The Center for Sophiological Studies

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  • Michael Martin

Filling the Empty Signifier: A Meditation on the Grail

Edward Burne-Jones, The Dream of Sir Lancelot at the Temple of the Holy Grail, 1895-96

“It has to be confessed that we have come forth from a prolonged study of the Grail Critical Apparatus with empty hands.” ~ Arthur Edward Waite[1]

I think the time has come to admit that what is called “the Holy Grail” is some variety of empty signifier or glittering generality. I know this is, in a way, “a hard saying,” but, nevertheless, brothers and sisters, the time has come. But this is not to say that I don’t think the Grail exists.

If we survey the Grail literature that arose during the late-medieval period, it quickly becomes apparent that exactly what kind of artifact the Grail is is really anyone’s guess. We know the candidates: stone, altar, platter, lost jewel from Lucifer’s crown, and the popular choice, the chalice used at the Last Supper. The lapsit exillis (a term likewise lacking in semantic stability) is also a red herring. Therefore, the meaning of the Grail is forever deferred. Like the Messiah, it awaits always at the horizon.

We know it’s good. We know it’s holy. We just don’t know what it is.

Because of its instability as a symbol, the Grail can become the receiver for human imagination (certainly the strength of the Grail literature—from the medieval origins to the sublimity of Wagner’s Parsifal and the slapstick of Monty Python). But with the imaginal license imparted by this floating signifier comes the potential for danger. That is, as French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion has described the human capacity for symbol-making, the Grail can become either an icon or an idol.[2] As an icon, it allows the divine to shine through it (however we might imagine it); as an idol, it, like a mirror, reflects our own desires (and egos) back to us. For many, I suspect, the idolatry of the Grail unfolds in the way of the spiritual megalomania of which Valentin Tomberg warns—repeatedly!—in Meditations on the Tarot (a warning which also appears, in a very humorous way, in The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz). I have met more than a few self-appointed “Initiates” or “Grail Knights” in my time. As have we all.

The Grail Initiates and Knights of my acquaintance have one thing in common: a very clearly defined notion of what the Grail is (and what it is not). When questioned, they tend to get very defensive or dismissive. These kinds of responses could be, I admit, due to the fact that they really are Initiates or Grail Knights. But, as any psychotherapist would say, such defensiveness often indicates neurosis or even psychosis. I, for my part, have chosen to eschew both initiation and psychosis.

As a rule, I tend to avoid such a hardened conceptual life. History is littered with the ruins of grand schemes. Furthermore, it seems to me that the spiritual world is much more characterized by fluidity than it is by rigidity. Spiritus abhoret definitionem. Things change, transform, spiral, descend and ascend in the spiritual world. They are never found twice in the same place or same way.

And so it is with the Grail. My own intuition and experience tell me that, while the Grail is One, it is not one thing. I am happy with the Grail as chalice and the Eucharistic implications such an iconography embodies. Likewise am I at home with the Grail as platter, stone, or jewel from Lucifer’s crown: so much poetic fertility lies in the Grail mythos that to choose one paradigm over another really works as a kind of betrayal of the Grail. And even though I prefer the Perceval/Parzival of Chrétien and Wolfram (somehow I have sympathy with a guy who screws up everything the first time) and have an inner revulsion for Galahad (kind of a combination of Captain America and a cherub; someone who never made a mistake in his life), I am comfortable with those who, like Charles Williams and A.E. Waite, look to Galahad as the Grail hero par excellence—just don’t force me to drink from that cup.

More and more, however, the Grail for me has come to bear a deep resonance with both the earth itself and with the Eternal Feminine. This has less to do with Jessie Weston’s project of applying The Golden Bough to the Grail mythos (as much as I enjoyed her book once upon a time) as it is to my experience as a biodynamic farmer and theologian. I have always been deeply moved by Rudolf Steiner’s insight that the moment the Blood of Christ touched the earth on Golgotha the entire planet was given the capacity for new life; that it was saved from death. Likewise do I cherish Steiner’s description of the moon filling with light prior to Easter as an image of the Grail: “At the Easter festival, therefore, everyone can see this picture of the Holy Grail.”[3] I look for it every year and have taught my children to look for it.

