The search for the Holy Grail, like the longing to find the Ark of the Covenant, figures prominently within the myths and legends associated with the Christian tradition. That Jesus took a cup at the inauguration of the Eucharist and used it for the first transubstantiation is indisputable. What happened to that cup thereafter is the mystery. The traditional story has Joseph of Arimathea collecting the cup and eventually migrating with it all the way north to Roman Britannia. The Grail accordingly plays an important role in the legends surrounding King Arthur.
The mysticism surrounding the grail is based upon a serious confusion of the differences between magic, miracle, and sacrament.
Like anyone, you probably would like to know where the Grail is. I have no idea, but I am likewise curious about its whereabouts. It would function as an important touchstone to the reality and significance of the Incarnation, just as the other relics figuring in the passion do: the nails, the true cross fragments, and the crown of thorns. While I do not quite agree with Indiana Jones that “they belong in a museum,” I do think that they belong in a sacred museum or church. The reason I wouldn’t go further than this is because I find the rest of the mysticism surrounding the grail a serious confusion of the differences between magic, miracle, and sacrament.
The Grail legend accords it various magical properties, qualities that might be wielded by the one worthy of holding or drinking from it. Like all magical items, the objective of the bearer is to enact the magic to his will, for magic is none other than pre-scientific technology. Techne, is know-how, the ability to do something, as contrasted with science, the ability to know something. Thanks to the remarkable insights by the early modern philosophers and scientists like Descartes and Newton, mathematizing the empirical world has enabled the first truly systematic understanding of why phenomena occur the way that they do. The greater the knowledge gleaned from that scientific understanding, the greater the capacity of those with that knowledge to make use of natural materials from the world. Thus, technology follows from scientific discovery. However, technology existed long before the 1500’s, as metallurgical discoveries were made thousands of years ago. We don’t think that the ancient blacksmiths really understood why adding tin to copper produced bronze, but somewhere along the way, whether due to sheer accident or to someone painstakingly mixing various materials, the bronze age was borne.
Since the ancient peoples lacked an overarching theory of natural objects, they possessed no means to distinguish real technology from pseudo technology.
Like us, the ancient peoples sought to better understand their world so as to make proper use of it. But since they lacked an overarching theory of natural objects such as what Descartes, Newton, and their associates provided as the foundations of modern science, the ancients possessed no means to distinguish real technology from pseudo technology. Thus, even so eminent a figure as Newton was obsessed with alchemist schemes. Why? Because even at his point in history, no one really knew what would pan out. Maybe certain objects could be modified by spells and potions to become the powerful objects of myth. We laugh at these notions today only because we understand the underlying structures of the universe as it happens to be. But it could have been different. There is nothing incoherent about a world divided into two species of human beings, Muggles and Wizards, with the one having a special form of technology that we call Magic. But we don’t live in that world.
There is nothing incoherent about a world divided into two species of human beings, Muggles and Wizards, with the one having a special form of technology that we call Magic. But we don’t live in that world.
The ability to move objects and create effects solely with our minds or with speech is something human beings already possess, albeit in an extremely restricted way. How? You have the ability to move your mouth, make a fist, jump up in the air, all by choosing to do so. Thought definitely impacts matter. But beyond that, our ability to interact with our world requires that we use our bodies as intermediaries, because try as we might, none of us possesses the natural ability to think a boulder into motion.
Just because we cannot move boulders with thought does not mean that other beings cannot. God obviously can do whatever he likes, because he is omnipotent. But the other purely immaterial beings, the angels, possess no bodies and accordingly have no ability to interact with the material world at all except by direct thought action. Since we have lots of experience with angels and demons displaying material interactive capabilities, we know that angels and demons have the ability to extend their thoughts to many more objects than we do. Thus, their technology is well beyond ours. It’s important to understand that angelic technology is as much a technology as our ability to make fiberoptic cables. We are used to thinking of technology in purely empirical and mathematical terms because that’s how things work in human experience. Remember, technology is know-how, not the use of machines. Angels employ their natural powers to move physical objects without the intervention of tools or mathematical calculations. Their abilities to do these things are a kind of technology. And, since higher order angels apparently send knowledge down the ranks to lower order angels, it appears that at least some of their technology is transferable between themselves.
