The Holy Grail: Part 3 – St. Teresa of Avila & Other Associations
The Grail story became associated with the Knights Templar in Wolfram’s Parzival. Here it is mentioned as a stone that fell from Heaven and was used as a sanctuary of the neutral angels during the battle between the armies of St. Michael and Lucifer. This becomes associated with the Philosopher’s Stone of alchemy, a miraculous substance said to be able to turn metal into gold and grant immortality to the one who discovers it. This same story also gives us a detailed picture of the Grail temple, a large castle in which the Grail is housed, usually surrounded by forest or sea, accessible only by a narrow bridge.
This castle leads to one of the most bizarre associations I’ve ever seen. (I’m sure there are plenty of others.) In her book, The Holy Grail, Norma Lorre Goodrich claims that the Grail is tied to St. Teresa of Avila, and her mystical masterpiece, The Interior Castle. (For those who don’t know, I’m a bit of a superfan when it comes to St. Teresa of Avila. She’s the patron saint of writers and was an admitted hypochondriac who suffered throughout her life from anxiety, so of course I love her.) I first read The Interior Castle when I was 14 and have read it many times since, along with St. Teresa’s other works and many biographies of her life. The Interior Castle is one of the great works of Catholic mystical literature, one that I know very well.
After spending a while on the etymology of the city of Castile (where St. Teresa was born) Goodrich immediately associates the titular interior castle with the Grail castle: “Her castle of the heart and soul resembles the Grail Castle, which of course, she never would have mentioned because it was neither rejected nor accepted by the Catholic Church” (119). Actually no, she wouldn’t have mentioned it because she probably hadn’t heard of it and even if she had, it has nothing to do with her subject. The Interior Castle uses the symbolism of a castle with many levels/rooms to describe the soul’s mystical ascent to perfection and union with God.
Goodrich goes on to give a rambling, if not entirely accurate, summary of the book, marveling at how someone in the 1500s could have had such a grasp of symbolism. (Religious women of the time were highly educated. Assuming St. Teresa had some natural writing talent, I fail to understand why this is so surprising.) Then there is a strange reference to Guinevere. Speaking of another of the saint’s symbols, Goodrich writes, “To Saint Theresa, as to Queen Guinevere along the Marches into Ireland, the sacred spring dilates the soul as if bubbling from the earth it had no way to drain away, so that explains the saint, the faster the pure water bubbled, the larger the pool expanded (120-121).” I’m not sure what Goodrich is talking about here, but to St. Teresa, water is a symbol of purification and grace. The spring that runs through the castle is part of its lower (less advanced) mansions, where it serves to refresh and prepare the soul toiling toward perfection.
Stretching even further into Arthurian Grail myth, Goodrich says “The Arthurian hero Perceval comes instantly to mind in the saint’s use of the second, more commonly understood symbol, the dove” (122). Um, I LOVE Arthurian legend, but I have never once thought of any of the characters when reading about the soul being compared to a dove. As Goodrich later notes, St. Teresa’s use of the dove is meant to signify the flight of a pure soul from one mansion to another. It is a tender, innocent creature, not a reference to a character added to the legend some 400 years before, even if Perceval is the king of the Grail castle. If anyone was going to be king of Teresa’s castle, it would be Jesus, to whom the soul is “spiritually married” in the innermost mansion.
By the end of her argument, Goodrich seems to back off her direct associations a bit, implying that her only reason for mentioning Teresa is that she is one of the spiritual descendants of the Grail, just like the priestesses who once performed sacred rituals at the Grail castle (126), concluding, “Saint Theresa has written what nobody before her wrote, about such a castle as might have suited the Castle of the Holy Grail, a work so profound and so beautiful that the Grail Questers could not have failed to agree” (128). As far as I know, the only person to ever associate the Grail with Saint Teresa is Goodrich. If she is putting forth a personal Grail theory, that is her right, but it shouldn’t be written in such a way that it sounds like St. Teresa was purposefully alluding to it in her work.
As I step down off my soapbox, I hope you all have enjoyed this brief foray into the world of the Holy Grail.
What are your thoughts on Goodrich’s theory? What other Grail stories have you heard?
The Holy Grail by Norma Lorre Goodrich
King Arthur and the Grail Quest by John Matthews