Steiner’s insights concerning the relationship of the Holy Blood and the Grail to Easter are given even deeper import by the Russian Orthodox priest Sergius Bulgakov’s considerations of the Grail. For Bulgakov, like many commentators on the mythos, the Grail is intimately related to the Eucharist, but it is just as much related to the earth:

Through the precious streams of Christ’s blood and water that flowed out of His side, all creation was sanctified—heaven and earth, our earthly world, and all the stellar worlds. The image of the Holy Grail, in which the holy blood of Christ is kept, expresses precisely the idea that, even though the Lord ascended in His honorable flesh to heaven, the world received His holy relic in the blood and water that flowed out of His side; and the chalice of the Grail is the ciborium and repository of this relic. And the whole world is the chalice of the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail is inaccessible to veneration; in its holiness it is hidden in the world from the world. However, it exists in the world as an invisible power, and it becomes visible, appears to pure hearts who are worthy of its appearance.[4]

Even though I appreciate the poetic image of Joseph of Arimathea catching the Holy Blood in the chalice of the Last Supper as Christ hung from the cross, the picture Bulgakov offers here seems not only more true, but more necessary to life in the present. The center of ecology lies herein, in this picture of sacredness and regeneration and not, as many contemporary environmentalists would have us believe, in encouraging feelings of shame, fear, and self-loathing. No one can be shamed or frightened into saving the world. Only love can bestow that kind of courage. I’m not a biodynamic farmer because I feel an urgency to save the world from the evils of men: I’m a farmer because it’s the closest I can get to working with the Holy Blood that permeates the soil, however homeopathic the dose.

This picture of the Grail abiding in the world, I think, is an important one for us to carry. In the Galahad cycle, for instance, the Grail disappears from this plane (as does Galahad) and leaves behind sorrow and disillusionment (an understanding that permeates both Malory and Tennyson). Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, in their psychological exegesis, even implicate the Perceval/Parzival stream in this melancholy response, and wisely. “Perceval should not have taken himself into the seclusion of the Grail Castle,” they write:

in order to remain in the picture, he should have brought the Grail to the Round Table, so that instead of the Spirit being divorced from the world, the world would have been impregnated by the Spirit.[5]

It is interesting that such a spirit-matter dichotomy infiltrates so much of the Grail literature, as if spirit and matter were separate realities and not aspects of the same reality. Nevertheless, what Jung and von Franz describe here is very much how medieval Christianity in general and the Galahad mythos in particular (colored, as it is, by Albigensian and Cistercian anxieties about sex and fertility) reified such a dichotomy. Spiritual and psychological health would dictate that the Grail, as Steiner and Bulgakov intuited, should remain with the earth. The Grail’s abiding on/in the earth also bears sophiological implications as it opens a way for us to understand Creation in a more complete way.

Despite the very masculine milieu of knighthood, the Grail mythos also evokes images of what philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva describes as a “feminine genius.”

Perceval/Parzival, for example, is raised by his mother away from knighthood and women are integral to his journey to self-awareness. Indeed, when he first appears before the Grail, Parzival is described by Wolfram as wearing the mantle of Repanse de Schoye, clearly an image of the protection of sacred femininity, and the hero doesn’t even know his own name until it is revealed to him by Sigune. Prior to the feminine bestowal of his ego, we might say, Parzival is unequipped to achieve the Grail (Gurnemanz’s advice, need I remind anyone, proves unintentionally disastrous). Significantly, Kristeva locates this feminine genius “as arising from the loving singularity discovered by Christianity.”[6] During the High Middle Ages, in addition to the Grail mythos, we can see this loving singularity in relation to the feminine in Dante, in the rosary, and in Brautmystik. Closer to our own time, we can find it in psychoanalysis and sophiology.

