The High Feste of Pentecoste

Today is the day to swear again the old oath.
[Arthur] charged them never to do outrage nor murder, and always to flee treason; and to give mercy unto him that asked mercy, upon pain of forfeit of their worship and the lordship of king Arthur; and always to do ladies, damsels, and gentlewomen and widows service, to strengthen them in their rights, and never to force them, upon pain of death. Also, that no man fight a duel they knew was wrong, neither for love nor for worldly gain. So unto this were all knights sworn who were of the Table Round, both old and young. "And every yere so were the[y] swome at the high feste of Pentecoste."
Pentecost was the day when the Grail Quest began, which destroyed the might of the Round Table.  The Grail visited Arthur's table at the feast, and then passed away again.  Instead of accepting the grace offered, they quested after it as if they could win it by their own valor and worthiness, and so were destroyed.

Pentecost is the right day for that message.  Before the time of the apostles it had been the feast of firstfruits.  If early spring represents the return of fertility, early summer allows us to see the first children that come of that renewed fertility.  It is the first nourishment that comes to us after the winter.  There remains a long summer ahead before the full harvest -- summer was the hungry time, in the middle ages.  Yet here is a first taste of grace, and a promise of greater grace to come.

Arthur did not go on the quest for the Grail, but stayed true to his duty to keep the walls of this world.
And therewith the king said: Ah, knight Sir Launcelot, I require thee thou counsel me, for I would that this quest were undone, an it might be Sir, said Sir Launcelot, ye saw yesterday so many worthy knights that then were sworn that they may not leave it in no manner of wise. That wot I well, said the king, but it shall so heavy me at their departing that I wot well there shall no manner of joy remedy me. And then the king and the queen went unto the minster. So anon Launcelot and Gawaine commanded their men to bring their arms. And when they all were armed save their shields and their helms, then they came to their fellowship, which were all ready in the same wise, for to go to the minster to hear their service...
And then they put on their helms and departed, and recommended them all wholly unto the queen; and there was weeping and great sorrow. Then the queen departed into her chamber and held her, so that no man should perceive her great sorrows. When Sir Launcelot missed the queen he went till her chamber, and when she saw him she cried aloud: O Launcelot, Launcelot, ye have betrayed me and put me to the death, for to leave thus my lord.
It is a grave question that troubles me every year:  is it right to go on the quest, or is it not?  Lancelot holds that it is better to die in that quest than in any other fashion.  Death is sure to us all, but the suffering of the quest prepares and purifies the spirit, so that it might be a little less unfit for the presence of God.

Arthur holds to his duty to keep the space in this world in which joy is possible, and trust in the coming of the later grace.  So he held Camelot, and the peace of the land and the people, while his knights broke themselves in the wilderness.


E Hines said...

It is a grave question that troubles me every year: is it right to go on the quest, or is it not?

What holds you back? Have you taken Arthur's oath, or something similar?

On the other hand, why would you quest?

[Arthur] charged them...always to do ladies, damsels, and gentlewomen and widows service, to strengthen them in their rights.... Also, that no man fight a duel they knew was wrong....

Of those knights who did go after the grail, how many of them did it for the ego of it, or for other worldly gain? It occurs to me that those who had no legitimate purpose violated both of these parts of their oath: they did it for personal gain, and in doing so, they removed themselves from any possibility of doing ladies (and not only their own) service. And any fights they had along the way fatally tainted by the knights' flawed larger purpose.

Perhaps a better path to their preparation and spiritual purification would have been a better job of honoring the commitments they'd made in the secular world as well as to God, and a better job of satisfying their existing duties.

I also suggest that it was not the quest that shattered the Table, but the weakness of the member knights who put getting the grail ahead of duty.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

I have often not held back; I went to Iraq seeking a chance to be part of a quest to try to bring justice and peace to a people long troubled by tyranny and war. In fact, I would say that holding back is not generally my nature; I don't think I have ever turned down such an adventure when it came to my door. In that you might also look to The Hobbit as an example, perhaps a counterexample.

But the issue goes beyond literary forms. It's also the issue of those who seek God in the wilderness as hermits, through chastity and prayer and penance; and those who stay home and go to church once in a while. The hermetic forms have a long history: we read of hermits wandering in the desert even in the Bible, and we see them at work in the whole history of the faith. There is something there, however mad it seems at times, that is powerful and pure.

