Sir Galahad & William of St-Thierry
When I first read Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, I found it truly bizarre. I still do. If you haven’t read it, it’s Malory’s stab at the “Matter of Britain,” the legends of King Arthur’s court, written in fifteenth-century Middle English prose. Morte Darthur is a strange prototype of a novel, but not quite there yet. Novels would not develop for another hundred and thirty years, emerging into the world via another strange and chivalry-obsessed work, Don Quixote. At times acute and beautiful, at other times dry as dust, Malory’s tome is more like the love child of “historical” chronicles and the long tradition of Arthurian poetry.
Upon first reading, I found myself immersed in another world. Much of that world is gruelingly dull: the endless wanderings through the wilderness by any number of knights (now it’s Gawain’s turn! Now Lancelot!), or the combat with curiously named enemies, one after another. But I remember the first time I read the section entitled “The Sankgreal”—the Holy Grail. I was not a medievalist yet. I think I was about 23.
Sir Galahad is the most perfect knight who ever lived. After many trials, he comes to the place where the Grail has been hidden in his Quest. An old man attended by four angels come to him, and set before Galahad a table of silver, upon which the Sankgreall rests. On the old man’s forehead is written letters which say “SE YOU HERE JOSEPH, THE FIRST BYSSHOP OF CRYSTENDOM, THE SAME WITH OUR LORDE SUCCOURED IN THE CITE OF SARRAS IN THE SPIRITUAL PALLEYS [palace].”
Just try picturing this for a second, and you immediately see the often impossible and bizarre nature of this text. How could that fit on someone’s forehead?! I snorted when I read that. But let’s set that aside, because that’s not what ultimately stuck with me.
After completing a few final tasks in order to be able to see the Grail with his own eyes, Galahad returns. The son of Joseph of Arimathea comes to Galahad bearing the grail. He says,
“Com forthe, the servaunte of Jesu Cryste, and thou shalt se that thou hast much desired to se.” And than he [Galahad] began to tremble right hard whan the dedly fleysh began to beholde the spirituall thynges. Than he hylde up his hondis [hands] towarde hevyn, and seyde, “Lorde, I thanke The, for now I se that that hath be my desire many a day. Now, my Blyssed Lorde, I wold nat lyve in this wrecched worlde no lenger, if hit myght please The, Lorde.”
And angels carry his soul to heaven in the sight of his astonished friends Sir Percival and Sir Bors.
At the time I read this, two different friends had recently died very young, in their twenties. As I read, I cried. I thought, “What a good end.” And it is a good end. To be able to say, in anticipation and fulfillment, “Now I see what I have longed for my whole life,” is a thing of profound beauty. To tremble in the face of spiritual things, and to have one’s whole desire directed in love of God—!
For a while, being a ridiculous though hidden romantic, I fantasized that when I died, if I had the time, I would quote Galahad. Let’s be honest here: I cringe typing that statement out, because it’s the kind of thing you keep to yourself. It’s my embarrassing Lenten confession.
Then, predictably and in human fashion, I forgot all about my grand plan in the case of a good death. I only remembered recently because I came across a different confession of desire in another medieval text. William of St-Thierry (c. 1080-1148) lived a few hundred years before Sir Thomas Malory. He was a Benedictine monk who eventually became the abbot of the monastery of St-Thierry, by Reims, though what he really wanted to do was move to Clairvaux and become a Cistercian monk under the leadership of his good friend, St. Bernard of Clairvaux. William was part of the ongoing monastic reform of that time, too.
William was also a gifted, diligent writer whose writings in the Middle Ages were often mistakenly attributed to Bernard. I recently was reading his Meditations, and one of his thoughts in that collection of writing on prayer has haunted me. In John 21, Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. And Peter responds, “Yes, yes, you know I love you.” And Jesus then says, feed my sheep. William, pondering on this passage, writes
If, then, Thou askest me to-day, ‘Lovest thou Me?’ as once Thou askedst the blessed apostle, I hesitate to answer, ‘Thou knowest that I love Thee,’ but I do readily and with clear conscience make reply, ‘Thou knowest that I want to love Thee.’ (Meditations, trans. Sr. Penelope Lawson)
I am sitting with William’s words in Lent—sitting in the freedom of confession.