We can glean a metaphysical, ethical, and aesthetic enormity from tales involving the use or non-use of magic, so long as we don’t then confuse worlds and seek out such powers ourselves.
What we do not find anywhere in our experience is what we would traditionally classify as genuine magic, as technology available to human beings to manipulate the world around them apart from the scientific methods. Examples might include Tolkien’s rings or Harry Potter’s spells and wands. Such things, while perfectly possible in another world, just don’t make up how our world actually works. We can glean a metaphysical, ethical, and aesthetic enormity from tales involving the use or non-use of such magic, so long as we don’t then confuse worlds and seek out such powers ourselves.
If there is no magic, then the sole source of unnatural knowledge and power is the divine, the angelic, or the demonic.
There are two important reasons why we should not desire magical powers in the actual world. The first, of course, is that there are no such powers, and desiring what is not isn’t the most useful occupation. But the second reason brings us to our thunderclap moment. Recall what I said earlier about angels having the ability to transfer their technology to those below their ranks? It turns out that the demons have occasionally been doing this with human beings, albeit on a very marginal scale. Our ancient myths are filled with these kinds of interactions and favors being given to certain human beings to possess capabilities that are beyond natural human experience. But it doesn’t end with myth. We next come to the story of Moses and the sorcerers of Egypt, agents of Pharaoh who possessed unnatural abilities to replicate the first three of Moses’ signs. As becomes clear from the account in Exodus, the demonic gods of Egypt provided these sorcerers with these powers. Again, in the time of the kingdom of Israel, we find King Saul seeking out a séance from a known witch, a witch who “had a familiar spirit,” meaning, she worked with a demon to trick people into believing that they were in contact with their dead relatives. We see similar displays in Jesus’ encounters with the demon-possessed, people exhibiting power and knowledge quite outside the appropriate human spectrum. In fact, if you stop and mull it over, you’ll realize that if there is no magic, then it follows that the sole source of unnatural knowledge and power is the divine, the angelic, or the demonic.
If you were granted demonic knowledge or power, it would not belong to you. It would belong to them. And there would be quite the price to pay for acquiring it.
At Pentecost we see an example of the divine gifting powers quite outside the ken of those who possessed them, when St. Peter and the other apostles spoke in languages unknown to them. Many of the Apostles likewise performed miraculous signs of casting out demons, healing the sick, and even resurrecting the dead. St. Paul famously was stoned (more than once), and afterward just got up and walked back into the city. It’s not clear whether he played dead and was miraculously healed or whether he died each time and was brought back. After one of his many shipwrecks, St. Paul was also bitten by a poisonous snake, but he experienced miraculous protection from the venom. Now, you can imagine all these powers being misinterpreted as magic, or superpowers, as though Saints Peter and Paul were X-men. But there are no X-men in the real world. Human nature incorporates limits on how we interact with the world. Can we heal illnesses? You bet. But we do so with medicine. Can we survive snake bites? Definitely, so long as the ambulance crew gets us to the hospital that has the anti-venom. Whether by miracle or by medical technology, we can be healed. But what we human beings cannot do is wield divine, angelic, or demonic power unless it is granted to us. And even then, saying that we “wield” it is risky. Why? Because no mortal wields or invokes the power of the Most High. Similarly, if you were granted demonic knowledge or power, it would not belong to you. It would belong to them. And there would be quite the price to pay for acquiring it.
The demons are not the allies of man. They relish making us jealous of their nature, because it requires us to find ours, and thus, our Incarnate Lord’s, unsatisfying. To seek out their nature is to reject his.
Fortunately, many of our old stories about the quest for magical items incorporate this notion that the pursuit exacts a toll that renders it fruitless. These tales are meant to warn us off of seeking out demonic power, because doing so merely renders you their slave. Nevertheless, from time to time, the Church encounters genuinely demonic-possessed people who have entered into bargains with the demons who haunt them, bargains that for a while confer on the possessed limited favors of paranormal powers. But in every case, the result is the loss of their rational self-control, tremendous internal agony, and the horrific moral price that must be paid. Why? Because the demons are not the allies of man. They relish making us jealous of their nature, because it requires us to find ours, and thus, our Incarnate Lord’s, unsatisfying. To seek out their nature is to reject his.