And there is something in staying behind with the walls that is humane and easy. It is a sacrament, in the way that marriage is a sacrament: it is a way of taking our sinful nature and providing a sacred easing of it. It is better to marry than burn, we read; but other things may be better still.

james said...

Yes, other things can be better--"Mary has chosen the better part" is pretty good authority for that. Though it doesn't immediately follow that it is better for everybody.

It has been a long time since I read Arthur's stories, but I'd interpreted the appearance of the Grail as a new calling, and one that necessarily superseded all others.

On the other hand, it is pretty obvious that God calls most of the world to be farmers. It may be a lesser calling, but if that's yours then you have to be faithful to that and not to dreams of being a (disobedient) missionary to Tibet.

Grim said...

If God calls most of the world to be farmers, we have built a very unjust society. That ordinary, natural relationship with the land is simply unavailable to most people today. Most people today live in cities, some of them through work in factories or offices, and others on some form of government assistance.

For them, too, it's a hard question.

james said...

I was thinking of subsistence farmers around the world, not necessarily conditions in the US.

But I sympathize with the claim that we often create excessively abstract environments in which children grow up convinced that chicken legs magically appear wrapped in plastic in the supermarket. Many of us are badly disconnected.

Grim said...

Well, that's what I'm trying to say: we're already there worldwide.

And people make that choice, to some degree -- they make it once, somewhat blindly, but it can't be taken back. People leave the farm to go to the city, because they hear stories about wealth or leisure or whatever else it is that brings them. But once the farmland is gone, it's gone: someone rich enough to defend it from you will claim it up. In America, it's chiefly corporations who have bought it up.

So, you're in the city, and it's Pentecost. There's no work; the UK just slipped back into recession, and the Eurozone is falling apart. No matter where you are, things have been bad for a long time and they're about to get worse.

And then maybe one night you have a dream: "Your young men will have visions; your old men will dream dreams." Do you follow it? Following that dream to the city was what got you here. The old way, hard though it was, poor though it was, offered that natural connection to the land and the ability to bring crops from the earth. Will you go to the wild?

Grim said...

Let me put it another way.

Lancelot du Lac feels the presence of God, and so moved he resolves to take the quest. He hears mass, presumably takes communion. He declares to a priest later in the story that he was confessed 'sith [he] entered inot the quest of the Sangrael.' He is away from Guinevere this whole time. Yet he remains a worldly knight, unworthy of the Grail in spite of his hardships and sufferings.

This reminds me of the lesson of the adulteress, when Jesus says that to lust in the heart is enough. Even having confessed and been shriven, Lancelot's nature is sinful: he can never be worthy, no matter how much he breaks himself in the quest.

Arthur is a sinful knight too, but he is generally a good king. Until debate comes between him and Lancelot, he makes and keeps the peace of his land. The people flourish; justice is defended by his knights.

So I wonder if the lesson here is simple after all. We aren't, most of us, for the Grail. We ought to avoid the quest for the holy shield that Galahad wins. Those things are not for us: but we have been given good gifts, women and children who love us, and that joy and that duty is enough.

Grim said...

But maybe it's not simple at all. Maybe this is why the camel finds it easier to pass through the eye of the needle than the rich man into the kingdom of heaven: because those comfortable things aren't the real thing at all. Maybe it's the dream, and we all ought to try -- even though only a few Galahads will achieve it.

That is consistent too, for many verses warn of the hardship of the narrow way.

douglas said...

Both paths have their traps, and rewards. I was going to write a bunch more, but really that's the gist of it, and the eternal question is - am I challenging myself to do good? What that challenge may be may vary wildly, but the answer can come in the grand adventure, or the mundane- and in either case, we may see it, or we may be blinded to it.

james said...

I agree that most of us are not for the search for the Grail, or for the pastorate, or for contemplation, or any of the other high-prestige callings. We have other callings/vocations. Those are our paths to service and holiness, and if we could be faithful they'd be our paths to perfection.

Perfection isn't our usual measure of greatness, but it is a valid standard. I recall reading about the Japanese emperor that his palace was far from the largest, but acclaimed the most perfect in design and environment.

