The Grail Code 

Archive for October, 2006

A plea to the nations

Friday, October 27th, 2006

Amnesty International has asked all bloggers “to highlight the plight of fellow bloggers jailed for what they wrote in their online journals.” It seems that in many countries, writing a blog post can land you in prison. I hope this isn’t one of those countries. Just in case it is, I want everyone to know that I didn’t really mean those things I said about Dan Brown.

So, in response to Amnesty International’s request, and with more than a hint of self-interest, here’s my appeal to all national governments:

Please don’t throw people in jail for expressing opinions on their blogs. That’s not nice.

It’s also wrong. People have a natural right to make their own choices and have their own opinions. They even have the right to have the wrong opinions.

But if you ask me why they should have that right, I’m a little less sure of what to say. I know the answer, but it’s a Judeo-Christian answer.

Human freedom is so important that God himself designed it into creation. Being omnipotent, God could have made creatures who would always do his will. Instead, he gave us our own wills and told us to make the right choices. Of course we didn’t. We made spectacularly wrong choices. But God allowed us to do that—not because he didn’t love us, but because he did love us, with a love beyond anything we can imagine.

He loved us so much that he allowed us to run away from him, like rebellious children. But in our hearts, we know that it’s not natural to be apart from God. That’s what the Holy Grail romances are about: that inborn knowledge that something’s not right, and our longing to come back to God.

So remember in your prayers all the people who are in jail for expressing their opinions. Especially remember them if they’re in jail for expressing wrong opinions. Those are the people who need our prayers the most.

Another Holy-Grail-of

Tuesday, October 24th, 2006

Since we were talking about bicycles a while ago, it may interest you to know that “the Holy Grail of touring bikes” just sold on eBay for the rather disappointing price of $298.12. It must say something about our world that you can’t even get three hundred bucks for a Holy Grail. Maybe it was those silly dropped handlebars that kept the bidders away. Meanwhile, I have another Holy-Grail-of to add to my collection.

And speaking of the Sacred Feminine…

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

And speaking of the Sacred Feminine, my wife, a doula here in Pittsburgh, has put up a page of birth art on her site. So far there are two Births of the Virgin and one Birth of John the Baptist.

If you want to talk about the importance of the Feminine in Christian culture, here’s a good place to start: with the birth of Mary, the model both of Christian obedience and of responsible Christian authority. After all, God Incarnate, as a child, was obedient to his mother (see Luke 2:51).

The practical importance of the Feminine is also the subject of these paintings. These days, birth has been taken over by a patriarchal male-dominated medical establishment, and sometimes the mother seems to be almost forgotten in the forest of beeping machines. In these pictures, though, we see the mother and child as the centers of attention.

Now, I tend to lean toward radical egalitarianism—probably more so than many of my readers here. In fact, that’s one of my objections to the supposed renewal of interest in the “sacred feminine”: emphasizing the differences between men and women, and concentrating on them rather than on the fundamental equality of the two, tends to create a sort of female ghetto. In most areas, I’m all for treating men and women as equals, and any kind of apartheid, no matter how “separate but equal,” has always been a good strategy for keeping one party dominant over the other. That’s true whether the separation is endorsed by the dominant party or the dominated party.

Jesus and Paul were both radical egalitarians like me. Jesus spoke to women as though their salvation really mattered, and Paul insisted that “in Christ, there is neither male nor female”—a statement so wildly radical that we can still hardly deal with its implications today.

Yet there are areas where men and women are clearly different. The sexes are designed to complement each other. God gave each special traits and abilities that are meaningless without the other’s equally special traits. Only women can give birth, and only men can—oh, I don’t know, drive monster trucks or something. Motherhood is a holy and blessed state, and it’s uniquely feminine. Men just can’t have it.

That’s what we see in these paintings of births. The settings are clearly Renaissance; the painters showed birth the way they knew it, not the way their researchers told them it happened just before the time of Christ.

How would we do that today? Would we show St. Elizabeth in a hospital bed, surrounded by beeping and buzzing electronics, while the anesthesiologist gets her epidural ready and the obstetrician whispers something about “emergency C-section” to the nurse? That wouldn’t look quite right, would it? It would be missing something. In fact, it would be missing the Sacred Feminine, designed by God and installed in human nature at the moment of creation.

Conversations with Mary Magdalene

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

Sometimes an idea for one of these little essays just falls into my lap. Other times I have to walk three paces to a bulletin board.

The latter is what happened this afternoon at the Whole Foods supermarket in East Liberty, an East End neighborhood of Pittsburgh. There I was, eating one of those giant muffins made with only the finest organic saturated fats, when the words “CONVERSATIONS WITH MARY MAGDALENE” caught my eye.

“Mary Magdalene’s story today represents the restoring of the Holy Grail—the Sacred Feminine—to a masculinized world long out of balance.

“Along with her, ordinary women—like you—are answering the call to be Grail-carriers, carrying the healing grace of the feminine back into the world.”

Well, so far it’s pretty ho-hum stuff. I’ve already had plenty to say about the Sacred Feminine, and why I’m wholeheartedly in favor of it.

But there’s more. Are you ready to “experience guided, imaginary conversations with Mary Magdalene”?

