There is strange paradox in the Christian spiritual journey that all too often escapes us simply because it is so obvious. It is simply this: it is the journey which matters in life not the arriving. The end of the Christian journey is not part of human life but rather belongs to the realm that follows afterwards. St Thomas Aquinas tried to remind us of this repeatedly. He tells us that “God is a verb not a noun”, that we experience Christ not so much as risen but rising (homo resurgens), and one of his brethren tells us “God is not the answer he is the question”.
In our Baptismal liturgy we envision this Christian goal by paraphrasing the words of St Paul to the Ephesians: “to grow Into the Full Stature of Christ”. The Prophet Isaiah tells us to “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out: hold not back, lengthen your cords”. Isaiah 54.2 This growth means we must always be journeying, never cease from exploration, and when we stop then we must turn again ‘repent’ and start moving once more.
“The passion of faith lies not in testifying to an eternal happiness but in transforming one’s own existence into a testimony to it.” Soren Kierkegaard
“It is no good for us to bow and scrape before God in words and phrases and in such activities as building churches and binding Bibles in velvet. God has a particular language for addressing him – the language of action, the transformation of the mind, the course of one’s life.” Soren Kierkegaard
In the Letter to the Philippians Paul tells us “Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14 Here he reminds us of another aspect of the journey we sometimes forget, that it is not the past which is important but the present. To put it another way, it is more important where we are not where we came from. What is important about our past in the present moment is how we interpret it, what meaning we find in it, and how we tells our own story interpreted through the lens of the great narrative of salvation. Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote in the epitaph to his autobiography “Life is not about what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” Let me give you an example by way of a juxtaposition. On YouTube you can find a video called ‘Spoilt Brat’ which shows the reaction of a sixteen year old girl throwing an angry tantrum, shouting at her father and crying because the expensive new sports car her parents had bought her for her birthday was red and not blue. What is much worse, in my mind, is the video she posted to ‘explain’ why she really needed a blue car to match her clothes and eyes and why she felt her parents were insensitive to her needs. Now here is a story told by Father Timothy Radcliffe OP, Former Master of the Dominicans, in his book Why Go to Church.
“In the summer of 2007, I visited the poorest and most violent barrio in Bogota, Columbia, where our Dominican students go every weekend, helping to establish a Christian community. The co-ordinator of the parish, Maria, lives in a primitive shed, hardly more than a few sheets of zinc resting against the face of a rock. She welcomed us with water. Most movingly she shared her vast gratitude for the blessings of her life, for her grandchildren, her home, her food. She is one of God’s good friends.”
So which of these women is hard done by? The answer lies in their own perception of their life and how they share that story of their life with others.
The distinctive Christian grace for this lifelong journey is hope. It is what keeps us on the path. Paul says: “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Roman 8: 24-25 In the Letter to the Ephesians he hopes for us “Having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.”Ephesians 1:17-18. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us: “we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain.” Hebrews 6:18-19; and “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1
This constant journeying is that which, paradoxically, leads to peace and not the sitting still as we would imagine. Like the Trinity itself, the oneness of God lies not in His eternal immutability as a static being but rather in His Trinitarian Nature of constant movement. The paradox is that the discipline of discipleship is not about strengthening the will to fight and to prevail by purity of mind and body, the old heresy of Pelagianism, but rather the opposite – to surrender. It is in vulnerability, need and asking that we are able to receive grace which alone enables us to keep our feet on the path.
The point I am trying to make is that the Christian spiritual journey is about constantly growing up in the faith and moving out of ourselves into connection with the wider creation. To do this one must be in the present and not see our past as an unchanging reality but as part of the present spiritual practice of redemption in how we redeem the narrative of our lives. The chief focus for this journey is hope. Finally I contend that surrender of the will is what is necessary to allow grace into ones journey.
In the 1989 Parenthood, Helen Shaw plays an elderly grandmother. At the end of film when the obsessive compulsive father of the family is stressed to the breaking point due to his inability to control and protect his family from life’s disappointments his grandmother comments to him:
“You know when I was 19 grandpa took me on a rollercoaster. Up, down, up down, oh what a ride. I always wanted to go again. You know it was just interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited and so thrilled all together. Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry go round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.”
It is only at this moment that he is able to let go of the control and surrender into the messiness of being part of a family, being part of life.
The Questing Beast, also called the Beste Glatisant, is a mythical creature that appears in the Arthurian Legends of the middle ages. In French, it appears in three thirteenth-century texts : the Prose Tristan, Perlesvaus, and the Post-Vulgate cycle. In English, it appears in Malory’s fifteenth-century Morte D'Arthur. In both Malory and the Post-Vulgate, the noise it produces is similarly described as "lyke unto the questyng of thirty coupyl houndes, but all the whyle the beest dranke there was no noyse in the bestes bealy" Malory 42. In French and Middle English its name is a pun as the Middle English verb questen means to bark.
Many interpretations have been put forward to describe what the Questing Beast symbolises in the Arthurian legends. In Perceval the beast represents Christ hounded by the twelve tribes of Israel, while in Malory, Alexander Bruce suggests that when the Questing Beast appears it "symbolizes that a relationship between people is not right, that two elements which should have remained separate have been mixed, and that chaos will result from the unnatural situation at hand". Sir Palomydes, the knight who describes himself as "the knyght that folowyth the Glatysaunte Beste", seeks the beast rather than the Holy Grail perhaps because he was both a Saracen and a knight and thus of a mixed nature. Kara L. McShane says “Catherine Batt has suggested that the Questing Beast does not have a clearly defined function in Malory's narrative, but rather, it is ‘a series of signifiers without the satisfaction of ultimately recovering an intelligible meaning’. Malory describes the Questing Beast as ‘a full wondirfull beyste and a grete sygnyfycasion; for Merlyon propheseyed muche of that byeste’. However, Batt points out that its importance is never really explained in Malory's work as it is in the Post-Vulgate cycle. Merlin's prophecies about the Questing Beast are never mentioned again, and its great meaning is never made explicit. In effect, the Questing Beast invites interpretation while evading explanation; thought critics pursue its meaning, no consensus on the creature has been reached.”
However the reimagining of the Questing Beast by T.H. White in The Once and Future King is the story that speaks to me the most. In White’s version the Questing Best is pursued by King Pellinore his whole adult life, as it has been by all of the Pellinore’s before him (one wonders what state their Kingdom must be if the King is always away and how they held onto the throne!). He quested after the beast alone in the wild, sleeping out under the stars and living a life of constant movement. One day he is persuaded to stop for a while and rest by his friend Sir Grummore by the latter’s appealing to the King’s lifelong desire to sleep on a feather bed. Immersed in a life of luxury, King Pellinore soon loses the drive for the quest and settles into a life of comfort at Sir Grummore’s castle.
Many months later the King stumbles across the dying Beast whilst out hunting in the woods with his friends and comes to himself. I say ‘comes to himself’ as those are the words St Luke uses to describe what happens to the Prodigal Son while he is feeding swine in ‘a distant country’. In other words - he remembers who he is.
“The spectacle which they came across was one for which they were not prepared. In the middle of a dead gorse bush King Pellinore was sitting, with tears streaming down his face. In his lap there was an enormous snake’s head, which he was patting. ‘There, there’, the King was saying. ‘I did not mean to leave you altogether. It was only because I wanted to sleep in a feather bed, just for a bit.’ ‘Poor creature’, said King Pellinore indignantly. ‘It has, pined away, positively pined away, just because there was nobody left to take an interest in it. How I could have stayed all that while with Sir Grummore and never given my old Beast a thought I really don’t know. Look at its ribs, I ask you. Like the hoops of a barrel. And lying out in the snow all by itself, almost without the will to live.’ ‘I happened on it in this gorse bush here, with snow all over its poor back and tears in its eyes and nobody to care for it in the wide world. It’s what comes of not leading a regular life. Before it was all right. We got up at the same time, and quested for regular hours, and went to bed at half past ten. Now look at it. It has gone to pieces all together, and it will be your fault if it dies. You and your bed.’”