No one can look on God and live, but He made a path for us to see Him anyway. No doubt some angels can contemplate more of Him, but through Jesus we can be united to God in perfection; perfection in both sinlessness and in the fulfillment of our natures.

David was a man after God's own heart, but he couldn't build the temple because he'd been a man of blood. Still, would you rather be David or Solomon?

Assuming Mallory was reasonably orthodox, the reason the knights could not achieve the Grail was not because they were unworthy, because nobody is worthy (even Galahad?). But their goal was partly a priestly goal, and no one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God. So were they all called (many called but few chosen) or were some of them presumptuously trying to take an honor upon themselves? (I need to re-read Mallory.)

WRT the city-dwelling; it looks like you're right. It has been decades since I lived in Africa. Even then there were vast migrations to the city--to nobody's great benefit.

William said...

I have always held high reguard for, and admittedly some terror of, those who day by day, grind their lives away at some thankless job in service to their families and children. Dying a little bit each day so that others may have the opportunity for a better life. Even today I am humbled by the thought. It is the reality that there are those who, despite the trappings of wealth, drive themselves though misery for no happiness of their own but for the potential happiness of others. Is there any difference from the hermit in in cave foregoing all things worldly in his quest for holiness? If anything the man in the grind has the edge. As long as his motivation is true. Re the camel and the needle, is the man rich in spirit, worldly goods, or pride that is unlikely to fit? I do believe, though I'm not well remembered enough to source, that a quest comes in many coats and that it is in the selfless giving, not holiness, that mercy is obtained. I do question if the intent to obtain mercy may not taint the achievement of the hermit's quest? For would not the intent to obtain mercy be self serving in it's own right, or is the motivation not a factor? This may seem off post, but I believe it is spot on target. What say the hall?

William sends.

Grim said...

I have always held high reguard for, and admittedly some terror of, those who day by day, grind their lives away at some thankless job in service to their families and children. Dying a little bit each day so that others may have the opportunity for a better life.

That is very well said. My father was that kind of man.

bthun said...

What Grim said since I too had a father just so...

*tips hat to William*

MikeD said...


You said:
"Arthur holds to his duty to keep the space in this world in which joy is possible, and trust in the coming of the later grace. So he held Camelot, and the peace of the land and the people, while his knights broke themselves in the wilderness."

I submit that Arthur had a greater duty as sovereign to keep that space than did his knights as retainers. While his knights are free (with his permission) to go off questing, Arthur is not free to do likewise. The greater rights and privileges that come as monarch also bear a greater duty. He is NOT free to do as he wills. He is bound to "[make] and [keep] the peace of his land", and to "keep the space in this world in which joy is possible" rather than to do what he wants. The good of his kingdom requires that the monarch does not go off questing.

And as an example of why this duty is required, look to the example of Richard the Lionhearted. He went off to the Crusades and left his kingdom in the hands of others. In doing so, he abdicates his responsibilities for what he sees as a spiritual greater good. But that is not his call. And as a result, we see the misrule of his brother John. And I know Robin Hood has little to do with Arthurian legend, I think the example still holds.

Grim said...

And as a result, we see the misrule of his brother John.

Well, moving from mythic forms to historical ones, we also see the misrule of brother Richard. The Crusade was ruinously expensive for England; many of the tax forms that provoked revolt under John, after Richard's death, began to be irksome under Richard.

Too, you could make the same argument against any foreign war. You could say that Edward wasn't free to go and fight the French, because he should have been home to protect his kingdom from the ravaging Scots. The king's duty, however, was amply filled in that case by delegation -- not to his brother, but to his wife, Philippa of Hainault.

And in that case, of course, the war was richly rewarding... for a while.

Cass said...

It seems odd that none of you seem cognizant of duty.

Is it right to go on a quest? Kind of depends upon whatever other responsibilities you have chosen to assume.

And I use the word, "chosen" deliberately.

Grim said...

I think all of us are cognizant of duty. What we are asking about has to do with the duty to God. That one is not chosen, but sent; and it sometimes can be overriding.

Grim said...

Of course, in the case of Malory's Arthur, his duty as king was also God-sent and sacred: the Sword in the Stone, after all.

Grim said...

But maybe, Cass, you're misreading the problem in front of us. Maybe you're reading the questions as something like, 'How often am I allowed to abandon all my responsibilities and go off to find my own bliss and be true to myself?'

