What is the secret of the Grail? Is it the archetypal Grail as cauldron of rebirth, the chalice from the last supper, or the Philosopher’s Stone that transmutes lead into gold? Perhaps it is all of these. Reflected within the mysteries of the Grail, and the process of the Quest, are powerful learnings for any spiritual seeker, and especially for those who have stepped into a leadership role.
Through the Quest we transform our inner reality, our deepest selves, and our hearts, into the vessel known as the Grail.
“The passage of the mythological hero may be overground…fundamentally it is inward—into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world.”
— Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
My own personal Grail Quest has led me to moments of pure joy as I filled my heart with the source-waters of the divine. And, like many Grail Knights, that Quest was catalyzed by personal crisis. Laid off from my job, in a marriage that didn’t feel right, and a leader in a group that had imploded, I was ripe for a new phase of spiritual seeking.
My own work with the various Grail legends has led me to the Grail Quest as a model for personal and leadership development. The main characters are often the Knight, the Grail Maiden (or Priestess), and the King. If we take gender out of it, we can work with the archetypes of Seeker, Shaman*, and Sovereign.
Here is the general flow of the story with some adaptations to show a progression of personal transformation:
- The Knight Begins the Quest:
Journeying out to seek knowledge, wisdom, inspiration, and to find a way to heal the wounded king.
- Facing Challenges in the Wasteland:
Physical and psychological challenges in a dry land devoid of water and divine love. This leads the Knight to self knowledge and transformation.
- Final Challenge:
At the center of the Knight’s labyrinthine pilgrimage, the Knight meets the Grail Maiden. She who protects and serves the Grail offers a final challenge.
- Claiming the Grail:
Having gone through the journey, the Knight knows the shape of their own heart. The Knight understands what inspires and fills them, and in doing so, can pass the challenge and eat or drink from the Grail Service the Grail Maiden/Priestess offers.
- Knight to Priestess:
In drinking from the Grail, the Knight has claimed the Grail and in doing so gains the powers of the Grail Maiden. No longer the seeker on the Quest, the Priestess is one who knows the mystery of filling from our own source, and who can offer the Grail Service to others who seek the mystery.
- The Return:
When the Knight-turned-Priestess returns to the world, bringing the life-giving energies to the land and to the people, the Priestess becomes the King.
Knight, Priestess, King—Seeker, Shaman, Sovereign. The Grail Quest is a journey into transformation. It is a process of learning how to serve my deepest self in order to serve my land, my community, and the divine. If you seek to lead a spiritual or grass-roots community, before you can serve others, you must first learn the mysteries of yourself as the Seeker.
Wandering the Wasteland
I had been a solitary Pagan for years, but felt that I was missing something. I wanted meaning in my life. As an artist, designer, and event planner, I found many projects creatively fulfilling, but I also found myself stressed out and depressed more and more.
“The wasteland is a metaphor for a barren psychological landscape where creativity and generativity are absent, where nothing grows and life is meaningless and emotionally flat.”
—Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D., Crossing to Avalon: A Woman’s Midlife Quest for the Sacred Feminine
A prominent part of the Grail story is the Wasteland; a land that will bear no fruit. For me, this is the essence of depression. Feeling empty, emotionless, unable to create. My personal Grail Quest has largely been born out of my desire to know how to draw from the well-waters of inspiration. I didn’t want to stay caught in the spiral of apathy and depression.
Becoming the Grail Knight
To find what was missing, I left my more ordinary life, beginning a strange pilgrimage. The day after I was laid off, I took an Elements of Magic class with the Chicago Reclaiming community. I bonded with people from the class, and volunteered to help with graphic design and event planning.For the first time in my life, I had found a spiritual community that felt like home.
I realized I needed leadership training to realize my larger dreams. I joined the Diana’s Grove Mystery School program, and soon after, I found myself building a large outdoor shrine to Brigid on the Grove lands. After a week of sunburn, pulled muscles, and other injuries, I realized I’d never been happier, and that I wanted to serve community in this way perhaps for the rest of my life. I finally had the focus and courage to break up with my husband. He wasn’t a bad guy, but our lives just weren’t compatible any longer. I moved from Chicago into a rural cabin at Diana’s Grove.
“The adventure of the hero normally follows the pattern of…a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return.”
—Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
What I learned on my Quest was that the Grail is born of both sorrow and of joy. As I learned what creatively inspired me, I understood the nature of the waters that filled my soul.
But it was having my heart broken that transformed me. My heart had been closed for years. Like so many other people, I was rejected by my peers as a child, and I had frozen my heart in self-preservation. When I fell in love, and when my heart later broke, I cried harder than I ever had. At the time, I was surprised to realize that I had a heart to be broken.
Heartbreak like this can happen from falling in love with a person, or from the love experienced by creating a piece of artwork or connecting to a community vision or to any larger project or other big dream.
Through joy and sorrow, and a lot of personal growth work, I allowed myself to feel again. I recognized that deep feeling was me filling from the Grail waters once again. In the leadership and personal growth work, I recognized my core strengths. I also began to recognize where my own personal Grail had cracks and fractures from past wounds, and the waters of life would pour right back out.
But how could I heal those holes in the cup of my heart? How could I fill with the life-bearing waters? Part 2 coming soon!
First published in CIRCLE Magazine, Issue 104, Fall 2009
*Note: I use the word “shaman” to refer to a job/function, not to the specific Tungusic spiritual traditions. Priest, priestess, witch, druid, sorcerer, wizard, healer, magician, medicine man…none of these quite work for what I’m trying to convey. The word “shaman” has been borrowed into English and used by explorers and anthropologists to refer to the function of a magical spirit worker and religious specialist in any tribal culture, though it most likely comes from the Tungusic Evenki language. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamanism
Images above courtesy of the author.