Certain common tropes appear in much of the world’s literature and drama, old and new. This is so much the case that the same theme of forbidden love due to family rivalry meets us in Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe (ca. 8 AD), Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597), and Bernstein, Sondheim, and Laurents’ Westside Story (1957). This is not to be wondered at; authors base their works on the human drama of real life, which itself has many recurring themes since “nothing under the sun is new” (Eccles. 1:10).
Holy Scripture itself has certain plot themes that are found in the world’s great literature, including its religious literature. This does not bring Holy Scripture down to the level of false religion or even good merely human literary achievement; it simply puts all these things in the same universe God made, where certain experiences are recurring.
The betrayal of a close friend or relative, the epic journey (or pilgrimage), the young man coming of age amid great trials, the mentor guiding said young man, man struggling against nature, the love triangle, redemption through suffering, sins of parents being visited on children, and many others provide the reader with engaging elements of a plot-line that can frequently make a work of fiction into a good morality tale or even a channel of grace.
One theme of classical literature that was immensely popular in the ages of Christendom was that of the quest.
The Cambridge Dictionary tells us that a quest is “a long search for something that is difficult to find, or an attempt to achieve something difficult.” It seems to me that the second part of that definition gives us a derived sense of quest, based on the fundamental notion of a literal search entailing a journey.
Wikipedia tells us that,
An early quest story tells the tale of Gilgamesh, who seeks a secret to eternal life after the death of Enkidu, including the search for an emerald.
Another ancient quest tale, Homer‘s Odyssey, tells of Odysseus, whom the gods have cursed to wander and suffer for many years before Athena persuades the Olympians to allow him to return home. Recovering the Golden Fleece is the object of the travels of Jason and the Argonauts in the Argonautica. Psyche, having lost Cupid, hunted through the world for him, and was set tasks by Venus, including a descent into the underworld.
That theme of descent into the underworld on a quest is found elsewhere in classical mythology. Hercules did it in the last of his twelve labors, rescuing Theseus, whose own quest in Hades was less than successful. As a lover of music, I would be remiss if I did not mention Orpheus going thither, lyre in hand, to rescue his love, Eurydice. Tragically, his quest ended in failure for the couple, but was a smashing success as poetry for Ovid and Virgil, and as opera for (Rev. Father) Claudio Monteverdi, whose favola in musica, l’Orfeo was the first operatic masterwork of history.
The ultimate descent into Hades is the Harrowing of Hell by Our Lord. No mythology ever claimed for its hero what we know by faith Jesus accomplished there.
Much of fantasy lore involves the quest. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkein would immediately think of the Bilbo’s journey with the Dwarves far from the Shire in The Hobbit as a quest — “to find our long forgotten gold.” Similarly, the three books that tell us of the adventures of Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, involve a quest, this time not to find something, but to destroy it in the only place it can be unmade, the Cracks of Doom.
But by far the most popular quest lore, and that which was most well known in the ages of faith, are the Arthurian legends, wherein we read of Knights on a sacred quest for the Holy Grail.
That these thoughts are at all on my mind is owing to the fact that my bedtime reading of late has been A Catholic Quest for the Holy Grail by my good friend Charles Coulombe. I have no intention of reviewing the book here — except to say that it is a very good book which you should buy and read, which isn’t a very good or thorough review — but I would like, instead, to consider this theme of the sacred quest in the inspired pages of the Bible, for the Holy Ghost seems to like a good quest as much as those Arthurian greats, Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbac, or Sir Thomas Malory.
Abraham was a man on a quest. God brought him out of Ur of the Chaldees to give him the land of Chanaan, the land of promise. But the trip was long. It was begun by Abraham’s father, Thare, who brought the family as far as Haran (in present-day Turkey), and the journey was not resumed until Abraham was seventy-five. But Abraham himself did not take possession of the land, nor did Isaac or Jacob. As was told Abraham ahead of time, his seed did not take possession of the land at all until more than four hundred years later, after the Exodus. Even then, it was not till the time of King David, about a thousand years after Abraham, that the conquest was complete. So the epic quest was not only multi-generational, but millennial.
Abraham himself was given the unique vocation, unlike Noah, of keeping the faith alive as he lived and journeyed among faithless and corrupt men, God himself testing his faith and obedience by making him wait till the ripe old age of one hundred for the arrival of his promised son, Isaac. Quite a quest.