Many people in our culture seem to feel this need, but it's self-indulgence, not duty to God. I was reading a review of a book the other day about a woman who said, 'Gee, I need to divorce the husband I don't love any more and go to India to study yoga and find inner truth.' That's not what anyone here is talking about.

That's not what the Round Table Knights were doing, either. They went off into severe suffering, and most of them did not return. They had endured the presence of the Grail, which is to say the presence of God, and it moved them to abandon their worldly goods and try for perfection.

A better model for understanding the question would be the person who -- if they went to India -- went to serve in hospitals in the poorest regions, giving up their wealth and sacrificing their health to aid the poor. Jesus often suggests that people ought to follow him on such quests: even if it means leaving every existing duty behind. See, for example, Luke 9:57-62:

57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

59 He said to another man, “Follow me.”

But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

61 Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”

62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

douglas said...

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

I suppose then that the asking of the question is it's own answer, is it not?

MikeD said...

It seems odd that none of you seem cognizant of duty

I'm vaguely (slightly... very slightly) hurt by that. My very point was Arthur's duty to his kingdom and all who lived there, even to the expense of his own spiritual well-being. The rights and privileges that come with being absolute monarch meant that Arthur's duty was that much greater. For the people of his kingdom depended upon him to ensure their physical safety so that they could tend to both the needs of the kingdom and their spiritual well-being. Thus the need for the king to remain behind.


Grim said...


It certainly is when Jesus tells you, himself in person, to go and do something.

In the case of the Round Table knights, though, it's a bit different. They felt the presence of the divine; and they longed for it. But (except perhaps Galahad) they didn't receive direct instructions. The quest was a response to a longing inside themselves for the divine.

Such a longing is surely praiseworthy! And when thinking about Pentecost -- the quote, above, about how 'your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams' is from the section of Acts that deals with the first Pentecost -- such visions and longings are wholly appropriate.

But then there is the other side of it, which we've also discussed. The king isn't the only one who doesn't break himself in the wild: the Church doesn't, either. She has succor for those who do, but the Church largely serves to build and to hold a civilized place, not to suffer in the wild. That's been true, too, since the apostles.

Grim said...


I remember the Belmont Club once asked if you could ever ask someone else to go to hell for you. The point was, if your safety required someone else to kill or torture, could you ask someone else to do that so that you could live in safety and peace?

Your remarks seem to suggest one thing farther: that the king might not only be asked to go to hell for his people, but that he might have a duty to do so.

Kant, whose ethics are influenced strongly by Christianity, seems to have thought that kings can have duties that would be wrong for any subject. Suicide, for example, is something Kant argues stridently against at every occasion... except in the case of a king whose capture, and ransom, might impose a severe duty on his kingdom. Because of the importance of the survival of his polity to each and every one of the citizens, the king might have a duty to kill himself rather than be captured.

Of course, suicide is a mortal sin: so in the Christian context, does the king have a duty to go to hell in order to protect his people? That makes the king Christ-like indeed.

douglas said...

I had to think about this for a while-
"Such a longing is surely praiseworthy!"

Is it? If it's longing, does that perhaps signal a drive to satisfy a personal desire, rather than answer a call? It's always interested me how so many of the Prophets and Saints didn't want to go on whatever journey God sent them on, but they went and did great things. Doubt seemed to be their constant companion. Mother Theresa would be a good example. It's almost as if if you're sure you should go, perhaps you shouldn't, but if you feel as if you're being dragged away, let go and do God's work. It's confusing frankly, since it seems that then you are questioning, but it may be a different king of question.

I'm not sure there is a clear answer on this, or even a right answer.

Sig said...

Thank you for this conversation, which is remarkably apropos as I contemplate whether (and why or why not) to volunteer for another impending mobilization...

douglas said...

As I think about whether there is even a right or wrong answer, I'm coming around to the idea that there isn't. Instead, that whichever path we choose, we need make the best and most virtuous choices we are able, and then have faith that God is served by our actions. I suppose also that if we haven't questioned ourselves, there would seem to be an increased chance that we've been too bold or too comfortable rejecting the quest, and if we find ourselves embroiled in internal debate, we're likely on the right path.