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Catholics should rediscover the meaning of chivalry

Detail from 'God Speed' by Edmund Leighton (Wikimedia Commons)

In February I wrote a book blog about Charles Coulombe’s A Catholic Quest for the Holy Grail (TAN Books). I concluded that blog with the words, “Reading Coulombe’s memorable book, in which he argues that “all that is miraculous, sacramental, devotional, royal and chivalric” is contained in the sacred symbolism of the Grail story, reminds readers how literature and legend play their part in helping us to appreciate and understand better the great truths of our Faith.”

It is one of those books which throws genuinely new light on old knowledge and in so doing, does that rare thing: connect together in the mind discrete facts which, now placed in a deeper cultural context, are immeasurably enriched. The reader becomes slightly wiser, like Coleridge’s Wedding Guest (though without the latter’s accompanying sadness.)

This being the case, I was keen to ask the author some questions in order to learn a little more. For a start, why did the quest for the Holy Grail have such a hold in the medieval imagination? Coulombe replies, “Because it was a realistic portrayal of something they knew to be true – Transubstantiation, the eruption of God into everyday life. It linked the chivalric ideal with the pursuit of Heaven. This was the time when the word was defined (in 1215) as the best way to describe what happens at Mass. The Grail stories were to a large degree a symptom of and catalyst for the popularisation of the word amongst European nobility – the true “Secret of the Grail”. But connected to that was its affirmation of chivalry as a valid spiritual path for the noble laity, uniting their vocation of arms with the Faith.”

I note that Coulombe links the quest for the Grail with the Crusades. He explains that “the same thing made the Grail and Palestine holy: their connection with Christ. In the wake of the Crusades, innumerable relics of the Passion came west and were bestowed by various crusading knights upon their favourite churches. Even though, by the time Chretien de Troyes was writing about Arthurian legends, the Crusades were already beginning to fail, the Holy Grail stories served to reaffirm chivalry’s value, even in that face of that (or any other) failure.”

In his book, Coulombe places much emphasis on the authenticity of many relics of the Passion. Those outside the Church scoff at these seemingly superstitious left-overs from an earlier age, but Coulombe is in earnest when he tells me that “scientific examination has revealed any number of incredible facts about a huge number of them and I enjoy the occasional discomfiture expressed by some of the examining scientists confronted with irrefutable proof of the miraculous.”

About the sceptics, he comments, “Convince yourself of the erroneous and it is impossible to prove the truth to you.”

I tell Coulombe I was very struck by the force of his language when describing the modern western cultural scene as a “Waste Land”. He replies unhesitatingly, “Because it is; ugly, cold, empty and soul-less at its best, downright disgusting at its worst.” In this, he includes “Cinema, theatre, architecture, literature, painting, sculpture” and is convinced that “no-one who is not paid to do so believes the generality of modern works to be better than those of even 50 years ago.”

He points out to me “the thriving trade in antiques and ‘vintage material’, the popularity of all sorts of re-enactment and fantasy and the outselling of new music by old.” This he thinks “is largely the unconscious rejection of modern culture, however much most of us embrace the very notions that have made it so in our own lives.”

I put to him a question that always preoccupies me at this juncture in a conversation: “What can modern Catholics learn from the Arthurian legends in relation to their own faith?” Coulombe responds, “That the Faith is literally true – more so than political platforms or the Inland Revenue. We should respond to it by frequent reception of the Sacraments, prayers and devotions, visits to shrines and living the Liturgical Year.” He warms to his theme: “Thus fortified, we need to apply the Faith to every aspect of our lives – and then evangelise, pass it on. Each of us meets people who will never see a priest and we owe it to them and to ourselves to attempt to interest them in the means of salvation that God has given us. That is our “Crusade” if you will, our defence of the weak – those without the Faith – against the strong – the world, the flesh (our own fallen nature) and the Devil.”

“As the historical Arthur raced around Britain attempting to keep the light of Faith and civilisation alive in a nation threatened by Saxons and other invaders, we too should be the same in our own spheres.”

Finally, I am curious to know what kindled Coulombe’s own interest in these particularly stories and legends. He explains that his father “was of French-Canadian descent and told me a lot of our people’s folk-tales growing up. Very early on I was attracted to stories of King Arthur, Charlemagne, the Crusades, Robin Hood and so on – and of course, the Faith was bound up with all of that. My brother and I were both active in scouting and so the whole notion of a real-world application of these ideas was always in my mind. It was something that later on, reading the Inklings, Arthur Machen, Chesterton, Belloc and so on, amplified.”

He reflects, “Growing up in the 1960s and the 1970s in the Los Angeles area, gave me a pretty good understanding of the opposite ideas and where they, too, often lead.”