The call of the grail

We all have a grail – something deep inside of us which is mysterious and elusive, and which calls us to follow it to find its meaning.  Yet we spend much, sometimes all, of our lives seeking that grail outside of ourselves, as if the meaning lies somewhere else.  We believe the universe holds its answers to our questions somewhere.   Somehow the thought that there may be no complete or clear answers outside, that fragments of meaning are all we’re likely to find, and that living with each fragment is a way forward, a clue, is a thought to which the human mind so often responds with aversion.

There is something so reassuring in believing there are answers outside us, which we might discover.  Is this the reassurance some people feel in being told what to do?  It’s an easier and lazier option, and it gives you something to blame or react against.  And yet believing there are answers outside us is such a precarious and dangerous belief to hold.  What if we don’t find them?  What if they’re wrong? What if someone else thinks they know better when they don’t?

In contrast, we can never lose what is inside us, much as we might want to sometimes.  The challenge is to find it.  Yet also we need to be able to acknowledge it, to retrieve it, making sense of the past yet not being controlled by it, finding liberation within it if not from it.  We need to make a disciplined yet not unyielding effort, and to believe in this process of retrieval and discovery.  We need to live with it even when it may feel or sometimes be, unbearable or unlivable.  Grails have shadows too.

The word ‘grail’ comes from the same root as ‘gradual’, a feast presented in stages.  The grail is often symbolised as a cup, a platter or a stone, and it draws on myths about cauldrons.  The Celtic cauldron of plenty was a sacred vessel and it is said that you need to be in a spiritual state to partake of it, you need to have truth in your heart and purity of intention.  These qualities are essential when on the trail of the inner grail.

For Carl Jung, the grail was a powerful symbol of transformation, linked with individuation – becoming the person you are meant to be.  One answer to the question, ‘what do we find from the grail?’, may be insight into our Self.  Insight not knowledge, which often comes to us in oblique and unsought ways.  ‘To be effective a symbol must be an unsurpassed container of meaning’ – it is powerful because we can’t quite understand it using our rational intellectual mind, its meaning only dawns through intuition, and time is another necessary ingredient.  In this age of microwave meals, the process of preparation and then the cooking itself is often rushed.

Dreams can be containers of the meaning of our grail.  In 1937 Jung had a dream when he was in India, soon after he came out of hospital where he had been ill with dysentery.  Jung’s dream had the impact of leading him deeper into his important work on alchemy, the psychological process of inner transformation, as he followed the grail of his dream into reality.  In his dream Jung ‘found himself with friends on an island off the coast of Southern England.  Before them was a castle dimly lit with candles, which he recognised as the home of the Holy Grail.  But the Grail wasn’t there yet.  Jung knew it was their task to bring the Grail to the castle from the small, uninhabited, and solitary house on the island where it was hidden.  Next he found himself on the shoreline of a deserted, desolate area.  With neither bridge nor boat to be seen he realised he would have to swim across alone to fetch the Grail.’ (Claire Dunne, Wounded Healer of the Soul)

‘…there are two gates through which dreams reach us.  Those that come through the Ivory Gate cheat us with empty promises that never see fulfilment.  Those that come through the Gate of Horn inform the dreamer of the truth.’  Homer, The Odyssey Book XIX – thanks to Viv for drawing my attention to this quote

I was listening to someone talk about the grail and Jung’s dream recently, and I was unexpectedly drawn to remember a dream I had quite awhile ago that has come back to me from time to time.  Now I realise that I’ve been trying to work out which gate this dream came through, and also which gate it unlocks – questions that can’t be answered by rational processes, though sensory data is an essential element in the intuitive process.

My dream also took me near the coast of Southwest England, to a place I had been before in life.  Somehow I got past a padlocked gate to discover soothing sweeping vistas.  The place was empty and the owner of the property wasn’t there, I felt like a trespasser or an intruder.  I wanted to leave before people started arriving.  I was suddenly in a rush, I left too fast.  I realised I would never make it back in time and was upset with myself for even making this journey.  In my haste to depart I had to back out of a cul de sac and I scraped my car.

[An aside: the car is a vital extension of the Self in dreams and in real life.  Someone once told the story of driving his car into a bus twice, totalling it, before he realised this was a metaphor for where his life was going, a wake-up call.   Our cars tend to break down when something else is malfunctioning in our lives and, more often, in our selves.]

I felt drawn to unlock the meaning of my dream to discover whether it came through the Ivory or Horn gate; and to discover also whether the gate within it was made of ivory or horn.

I revisited the real location of my dream, in a quest to make sense of it. Bringing with me the two essential qualities – truth in my heart and purity of intention – I was ruefully amused to discover that there were no external sweeping vistas, no nice places to relax inside, only a solid wood fence, and that the gate was always unlocked.  So was this a dream that came through the Gate of Ivory?  Did it offer the empty-handed promise of the trickster? Was it truth or illusion?  And would I be damaged on the journey?

Going back to the place, however, I felt more sure that my dream offered a truth, though a truth that was as yet indeterminate and shadowy.   Chiaroscuro is a good word for it (one of those words I’ve always loved and rarely been able to use!)

On the way back there, I had been led to doubt.   Once introduced doubt, like bindweed, is hard to eradicate.  It chokes faith, the two vying for the deeper roots.  As a result, I had locked the gate, locking myself out.  And doubt had led me to back out of the cul de sac and damage my car, my self.

However, a scrape is but a minor incident, a war wound that soon heals and can be repaired,  just a ‘message on the skin’.

Letting myself back in (instead of driving straight in to the cul de sac), giving and taking the right time, not intruding, seeing what is really there, not taking opinion for fact – I turn my attention to unpacking the living meaning of my dream, exploring its potential, following the call of my grail, a gradual feast.

Thanks to Penelope Hill for sharing all the wonderful artwork from a variety of sources.

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6 Responses to The call of the grail

  1. Viv says:

    Lovely post with a lot of excellent analysis (not to mention the art work)
    I’ve been thinking a lot about the Grail lately too, so this chimes deeply. And dream work, too.
    I must thank you for such a clear and inspiring article about something that is often so very nebulous and vague.
    xx

    • Thanks Viv – I appreciate your thoughts as ever. This has been simmering for a little while now and is still on the stove!

      • Viv says:

        Primordial soup?
        Yes, some things can just keep on bubbling away forever, with more things rising to the surface over and over again. Reminds me of stews in a veggie household I knew as a student; they’d just add more lentils or beans or tomatoes to the leftovers and just reheat ad infinitum, always the same stew but always different. The original batch would have been made a week ago, some times, and the person who started it probably wondered, I didn’t put THIS in, so who did??
        Ah student days…!

    • Anne Sherry says:

      Karin,

      I second Viv’s comments. Wonderful artwork and a clear and timely article.
      Best wishes,
      Anne

  2. Yes, primordial soup. As you describe it, a kind of collective stew – image for the collective unconscious. A lot of the basic ingredients are already there. The modern view of the psyche has been described like an empty apartment, you go to Ikea and buy the same mass-produced stuff everyone else can buy to fill it. Jung’s view of the objective psyche/collective unconscious was as if it is already part-furnished, and what is already there is not personal.

    Similar meals in my student days also. However, at some stage you need to start the stew again with fresh ingredients – otherwise you run the risk of food poisoning. And too many chefs spoil the broth? Recovering from a minor stomach virus, this analogy feels all too relevant!

  3. Anonymous says:

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