A charming short story of quest in the Old Testament is the one-chapter tale of Abraham’s servant being sent by his aging master into Mesopotamia to look for a wife for Isaac. Happily, that servant comes back with the lovely Rebecca, and Isaac, “loved her so much, that it moderated the sorrow which was occasioned by his mother’s death.” Mission accomplished.
To the best of my knowledge, the most perfect specimen of the pure quest genre that was inspired by the Holy Ghost is to be found in the Deuterocanonical book of Tobias. In it, the younger Tobias is sent by his father (of the same name) to go from Nineveh, where they are in captivity, to far distant Media in order to collect a debt he is owed by one Gabelus. This is after the elder Tobias has lost his sight, owing to the bizarre occurrence of hot dung from a swallow’s nest falling on his eyes as he lay sleeping. Just as the young man is leaving on his journey, a mysterious and handsome kinsman they have never met presents himself as a companion. He is no man, but, as Tobias finds out only at the end, he is the Archangel Raphael, who acts as guide, mentor, protector, and healer for his young charge.
In the end, all ends well and most happily, but this is after young Tobias comes of age by suffering the adversities of the quest, including a fish that wants him for dinner and, worse, a demon, Asmodeus by name, that wants to murder him and take his soul by impurity. If you have never read the book of Tobias please do so. It is an engaging story and a wonderful meditation on marriage and the family, among other subjects.
As for the New Testament, the Twelve are sent on a quest to preach and heal in Matthew ten (and Luke nine). The Seventy-two are sent on a similar quest in Luke ten. After the Resurrection and just before the Ascension, Jesus gives the great mandate to make disciples of all nations, concluding with the words, “Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mark16:15-16). Quite a quest, that.
Jesus Himself was sent by His Father on what Catholic theology calls a “mission,” for the Father can send the Son just as the Father and Son can send the Holy Ghost. We might call that mission of the Man-God a quest, the greatest of all quests — for the glory of the Trinity and the salvation of man.
But after Jesus, who was the greatest “quester”? Saint Paul was, I believe, because he was the greatest missionary ever. His noble apostolic quest put him,
in many more labours, in prisons more frequently, in stripes above measure, in deaths often. Of the Jews five times did I receive forty stripes, save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I was in the depth of the sea.
In journeying often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils from my own nation, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils from false brethren. In labour and painfulness, in much watchings, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Besides those things which are without: my daily instance, the solicitude for all the churches. —II Cor. 11:23-28
The book of Acts and several passages of his Epistles relate his labors.
Now the true quest is interior in nature and not merely exterior. Virtue and vice, sanctity and temptation: these are internal realities. And he who finds the Grail is judged worthy to do so only by these measures. So, too, the great saints who quested for souls did so successfully only in proportion as they lived by “the soul of the apostolate.” Ironically, the journey outward is also a journey inward, seeking for and finding God, who is always in us, ever drawing nearer as we seek, find, and love Him.
Saint Paul was an Apostle in the strict sense of the word, and therefore a priest and bishop. By contrast, the knights for whom the Arthurian legends were written were laymen, so their tales are not those of a man whose quest is to participate in functions proper to the Church hierarchy. Yet the quest for the Holy Grail gave these laymen the clear idea and image of themselves as fulfilling sacred duties of religion. As Charles Coulombe quotes another author saying, it is not knighthood in the service of religion that is being described here, but knighthood as the service of religion.
And this is where we modern men may take our queue. The married man can engage in the sacred quest just as the cleric. While performing clerical functions (e.g., of a “Eucharist minister,” etc.) are not proper to his state, there is much of a strictly sacred character, that is — including the saving of his soul and the souls of his wife and children. He needs the priest, for without priestly ministrations of a sacramental and liturgical character, his quest will not be attained. But the priest needs him, too, for if the family goes, all goes. Clerical fathers and familial fathers need to work together on the sacred quest to restore the family. And as for sanctifying the temporal sphere, which is to say making civil society “sacral,” that is principally and directly the task of the layman, not the cleric, whose indirect work is nonetheless essential.
It is time we stop laicizing the clergy and clericalizing the laity. Men: grab your beads, choose your quest, and get moving.