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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

23 April 2021

On an accidental visit to Spain, Malcolm Guite catches a glimpse of the Holy Grail

I SAW the Holy Grail! It was an accidental adventure, and, in that respect, resembled those of the knights in Malory, who say to each other, “Let us take the adventure God sends us,” then set off, not knowing where they are going, but just letting what happens happen.

I thought I knew where I was going, but I was wrong. It was more than 20 years ago, and Maggie and I set off, as we thought, for Sorrento, in Italy: two exhausted clergy on a quick post-Christmas break. But, when we got to the airport, and the kiosk for the flight, the woman at the desk pointed out that my passport had expired two days earlier.

“They won’t let you into Sorrento,” she said, “but I can put you on a flight to Valencia; they’re not so worried about that sort of thing in Spain, and will be sure to let you through.” (Those were the days!) And so, having told our relatives and friends we’d be in Italy, we found ourselves winging our way to Spain, and soon we were walking in bright January sunshine in Valencia, where all along the boulevards golden oranges glowed among the leaves of their dark green trees.

One day, we went to the cathedral there, and saw a sign to a side chapel where many pilgrims were kneeling: Santo Cáliz, it said, the Holy Chalice. And there, in a glass reliquary high on the altar, was a vessel of dark red agate set on a stem of chalcedony.

It bears inscriptions in Arabic, and experts say it was probably produced in a Palestinian or Egyptian workshop between the fourth century BC and the first century AD. So it has some provenance. It is kept with an inventory on vellum, dated from AD 262, which describes it, and which the cathedral says enumerates the church treasures kept by the deacon St Lawrence before his martyrdom. The earliest written claim that this was the grail itself was made by a canon of Zaragoza, in the 12th century.

Well, there it was, or there it was claimed to be.

Although my memory of that dark red cup is yet vivid, somehow it is still the silver chalice, wreathed in light, held up “at the sacring of the mass” in the Chapel Perilous, which Galahad beheld in the hands of Christ, which shines more clearly in my mind and imagination — reaching deeply back, as it does, to childhood days when my mother told me tales of Galahad.

But, in the end, it is neither my accidental Valencian adventure, nor the imagined adventures in Malory, that bring me closer to the true grail; for I have done better than merely see it from afar. I can tell you that this last Easter Day, after a long year’s fast, I held it, alongside every priest in England, in my own hands, and raised it aloft with joy. For, in the presence of the risen Christ, every chalice is the Santo Cáliz, and in him all the scattered cups, like all the scattered Christians, are one: one chalice, one flesh, one blood, one new creation.

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