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Questions of the Grail

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A series of stories dating to medieval times revolve around a wounded monarch, the Fisher King, who keeps guard over a holy grail. His injury keeps him from tending to the kingdom, and over time it grows into a wasteland. Knights from far and wide travel to his Grail Castle to heal him. Finally a common‐born knight named Parsifal comes to the Fisher King at Grail Castle. In the stories, Parsifal can only heal the king if he asks the correct question; Parsifal, afraid, initially does not ask any.

Depending on the version of the tale, the right question differs. In one version, the question is “Who does the grail serve?” In another story, “Who serves the grail?” And in a third, “What do you need?”

Jesus uses a grail as a chalice during the Last Supper when he celebrates communion with the Apostles in his last meal before his crucifixion. The ceremony is a way to remember their connection with each other and with the Father. Earlier in his life, he had turned water into wine at the wedding. In his last Passover, wine becomes lifeblood, as the bread (symbolizing the body) is blessed, broken, given, and received—the conditions needed for communion with the Divine.

For more than a decade, I have practiced a peer group model of spiritual accountability that feels to me like a sort of sacrament. Like the grail, the group is a vessel of the sacred in each gathered member and the group as a whole. That communion which holds Spirit—within, between, and beyond us—helps peer group members become more healthy and whole in service to a wounded world.

Each time we meet, our group of four people seeking to be faithful focuses on a slice of the relationship one of us has with the Divine. For a little less than an hour, we sequentially hold the person in prayer; listen deeply as she shares what is present for her; and ask questions that might help her find healing, wholeness, or greater connection to the Holy. The spiritual nurture we share incarnates a message recently offered in extended worship: “When many believers surrender together, they are nourished.” That is truly a blessing. Yet there is more: not only are we nourished, but we can be nourishing. And we are both, as over the months and years, we co‐create, with divine assistance, the sacred container.

I’ve been the Fisher King and seen myself and others move toward wholeness. At those times, I’m nourished and nourishing only when I’ve asked the three grail questions and honored the four conditions of communion. I’ll illustrate this with excerpts from a recent peer group session.

Who does the grail or peer group serve?

The answer is each other and God.

Coming together to share our stories of seeking to be faithful—sometimes succeeding and sometimes falling short of what we hope to be or do—we have intimate glimpses into our humanity and our holiness. We offer opportunities to be authentic with others in ways that many people yearn for. We become vulnerable together and lovingly touch tender places and mystery. As at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, water is turned into wine, and life is more festive. Similarly, God is served by people who are focused on faithfulness, on witnessing to the Spirit among us, and on praying and acting to heal our yet‐coming world.

During one session, I brought to a peer group my leading to write about spiritual nurture. I revealed my lack of clarity on the leading, but explained that I felt invited into an intimate kind of disclosure. Beyond that, I could not see.

Who serves the grail or peer group?

Again, the answer is each other and God.

Each person comes prepared to sit in the Presence with one another. One person guides the group in utilizing the process. Another is the focus person, bringing some portion of his or her life with God to offer as communion: sharing for 15 minutes while others listen without interrupting. Then together for 35 minutes, we explore through evocative questions, active reflection, and silent or spoken prayer. All of us listen for and extend the invitation that draws the focus person closer to the foot of the Inward Teacher.

In advance of a peer group session, I sifted through several topics that I could write about. I sought one that held particular import for the ministry I carry in fostering faithfulness, one that was fresh and significant in the moment, and that felt unanswered. We opened with a period of centering worship to bless the time and to connect with the Holy One. I described my belief that we will co‐create heaven when we each follow God’s call. I went on to explain my regard for this peer group process as a vessel for faithfulness and my hope to share it meaningfully with others. I then moved on to talk about writing. About 25 minutes into the 35‐minute exploration time, Lola referred to me as “prophetic.” I became quiet and still. Ivette asked, “What is your heart telling you? Not your head, what is your heart telling you?” I groped for the answer, aided by the Holy within each of us and the collective group.

What do you need?

Here, the answer becomes more complicated. Each peer group member’s answer may differ from one session to another, and may include several answers. At times, a person’s needs are even paradoxical.

I responded to Ivette’s question about my heart, “There is an invisibility cloak around my heart.” Ivette encouraged me, “Stay with that.” Accepting her invitation, I sat quiet and uneasily curious, searching within, connecting to that feeling of a cloaked heart, asking myself and God what I needed to uncloak it. After a time, Lola observed, “An invisibility cloak? Sort of the opposite of writing and publishing in a journal; that is not invisible.” We left space for God. Nancy inquired, “What is the cloak a symbol of?” I answered, “It is not a symbol of anything. It’s hiding the heart. So, at times, when I have felt prophetic, it has been the rebuke of the prophet that I’ve felt. But rebuking is only half of the work of the prophet; the other half is opening the way for alignment with the Divine.”

I continued, “Last year, I participated in a workshop on contemplative photography. We were to notice something and then to be with it for 20 minutes before even using the camera. If I were to use the time well this weekend, 90 percent of it would be used for inviting God to be present. If anything came from it, in any shape or form, that would be the fruit, not the primary focus. How do I remove the cloak to stand in God’s presence and hear what is offered?” Other members confirmed the trueness of my revelation.

The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors, and Sir Perceval. Number 6 of the Holy Grail tapestries woven by Morris & Co., 1891-1896. Wool and silk on cotton warp. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

The Four Conditions: Blessed, Broken, Given, Received

According to the tales, Parsifal only needed to ask the question in order for healing to occur. On his first meeting with the Fisher King, he is afraid to ask. Perhaps by the time he has the courage and/or faith to do so, he has matured and is able to fulfill four conditions: to be blessed, broken, given, and received. All four conditions must be satisfied together for healing to occur.

The peer group, for me, is one manifestation of community joining with God. Until we bless it with our commitment to God and to one another, it contains ordinary wine. But when it is blessed, it takes on a covenantal quality, a celebration of life. Slowly, with each secret part a focus person reveals, with each loving question a member asks, with each prayer we offer up, the blessing is evidence of our mutual accountability with the Divine, and blessings multiply. Over time, we come to better know ourselves, each other, and Spirit’s movement in our own and others’ lives.

Often in a peer group, what I share feels or is broken. Despite my deep respect for the members of the peer group, my trust in its process, and my faith in God, I’m shy about sharing parts of myself that I wish were more healthy, happy, or holy than they are. Without Ivette’s question, I may not have stopped to attend to my heart even in worship or journaling. How often have I seen myself in other people, in areas which were previously hidden and now revealed. Because they had courage or faith in disclosing them, I rejoiced that I am not alone. That, in itself, is a blessing. By acknowledging my heart’s “invisibility cloak,” I come to accept that part of myself, and am shown that even that part can be loved by others—and, with grace, by myself. When others help me know I am wearing it, I can uncloak.

Giving ourselves as fully as we can to God and to the peer group, and giving each other the space and time to be our fullest selves, without judging, are some of the greatest gifts I know.

We participate in many graces: receiving each person as she is, without needing her to be any different from whom she is; receiving God’s grace as it flows to us, even when we may not perceive it; receiving from our companions in this journey the gifts they offer. Without these miracles, water remains water and wine remains wine. But with them, together they create both the grail and the communion that we become.

In the end, the time I had imagined available for writing was swallowed up by another project, and seven weeks passed. The day before I wrote these words, I worshiped for three hours with 11 other Friends. We were blessed, broken, given, and received. One part of me floated in limitlessness, and grace offered me a skeleton of concepts for the article I had felt led to write. I came home and put the bones together, then infused it with the flesh‐and‐blood and breath of the peer group session. This writing is blessed, broken, and given to you with prayers that it may be received, serve, and meet a need.

Viv Hawkins co-founded Releasing Ministry Alliance and studies, practices, and teaches about spiritual accountability. She invites folks to releasingministry.org and the Facebook group Friends Spiritual Accountability. She loves Lola Georg, her partner, and carries a ministry to foster faithfulness with a minute from Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, endorsed by Philadelphia Quarterly and Yearly Meetings.

Posted in: Features, Spiritual Nurture / Quaker Training

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