Today is Pentecost in the traditional calendar, a feast that celebrates the fiftieth day after Jesus' resurrection, when the Holy Ghost is said to have descended upon the Apostles. I imagine most of you did not know that; I had to look it up myself. I will tell you, though, what I did know about the Feast of Pentecost:
WHEN Arthur held his Round Table most plenour, it fortuned that he commanded that the high feast of Pentecost should be holden at a city and a castle, the which in those days was called Kynke Kenadonne, upon the sands that marched nigh Wales. So ever the king had a custom that at the feast of Pentecost in especial, afore other feasts in the year, he would not go that day to meat until he had heard or seen of a great marvel. And for that custom all manner of strange adventures came before Arthur as at that feast before all other feasts. And so Sir Gawaine, a little tofore noon of the day of Pentecost, espied at a window three men upon horseback, and a dwarf on foot, and so the three men alighted, and the dwarf kept their horses, and one of the three men was higher than the other twain by a foot and an half. Then Sir Gawaine went unto the king and said, Sir, go to your meat, for here at the hand come strange adventures.It was also at the feast of Pentecost, according to Sir Thomas Malory, that the quest for the Grail began. Malory's version of this is the later version, in which Sir Galahad wins the Grail through spiritual perfection. The depiction of Galahad is almost blasphemy by Catholic standards, as he is shown as a man without sin. His purity is such that he can actually deserve to come into the presence of the Grail, whereas other worldly knights cannot.
There was an older tradition, in which it was Sir Perceval who achieved the Grail, though at first he was judged unworthy. Before he could become worthy, he lost everything of which a man might rightly desire, lost his mother and his home, passed by the love of a fine lady and the good things of the world that she offered him. In Malory's version, Galahad was worthy from the beginning, and the adventures he undertook were only to show his excellence. Yet, having achieved the Grail and the presence of God, he finds he has only one desire: that he might choose to die.
I mention all of this in reference to the debate, below, on the subject of Chesterton and faith. The Grail tradition shows that the Medievals felt that faith was dangerous, past a point. The pursuit of perfection was destructive to a man, even a very good man. A man to whom it was given to be Lancelot du Lac would find no joy in the search for the Grail, but only hardship, misery, and the constant sense of failing to meet the standards of Heaven.
Chesterton speaks of religion as being like a monastery with walls; and because the walls are there, the faithful can play within them without fear. Yet pass beyond the walls, or knock down the walls, and you found a perilous world in which no joy was possible.
The American experience of faith is easy, like that monastery: in churches across the country, you are invited to confess your sins and donate to the offering plate, and then relax and enjoy the promise of Heaven. The Medieval church was likewise easy: confession and penance, or even the purchase of an indulgence, permitted you to carry on more or less as you like. A man could be merry in the garden, could drink and fight and still achieve a happy end.
There was no reason, then, to go on mortifying quests after perfection. No reason but that, having felt the presence of the divine, the knights wanted to bask in it -- but so unworthy are even the best of men Christianity holds, men who sin in every thought and deed, that "becoming worthy" is far beyond their strength. So they departed on a quest born in love of God, and therefore died alone and terribly. Few enough came again to Camelot, those few as failures.
La Nef produced a two-volume opera called Perceval: La Quete du Graal (volume II is here). It is a beautiful and haunting piece when heard all together, as befits its subject.