As I’ve aged, I have realized that I would be lying if I pretended I was like Galahad. My desire is fractured like a broken mirror, reflecting different, often conflicted desires and not the great unity of desire in Galahad, the medieval ideal.
Lent is already a revelatory time for recognizing the ping-pong game of my desire. For rather than a steadfast will of love, my desire tends to bounce around—I envision it making the noise of a ping-pong ball—as it bounces hastily to the next thing. On the smallest possible level, my desire does things like this: I bought Starburst jellybeans to give to my potty-training youngest child, and then ate most of the bag myself in flagrant Lenten violation. That’s not even the big stuff, like rejecting my pride and thirst for admiration and control.
But what I like about William’s prayer is that he’s not working up a false humility, a lugubrious guilt, or a sneaky shame, just stating a fact. William ponders further that he can say that he loves God’s love for himself, because he feels that most personally. But as to the love of God, it requires some form of understanding—and this William lacks, though not without hope. William then prays for an enlightened will, a great will, “a will upon which love has laid its hand.” The abbot of St-Thierry trusts that God will give, and give, and give.
William’s prayer leans into Lenten humility, the recognition of human limitation. William’s honesty frees me into honesty: I can’t even say I love you. But I can say I long to love you, God. Give me a will that has the hand of love upon it; direct my desire. One more step down the long path of grace.
What I’ve been up to this month:
Choosing covers for my book that comes out this fall, Jesus through Medieval Eyes: Beholding Christ with the Artists, Mystics, and Theologians of the Middle Ages… Surreal!
Old Books with Grace is in the middle of a Lent series, A Book that Changed Me. Take a listen on Apple, Spotify, or the platform you like best, to recent guests Joy Clarkson and Jason Baxter discuss books that transformed their perspective—respectively, George Eliot’s Silas Marner and Dante’s Inferno.
This weekend, I spoke at a women’s Lenten retreat at a church in Seattle on medieval prayer, books of hours, and what they whisper to us today. A real joy for me to share some of the beauty and foibles of my medieval friends among new friends.
What I’ve been reading this month:
Fiction: I read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for the first time. I love novels with amazing world-building!
Nonfiction: I’ve been reading the works of Sister Penelope Lawson for a project. I just finished The Wood. She was an Anglican nun who was friends with C.S. Lewis, translator of difficult medieval Latin, and anonymously wrote theology. All her books are out of print and come to me from the U.K. in tattered midcentury copies, underlined heavily, earnest notes within.
Medieval/medieval-adjacent: Sister Penelope’s translation of the Meditations William of St-Thierry, which I discuss above. I think I might just turn around and re-read it right away! I’d like to soak my brain in it a bit more. Plus, the Medievalish Book Club is reading through the stunning fourteenth-century alliterative poem, Pearl. Join us if you wish!
Article: Eleanor Parker always writes things worth reading. Check out her latest, on the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood, for Plough.
A Prayer from the Past
This beautiful prayer is from the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Celtic hymns and incantations gathered by Alexander Carmichael from the highlands of Scotland in the 19th century. I thought I could use a dose of ancient Celtic prayer in honor of St. Patrick.
The peace of God, the peace of men, The peace of Columba kindly, The peace of Mary mild, the loving, The peace of Christ, King of tenderness, The peace of Christ, King of tenderness, Be upon each window, upon each door, Upon each hole that lets in light, Upon the four corners of my house, Upon the four corners of my bed, Upon the four corners of my bed; Upon each thing my eye takes in, Upon each thing my mouth takes in, Upon my body that is of earth And upon my soul that came from on high, Upon my body that is of earth And upon my soul that came from on high. Amen.
Peace for your March,
P.S. As always, this newsletter is free, and I’d be delighted if you shared it with a friend!
What a deeply encouraging meditation. As soon as you mentioned the statement of Peter's, my gut grew tense; I can't say to the Lord, "You know that I do." And so the words immediately following, "You know that I want to," came as intense relief. Thank you.
Also, I've loved Jonathan Strange as a top favorite book since it was published. I remember inhaling it in a Barnes & Noble nearly twenty years ago, and have read it a number of times since. Insane creativity! Have you read her recent _Piranesi_?
Lovely thoughts, Grace. There's truly freedom in being honest and starting with the *desire* to love or obey the Lord. I've even occasionally had to start a step back from that! ("Lord, help me to want to want to love you.") Thank you for sharing.