Monday, August 1, 2016

The Chapel Perilous and Moral Imagination

Men tend to mistake their private experiences for certain knowledge; thus they stumble into a prison of spirit, shut off from the painfully acquired wisdom of the species.

- Russell Kirk

In Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, as the knights of the Round Table are about to eat their supper, they all hear a crackling noise so loud that that they each think the building is about to fly-apart.  Before any of them can say a word, a sunbeam appears, “more clearer by seven times than they ever saw day, and all alighted of the grace of the Holy Ghost.”  As this light shines throughout the room, each of them then sees the others as they had never seen their fellow knights, “fairer than ever they saw afore.”  Sitting there dumbfounded, the Holy Grail appears.

“Then there entered into the Hall the Holy Grail covered with white samite, but there was none might see it, nor who bare it.”  As the Grail begins to hover around the King’s Hall, there appears before each of the knights his favorite foods and drinks.  And then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the Grail leaves the room. *

Thus begins the knight’s quest for the Holy Grail – which leads to the Chapel Perilous.

Within the Chapel, at various times, there is a sword, a healing remnant of clothing, holy water, shields, a dead knight, candlesticks, and, most always, the Holy Grail. Surrounding the Chapel is a ring of tombs. If the knight could gain entrance – and many could not – there he would discover the meaning and wisdom of the symbols within the Chapel, and, drinking from the cup, find redemption and healing.

The Chapel is perilous, however, for within its walls are also thundering voices and fiendish powers seeking to deceive and to lead the questers astray or to kill them, outright: just as there had been along the paths each knight had taken in search of the Grail.  Here, the way to victory, the way to understanding the items/symbols within the Chapel and gaining wisdom, depends upon faith, endurance, and virtue.

Moral Imagination
In reading legends, myths–here, that of King Arthur and his knights—we are introduced to representations of reality, of Truth. While these representations are symbolic, they are, nonetheless, depictions of, for example, the realities of the human condition, of the virtues required for a rightly ordered soul and community, and wisdom regarding how to make our way through the common trials and tribulations of life.  What it takes to see the meaning of these symbols is moral imagination: “the power of ethical perception.” (Russell Kirk)

But what do we all too often do when we read, if we read, such stories?

“We play with the words of the dead that would teach us, and strike them far from us with our bitter, restless will; little thinking that those leaves which the wind scatters had been piled, not only upon a gravestone, but upon the seal of an enchanted vault—nay, the gate of a great city of sleeping kings, who would awake for us, and walk with us, if we knew but how to call them by their names.”**

As we stand in the Chapel Perilous, some will only see the dead leaves and trifles of a superstitious age of credulity. The symbols within are no longer relevant and, believing so, will then remain lifeless. Those of us who are desperately seeking wisdom and healing for our selves and our communities will find, however, that these symbols can come alive, if we only have a bit of moral imagination.  

* Opening two paragraphs are taken from my book, Legendary Leadership.

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2016

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