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A Book Review… Pursuing The Holy Grail

June 9, 2018 Featured Today No Comments

By DONAL ANTHONY FOLEY

A Catholic Quest for the Holy Grail by Charles A. Coulombe (TAN Books, hardcover, 264 pages, $14.53 print, $10.22 Kindle).

A Catholic Quest for the Holy Grail sets out to answer such questions as what exactly was the Holy Grail, and what is its significance for modern Catholics. To do this, author Charles Coulombe looks at the medieval romances which grew up around the subject of the Holy Grail, which in tradition has been regarded as the cup or chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper. (The word Grail comes from the Old French word graal or greal, which means a cup or a bowl.)
The author also seeks to relate the Grail to themes such as medieval chivalry, the Crusades, devotion to the Sacred Heart and Precious Blood, the Blessed Virgin and the Eucharist, and argues that the “Holy Grail, both as a reality and a symbol, remains as important today as it ever has been.”
The book begins with the story of Perceval, one of the Knights of the Round Table, and from this we can see how the medieval Arthurian Romances were much influenced by Catholic themes such as the importance of the Mass and devotion to our Lady.
The first mention of the Holy Grail in fact dates from the twelfth century, and is found in a romance by Chretien de Troyes. His unfinished story about Perceval was very popular, and led to a flourishing of what could be described as “Grail” literature. In these stories the Grail was intimately linked to the Eucharist: In some it was described as a dish, but in others as the cup used at the Last Supper.
These Arthurian romances in turn influenced later writers such as Sir Thomas Mallory in his Morte d’Arthur, which dates from the fifteenth century, and the nineteenth-century poet, Tennyson, in his Idylls of the King.
Charles Coulombe argues that “what distinguished the Holy Grail stories (and by extension the Arthurian cycle to which they had become attached) was that they married chivalry to an intense piety.” He goes on to say that this was a lay rather than a clerical piety, and one which was focused on the Eucharist and Christ’s Passion.
The book has some enlightening excursions into the historical background to the quest for the Holy Grail, which help to put it into a proper context, and which enable us to see how the decline of medieval principles such as chivalry, and all it stood for, was part of the accelerating process by which society was “modernized” and secularized over the centuries following the Reformation.
But what exactly was the Grail, and how reliable are the accounts about it? The tradition is that the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper accompanied St. Peter on his travels, and finally ended up in Rome with him when he became the first Pope.
A fascinating piece of evidence in favor of this is the fact that the Roman Canon, the First Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, has this wording in the part which leads up the consecration of the Precious Blood. “In like manner after He had supped, taking this excellent chalice into His holy and venerable hands. . . .”
In other words, it doesn’t say, the chalice, but this particular chalice — that is the actual chalice used by Christ. This canon is the most ancient part of the Roman Rite, and was presumably used by the first Popes, including Peter — and this wording is not found in the other Eucharistic Prayers, or in any other of the ancient Eucharistic liturgies. So this seems to indicate that the first Eucharistic Prayer is referring to the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper, and thus to the Holy Grail.
Coulombe also outlines the tradition surrounding St. Joseph of Arimathea and Glastonbury, where he is said to have founded the most ancient Marian shrine in England. This tradition, though, links Joseph with two vessels, or cruets, which he is supposed to have brought with him from the Holy Land, one containing water and the other blood from Christ’s pierced side, which he obtained at the crucifixion. Some of the stories also see Joseph begetting a series of “Grail Keepers,” down to the Grail King and Sir Galahad.
Coulombe believes that the Arthurian romances are probably based on fact, that is that King Arthur was the British leader in the struggle against the Saxon invaders who ravaged the land after the collapse of the Roman Empire had left Britain isolated and alone. A series of romances also grew up around the exploits of Charlemagne, and these, along with the Arthurian romances, encouraged the development of chivalric ideas in medieval society.
And so it is no coincidence that they were most influential and popular at the time of the Crusades, when Christian Europe was militarily engaged in the Holy Land.

The Chalice Of Valencia

The book also deals with accounts of other relics of the Passion, such as the Holy Lance used to pierce the side of Christ, the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns, the Pillar of Flagellation — at which Christ was scourged — and also the Shroud of Turin. It gives absorbing accounts of how the traditions surrounding these holy objects arose.
The author likewise deals with the various cups and chalices which in tradition have been regarded as the real Holy Grail, and after discussing various possibilities, examines the case for the Santo Caliz of Valencia in Spain, which he describes as the only vessel that approaches official recognition by the Church as the Holy Grail. And in fact it has been used by both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI during Mass, who referred to it as the chalice used by Christ.
This Chalice is enshrined in Valencia cathedral, on the east coast of Spain, and according to tradition it was first used by St. John the Evangelist to say Mass every day for our Lady, and after her death and Assumption it was given to St. Peter who took it to Rome. It was then used by him and his first twenty-four successors until a time of persecution in the mid third century, when the Deacon St. Lawrence sent it to Huesca in Spain, the hometown of his parents.
The Chalice was venerated there until the time of the Muslim invasions, and then hidden, but later on, after being in various locations, it finally ended up in Valencia, where it survived the upheavals following the French Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. So this is most likely candidate for the real Holy Grail.
A Catholic Quest for the Holy Grail also deals in some detail with the way other devotions to Christ, such as that of the Precious Blood, have grown up over time. It also looks at some of the Eucharistic miracles which have taken place down through the centuries, as well as devotion to the Sacred Heart, and of course to our Lady, whom the author describes as being the “Queen of the Holy Grail.” As he points out, the Blessed Virgin can be symbolized by the Holy Grail, since she was the first repository of the Body and Blood of Christ.
What ultimately does the Holy Grail express? For Coulombe, “it symbolizes in itself all in our faith that is miraculous, sacramental, devotional, royal, and chivalric.” As he remarks, our lives are a quest in themselves, a quest like that of Sir Galahad, which we trust will lead us, like him, to Heaven.
There is a fascinating wealth of detail in this book and it can certainly be recommended to anyone with an interest in history, and in the traditions and devotional life of the Church.

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(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian apparitions, and maintains a related website at www.theotokos.org.uk. He has also a written two time-travel/adventure books for young people — details can be found at: http://glaston-chronicles.co.uk/.)

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