In their important book on the Grail legend, Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz consider the feminine in relationship to the masculinity of the Holy Trinity. In their meditation, they see the Evil One as an unaccounted fourth in the quaternary completing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the Devil gives way to the Virgin Mary/Grail as a figure of redeemed evil: for the Grail stories are nothing if not meditations on the problem of evil and its transfiguration. “Even when the quaternary schema is arranged as overleaf with the Grail vessel (as substitute for the Mother of God)” they write,

rather than the Devil added to the Trinity as the Fourth…, this does not dispose of the problem of evil. For, like the body of Mary, the Grail is something individual and material and thus also attracts the problem of evil to itself, because it too reaches down into the reality of earthly humanity.[7]

Diagram from Jung and von Franz, p. 340

The Book of Revelation attests to the same imagination:

Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.
And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. (12:1–4)

For Bulgakov, the quaternary is filled/fulfilled in Sophia (and he was censured by the Russian Orthodox Church for saying so). The Trinity, according to Bulgakov, is mirrored in Sophia (who simultaneously manifests herself in the Virgin Mary).[8] Sophia, furthermore, inheres within Creation as a “unifying force…cosmourgic potency…. She is the life of the world.”[9] An invisible stream, we can say then, connects Sophia and the Holy Blood which regenerated the earth at Golgotha. But here the conceptual realm and the realm of logic breakdown and are no longer of use; we enter the realm of poetic metaphysics. Indeed, this is in every way a sacramental reality.

The Eternal Feminine inhabits this imaginal realm of poetic metaphysics. As Kristeva says of the feminine genius, “thinking, for women, cannot be shut off from carnal sensoriality: the metaphysical body/soul dichotomy is, in these women, unbearable; they describe thought as physical happiness, eros for them is not discernable from agape and vice versa.”[10] My experience as a husband, father, farmer, poet, and musician whispers to me that what Kristeva here describes as a feminine attribute is not unknown to men, and I think her intuition points to the key for finding the Grail in our day.

What we have here, then, are two images: of the Grail and of the Blood that fills it, of Sophia and Christ. Though I think the Gnostic mythos concerning Sophia is mostly wrong, it is true that she has been lost to humanity, entrapped in darkness—but not due to any mistakes she made. Unfortunately, feminist incursions into culture have transmogrified (literally in some cases) into a masculinization of the feminine, as if masculinity were the endgame of both evolution and feminism. Sophia can find no room in such a paradigm. However, if we awaken to the sophianic implicit in Creation (and creation), Sophia awakens. But, to be more accurate, Sophia does not need awakening. We do.


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[1] Arthur Edward Waite, The Holy Grail: The Galahad Quest in Arthurian Literature (1933; rprt. Montana: Kessinger, 1993), 479.

[2] In his book God without Being: Hors-Texte, trans. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

[3] Rudolf Steiner, The Mysteries of the Holy Grail: From Arthur and Parzival to Modern Initiation, ed. Matthew Barton (Forrest Row, UK: Rudolf Steiner Press, 2010), 46.

[4] Sergius Bulgakov, The Holy Grail and the Eucharist, trans. Boris Jakim (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Books, 1997), 33. My emphasis.

[5] Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend, trans. Andrea Dykes (Boston: Sigo Press, 1986), 389.

[6] Julia Kristeva, This Incredible Need to Believe, trans. Beverley Bie Braikevitc (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 33.

[7] Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend, 341.

[8] Sergei Bulgakov, Sophia, the Wisdom of God: An Outline of Sophiology, trans. Patrick Thompson, O. Fielding Clarke, and Xenia Braikevitc, rev. (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1993), 37.

[9] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 80.

[10] Julia Kristeva, This Incredible Need to Believe, 39.