2007, I attended a lecture at Georgetown University, sponsored by the Catholic Studies Program, entitled, “The Holy Grail versus the Crusades: Wolfram’s Concept of the Altar.” The lecturer, G. Ronald Murphy, S.J., is a scholar of German literature. A few years earlier I had attended another program by Fr. Murphy at a church in Georgetown based on his book, The Owl, The Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms’ Magic Fairy Tales. As part of that program he showed Disney’s “Snow White,” but no one could figure out how to get the sound working, so we watched it as a silent movie and he narrated, pointing out and explaining some of the symbolism. I recall talking to him at the reception afterwards about the meaning of mistletoe, which, I had heard, is canonically banned from Anglican churches. The present lecture was based on his most recent book, Gemstone of Paradise: The Holy Grail in Wolfram’s Parzival.

There are three authentic versions of the Grail story, which developed in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.

Chrétien de Troyes (writing 1185-87) was the first to write the word Grail, by which he referred to a deep serving dish, big enough to hold a fish. Like a horn of plenty, it would produce whatever food you wanted – you had only to reach in and take it. The Grail was powered by a host in the bottom. Perceval, in Chrétien, is a naive young man whose mother does not want him to become a knight and get killed. He goes into the woods looking for his mother, sees her faint dead at a bridge, and rides off to look for the Grail. Chrétien never forgives him for letting his mother die. After years spent looking for the Grail, he returns to check on his mother, not seeming to realize she had died. Chrétien did not finish the story, but several other authors wrote endings.

For Robert de Boron (writing 1190-1200), the Grail is the cup from the Last Supper. He picks up on the Eucharist in a way that is very medieval and Catholic. Joseph of Arimathea comes for the body of Christ, a centurion stabs Christ to make sure he is dead, and Joseph catches the blood in a cup from the house of the Last Supper, which he got from Pilate. Being a good orthodox Jew, he wanted to stop the blood from seeping into the ground. The cup containing the blood was buried with Christ, and it was eventually found by St. Helena. [I’m not sure what this last sentence refers to. It does not match Robert de Boron’s version of the Grail story.]

Finally, Wolfram von Eschenbach (writing 1210) depicted the Grail not as a dish, but as a stone – a flat gemstone.

Chrétien’s word graal is not standard French or Latin. It could come from the Latin gradalis (step, a course of a meal) or gratalis (agreeable, gratifying), converted into bad dialectical French and then just transliterated into German.

We must ask the Passover question: Why is this Grail different from all others?

In 1187, Jerusalem had been captured by Muslims. In 1199 it was recaptured by Christians, knights who had sworn an oath to God to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulcher. The Crusades were preached as an appeal to vassals who were needed by their Lord in Jerusalem. Their goals were 1) to free the Eastern Christians from the Muslims, and 2) to free the Holy Sepulcher.

The sign of the Holy Land is the palm. A “palmer” is a crusader. They did not call themselves crusaders, but pilgrims. When they took the oath, a bishop would give them a cloth cross to sew onto their clothes. It was worn on the shoulder because Christ carried the cross over his shoulder. The pilgrim would hold also his sword upside down as a cross. [Actually, a palmer can be any sort of pilgrim, not just a crusader.]

In 1204, greedy crusaders sacked Constantinople. This obviated the first reason for the Crusades. Relics from Constantinople were stolen, bought, or looted and taken to the West. Sainte-Chapelle, for example, was built to house the Crown of Thorns. It was in this context that Wolfram wrote his Parzival, in which he asserted that the Grail was a stone.

Precious metals and stones come from Paradise. (Eden means pleasure. A pleasure garden is a paradise.)

A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one which flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stones are there. (Genesis 2:10-12)
The Pishon is probably the river that ends at Colchis, home of the Golden Fleece.

Gems are a remnant of Paradise that we can still play with after the Fall. Red and green stones – the ruby/emerald and garnet/peridot – are especially associated with Paradise. The ruby was thought to be formed from coal by geothermal pressure, its red color capturing the fire that is inside coal. Magnetite was a “magic” stone that could attract iron and point north. Amethyst (Greek for “not drunken”) was the color of wine. Turquoise (“from Turkey”) contains life – it never dries out and turns brown, but remains green forever. Rock crystal (quartz) was liked better than diamond because it was easier to polish. Diamond is the hardest stone known to man, yet light passes through it unhindered. Like the Holy Sepulcher – light passed right through it. Wolfram puts a green cloth around the Grail, representing life.