Seeking the cup instead of what it contained is proof positive that someone is after magical powers that they can wield instead of the eternal life of repentance and love that Jesus actually offers.
So, back to the Holy Grail. Is there a magic cup out there that if you were to drink of it, it would give you eternal life? No, there isn’t. But the cup points to something that does provide eternal life, namely, what was originally in it. Only you don’t have to go hunting through the bogs of Britain for that cup, since you need only attend Mass to find the same thing! What matters from the night where Jesus instituted the Eucharist is not the cup but his Body and Blood. Seeking the cup instead of what it contained is proof positive that someone is after magical powers that they can wield instead of the eternal life of repentance and love that Jesus actually offers. Otherwise, why would anyone not drink from that cup on any given Sunday Mass? The reason, for our purposes here, is straightforward: the Eucharist is not magic. It’s not less than magic. It is far more. It is miracle. And because it is miracle, it belongs to God and it works only in the way that God instituted it to work. You cannot wield it; you cannot make it do things for you. You cannot mix it with other elements and expect anything marvelous. A sword forged with Christ’s blood profits nothing by way of enchanted power. His blood poured into Golgotha but nothing magical happened there. Why? Because it’s not magic. There is no magic.
A sword forged with Christ’s blood profits nothing by way of enchanted power.
One last thing: what’s the deal with holy relics? Aren’t they a kind of magic? Some people have certainly thought so. That’s the premise of the Nazis’ search for the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail in the Indiana Jones films. It’s also apparently what motivated the Crusader army in 1187 to carry relics of the true cross into battle against Saladin. Their humiliating defeat demonstrates the folly of attempting to use holy objects as magical weapons. So, if relics are not magical means to acquire unnatural human knowledge and power, then what are they and what is their purpose?
The Crusader army's humiliating defeat against Saladin demonstrates the folly of attempting to use holy objects as magical weapons.
A relic is an object which has been connected to or involved with a very holy person. Because of that association, the object becomes a touchstone for the reality of the faith. Imagine if you loved early American history and then you visited Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. Now suppose that the curator of the site brought you to an exclusive room and let you handle Washington’s sword that he used at his victory at the battle of Trenton. Seeing and touching the sword would make you feel connected to the General and his accomplishment, to its reality, far beyond a mere historical account. I remember my first time in Italy touching a Roman column. I got goose bumps, because it all became real. You’ll have a similar experience if you ever get the chance to do a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to attend to the places where the things you’ve heard about in church all your life happened. Human nature was designed for spiritual-physical interaction, so when we touch things, they become far more real and meaningful to us. Relics fit nicely into this dimension of human imagination and experience.
A relic is not a magical device, because it provides to its owner no knowledge or power that is above the naturally human or the sacramentally imbued.
Relics also play a negative role, for just as we who love Jesus long to connect to the places and things associated with him, so those who hate him despise and are repulsed by those selfsame things. Thus, relics play a role in exorcisms, as blessed objects that torment and irritate the demon. But the relic is nonetheless not a magical device, because it provides to its owner no knowledge or power that is above the naturally human or the sacramentally imbued. Priests bless our wedding rings, rendering them holy, but like the relic, this is not a magical act. Our marriages can still collapse into hatred and divorce if we do not daily commit to the self-giving fidelity our vows require.
So, should we search for the Holy Grail? If you had some convincing evidence that it still exists and its current whereabouts, then it would prove a wonderful relic, and it should be stored in a sacred museum or a church (thank you, Indy!). But drinking from it will not confer immortality or heal wounds, nor will it provide unnatural powers to enable you to acquire ascendency over those around you. God created human nature with limits on what powers we have to do evil to one another. Rather than envying the angels their natural telepathic and telekinetic powers, we should be thankful for our human limits. God help us all if we could do to one another what the angels can do.