After giving the Beast wine and bread The King insists that the hunting party tie the Beast to a pole to transport it back to the castle to be warmed by the fire and fed and nurtured back into health. The King himself tended it until they were both ready to begin the quest anew.
“The questing Beast having revived under the influence of kindliness and bread and milk had bounded off into the snow with every sign of gratitude, to be followed two hours later by the excited King, and the watchers from the battlements had observed it confusing its snowy footprints most ingeniously, as it reached the edge of the chase. It was running backwards, bounding twenty foot sideways, rubbing out its marks with its tail, climbing along horizontal branches, and performing many other tricks with evident enjoyment. They had also seen King Pellinore – who had dutifully kept his eyes shut and counted to ten thousand while this was going on – becoming quite confused when he arrived at a difficult spot, and finally galloping off in the wrong direction with his brachet (hunting hound) behind him.” T.H. White, The Once and Future King, Page 152 & 154
White makes it clear that the relationship between the pursuer and the object of his pursuit is quite intimate and that their lives are intertwined. When the King gives up the quest he not only forgot who he is but actually wounded the Beast by taking away how it defined itself. Both lost their identity. The Beast needs the King to pay attention to it as much as the King needs the Beast to give meaning to his life. The danger in this story is nothing more sinister than the comfort of sleeping indoors on a feather bed. Yet it represents the comfort of the world which causes us to forget what our purpose is, what we are seeking, what we hope for, and that we are still on a journey and cannot stop for too long in one place (spiritually speaking). Or to be more precise, we can forget Who we are seeking. It has been cogently argued that all Christian practice is simply myriad ways to keep reminding ourselves over and over again, every Sunday, and several times a day of who we really are – Children of God and all that that entails.
“There is a preying creature, known for its cunning that slyly falls upon the sleeping. While sucking blood from its sleeping prey, it fans and cools him, making his sleep still more pleasant. This is how it is with habit – or maybe it is even worse! For the vampire seeks its prey among the sleeping, but it has no means to lull to sleep those who are awake. Habit, however, is quite adept at doing this. It slinks, sleep-lulling, upon a person, and then drains his blood while it coolingly fans him and makes his sleep all the more pleasant.” Soren Kierkegaard
The Author of the Letter to the Hebrews would argue that too much comfort can actually cripple us. If someone who has stopped journeying and has sunk down into comfort then they must ‘wake up’ and get moving again or things will only get worse.
“For the Moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but healed.” Hebrews 12: 12-13
We change because we quest and it is the pursuit that makes us who we are. It is the hope of who we pursue that gives our lives meaning. It is in having this great goal and purpose that gives us our peace.
“To venture the truth is what gives human life and the human situation pith and meaning. To venture is the fountainhead of inspiration. Calculating is the sworn enemy of enthusiasm, the mirage whereby the earthly person drags out time and keeps the eternal away, whereby one cheats God, himself, and his generation.” Soren Kierkegaard
As Christians quest after the truth then they and the truth come ever closer together like two travellers walking towards one another on a country road. We are made in the image and likeness of God. So unlike the story of King Pelenore and the Questing Beast, we hope that our story will end in our becoming like unto our goal. As St Paul tells us in the Letter to the Galatians “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”. Galatians 2: 20
“Seeking the truth means that the seeker himself is changed, so that he may become the place where the object of his search can be.” Soren Kierkegaard
First Painting by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). "The Questing Beast." From: Pollard, Alfred W. The Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, Abridged from Malory's Morte D'Arthur. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1917. P. 220 facing.
Second Painting: Unknown.
Third Painting by Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), "How King Arthur Saw the Questing Beast and Thereof Had Great Marvel" from: Malory, Sir Thomas. The Birth Life and Acts of King Arthur, of His Noble Knights of the Round Table, Their Marvellous Enquests and Adventures, the Achieving of the San Greal and in the End Le Morte Darthur with the Dolourous Death and Departing out of This World of Them All. London: Dent, 1893.
Fourth Drawing by T.H. White (1906-1964) from his Book The once and Future King, published in 1958.