Fr. Murphy’s theory is that the Muslim capture of Jerusalem in 1187 ruined Chrétien’s planned ending of the Grail story, and that was why he abandoned it. But Wolfram picked up the story, revised it, and continued it to the end. In departing from the earlier versions of the Grail as a cup or a dish, Wolfram was not abandoning the Eucharistic symbolism but re-focusing it. In addition the paten and chalice, you need an altar. Priests on the Crusades carried portable altars of stone. The altar stone was cut with five crosses and a rectangular reliquary, called a “sepulcher,” which contains three pieces of the host in addition to a relic. Wolfram is saying, “You’re going off to the Holy Land to slaughter Muslims when every priest is already carrying a sepulcher in his saddle bag.” The medieval portable altar contained a shroud, host, relics, and incense. The lid had a translucent red or green stone. Do you want to see the Body of Christ? You don’t need to go to Turin – just go to Mass. Christ’s place of enthronement is the altar. In the presence of the altar, you’re back in Paradise. To get to Paradise, drop the reins (a Parzival reference).

Wolfram’s story ends with the Christian Parzival and his Muslim rival Feirefiz discovering that they are half-brothers.

There are two portable altars in the Diocesan Museum at Bamberg, Germany. Fr. Murphy believes that one of these, the Paradise Altar, was Wolfram’s inspiration for the Grail.

To illustrate the last part of the lecture, Fr. Murphy showed us an actual altar stone, as well as a half-scale model of a medieval portable altar that he had commissioned. He also showed slides of the Paradise Altar from various angles. He gave each person in his audience two tiny stones – a garnet and a peridot. A photo of the Paradise Altar appears below. This and another color photo appear in Fr. Murphy’s article in Company magazine.

(Addendum: Company magazine has disappeared from the Web. But another Jesuit magazine article can be found here.)

Friday, January 4, 2008

What Is a Miracle?

I subscribe to a weekly electronic newsletter called tothesource. Subtitled Challenging Hardcore Secularism with Principled Pluralism, it critiques the culture du jour from a conservative, ecumenical, Judeo-Christian point of view. Dinesh D'Souza is a regular contributor, and I always look forward to his articles.

Recently, D'Souza has been debating the authors of last year's spate of pro-atheism books. He has already debated Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, as well as Michael Shermer. He is still negotiating with Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins apparently doesn't want to face him. A recurring subject in these debates is the reliance of Christianity on miracles. D'Souza agrees with his opponents that Christianity is based on miracles, and therefore he needs to argue for the possibility of miracles.

In last week's tothesource article, D'Souza took on the argument against miracles that he finds strongest – that of David Hume. Essentially, he demonstrated that Hume's own principle of skepticism can be turned against one of his premises. What interested me, however, was an assumption that D'Souza granted to Hume – the definition of a miracle as "a violation of the known laws of nature." I realize this is a commonly held understanding of miracles, among Christians as well as atheists, but I think it misses the point of miracles. I sent this brief reply, which was published in this week's issue of tothesource among the responses to last week's article:

Dear Dr. D'Souza:

To define a miracle as "a violation of the known laws of nature" misses the point of miracles. The purpose of a miracle, rather, is to demonstrate the real, but otherwise unknown, laws of nature – to correct our too-limited notions of how the world works.

Let's take the resurrection of Christ, for example. If it was just a one-off event to allow Jesus to show off his uniqueness, then neither the resurrection nor Christ himself would be particularly relevant to us. But if Christ's resurrection demonstrates an otherwise hidden reality of human nature – that we are all meant for resurrection, as suggested by the line from the Apostles' Creed, "I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body" – then we are forced to realign our whole worldview with the reality shown by this miracle.

Please, note: My understanding of miracles does not actually contradict that of D'Souza; a miracle can violate the known laws of nature (which might be known incompletely) while demonstrating unknown laws. Thus, we sidestep the question of whether it is even possible to violate the real laws of nature. (I tend to think not, though I am not committed to this position.)

I think the atheists come at the question of miracles with the assumption that if they can demonstrate a natural cause for miracles then they have ruled out any supernatural cause. I think too many Christians fall for this assumption, even though it is clearly inconsistent with the Incarnation. In a world where a person can be both fully divine and fully human, the supernatural and the natural cannot be held to be mutually exclusive.