I am. An imaginary conversation with Mary Magdalene is right up my street. It’s the “guided” part I worry about, because the “Circle Facilitator” is “a licensed psychotherapist and workshop leader with a private practice in Regent Square.” It strikes me as a possible conflict of interest to have a psychotherapist telling Mary Magdalene what to say. What if Mary Magdalene wants to talk about the glory of the risen Christ, but the psychotherapist wants to talk about “journeys of empowerment” and “the re-emergence and re-valuing of the Feminine”? I might get pretty impatient with the Circle Facilitator if she kept shouting Mary down like that.

Still, there is something I like in the proposed agenda for the conversations. The facilitator promises to “explore the story of Mary Magdalene as an archetype of the Sacred Feminine.” I think that’s a splendid idea. I wish I could squash my nagging suspicion, however, that the “story” we’re talking about isn’t the history found in the Bible—that, in fact, we’re looking at another outbreak of revisionist paganism.

I also find it interesting that the Circle Facilitator is (in addition to her private practice) Director of the YWCA Women’s Counseling Center. I seem to recall that the letters YWCA stood for something interesting: “Young Women’s Chromatic Association,” or “Young Women’s Cantilevered Association,” or something like that. It’s just on the tip of my tongue.

A two-wheeled Grail quest

Monday, October 9th, 2006

I’m going to talk about bicycles now, and you’re going to wonder what ever happened to the Holy Grail. But only for a few paragraphs. Then I’m going to bring on the moral with my usual dull thud.

I’ve been thinking a lot about bicycles lately, because my son is just getting to the age where he can go out riding with us. He’s developed an obsession with bikes, quickly picking up technical terms I don’t know myself. Why doesn’t your bike have a derailleur, Daddy? Why do you like North Road handlebars? Why does your Sturmey-Archer AW three-speed hub use planetary gears?

I think people ride silly bicycles these days. But they’re not as silly as the ones they rode back when I was a teenager.

Back in the seventies and eighties, everybody had to have a ten-speed racing bike. Of course, for riding on city streets or suburban drives, you want to be able to sit up and see where you’re going. And those ram’s-horn handlebars, admirably adapted to the racing posture, were precisely wrong for sitting up, as many of my friends discovered. They ended up turning their handlebars upside-down, which didn’t work very well, either.

Then, somewhere around 1990, everyone suddenly decided to get a mountain bike. Of course, a mountain bike is specially adapted for bumpy dirt trails, and once again its special adaptations make it less than ideal for ordinary city riding. But everybody has a mountain bike now.

So everyone always seems to be riding the wrong bicycle. Not that there’s anything wrong with racing bikes or mountain bikes—quite the reverse. They’re precisely specialized machines, and when a master of the sport is riding one, they’re beautiful things to see in action. But they’re not what ordinary riders need in ordinary conditions.

It’s a peculiarly American thing: we think we’re serious about our bikes, but we’re not. In countries like Holland or China, where millions of people depend on bicycles for commuting, they use the right bicycles: indestructible roadsters with fenders and chain guards to protect their clothes, racks to carry their belongings, and good old North Road handlebars to keep them upright and alert in traffic. Bicycles like mine, in other words. Well, of course I use the right bicycle—did you expect anything less?

Why are we riding the wrong bicycles? Well, I think I know the answer. We’re trying to be what those bikes say we are. Deep inside, we feel a gnawing fear that whatever we are, it’s not good enough.

That’s actually a good thing, because the fact is that we aren’t good enough. Only God’s grace, and our faith in it, can make us good enough. The sooner we realize that, the better.

The problem is that we’re not really ready to trust in God’s grace. You can’t see grace the way you can see a fancy racing bike.

So when we go to buy a bike (or a car or a pair of shoes or practically anything else), we don’t ask which one will be the best for what we are now. We ask which one will make us what we want to be. If you buy that spiffy racing bike, you’ll be Lance Armstrong, winning the adulation of countless millions. Actually, of course, you’ll still be the same wonderful, unique, irreplaceable person you always were, but now on top of an uncomfortable bicycle.

Sir Thomas Malory (See? I told you we’d get there eventually) told us that King Arthur’s knights expected “much earthly worship” from the Grail quest. Instead, almost all of them ended up finding humiliation and shame, a good bit worse than just looking a bit awkward on a bicycle. All the outward trappings of chivalry—the gleaming armor, the charging stallions, the fluttering banners, the swooning maidens—couldn’t make those knights anything they weren’t already. In the Grail quest, the state of the soul was what mattered, and no amount of polish on the outside could clean up the person inside. Only sincere confession and repentance could do that.

Once again, what we think we want is actually leading us toward what we really want. We want real improvement. We want to be better people. Where we go wrong is the same place Simon Magus went wrong: we think we can buy that improvement somehow. But we can’t.

Eventually, like Lancelot in the romances, we have to admit it to ourselves: we can’t buy our way to the Holy Grail. Admitting that may be the hardest work we’ll ever do. But it can also be a great joy. We can’t buy our way into heaven, because the price has already been paid! We just have to accept the unbelievable gift we’re being offered. We just have to admit that we’ve been on the wrong track and accept the help we need to get on the right one.

And so what if the kids all point and laugh when we ride by on our old three-speed roadster?

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey