Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Grail, Goddesses, Crones, and Circles

That was the name of the weekend-long workshop I attended at Kripalu. The workshop was itself a circle of women, taught by the feminist Jungian psychiatrist Jean Shinoda Bolen, perhaps best known for her 1985 book, Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women. Bolen is a wise, grounded, and engaging speaker who teaches by telling stories. I listened to hours of stories over the weekend and sat enrapt. Bolen believes, quite simply, that circles of woman can and do change the world. She says that we can heal the patriarchy by bringing the Goddess back and by relearning how to value our connection to the material, to mater.

Dr. Bolen began the weekend by telling us the story of Perceval and the Fisher King. This is a story from Arthurian legend. Bolen said that the story is so old that, when we hear it told, it comes to us like a dream:

Perceval's father and older brothers had been knights, but the father was either killed or wounded, depending on the version of the tale, and the brothers were killed in battle. Perceval, then an infant, was his mother's only consolation, so she took him and raised him in a forest far away from King Arthur, so that he would never even know what a knight is. Yet one day when he was a young man he encountered five of King Arthur's knights, and not knowing what they were, he assumed they were angels. They thought him a fool. That day he met with his destiny. He went with the knights to King Arthur's court to be made a knight himself. And so he was, the fool of noble birth.

When an image of the Grail appeared at King Arthur's court, the knights left their brotherhood and the round table, scattering to all directions in pursuit of the Grail. One day on his quest, Perceval encountered a fisherman sitting in a boat. The fisherman invited Perceval into his castle, and Perceval, seeing only a wasteland, thought he was being taken for a fool. But then, as in all good tales, the castle emerged from the mist, and Perceval went inside and met again with the fisherman who was now dressed as a king and sitting on a throne. That night as every night there was a feast and a pageant, and at the end of the pageant a woman entered bearing the Grail. Perceval longed to understand what was happening but, afraid of being taken for a fool, he asked no questions. The next day Perceval left the castle, which disappeared into the mist, leaving only the wasteland behind.

Only then did Perceval learn that the Fisher King suffered from a wound that wouldn't heal so that his kingdom had become a wasteland. Only a fool could heal the king by asking two simple questions - the questions of a simpleton, perhaps, but also questions of perception and compassion: "What ails thee?" ("What is wrong here?") and "Whom or what does the Grail serve?" ("What is sacred here?")

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