Repentance and the Morte d’Arthur

Garrett reflects on what his childhood hero King Arthur has to teach him about Christian leadership.

“Then Sir Bedivere cried: Ah my lord Arthur, what shall become of me, now ye go from me and leave me here alone among mine enemies? Comfort thyself, said the king, and do as well as thou mayst, for in me is no trust for to trust in; for I will into the vale of Avilion to heal me of my grievous wound: and if thou hear never more of me, pray for my soul.” – Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur

Not too long ago, I volunteered to serve in a 9-day long School of Christian Leadership. Desiring a break from being a facilitator, I subtly hinted to the organizers that I wanted to help out in logistics instead. Just turn my brain off, do some manual labour, and reconnect with Jesus, you know? My plan worked a little too well, and I found myself in charge of logistics, because Jesus has a strange sense of humour. But regardless, it turned out to be an extremely fruitful experience for me.

Running things behind the scenes, I was privileged to be able to view the participants from a distance, as opposed to being in the thick of things as a facilitator or a participants. I saw my friends grow in their love for Jesus, the deepening of their faith and their desire to respond to His call in their lives. And being removed from the situation, supporting them through work and prayer, I was prompted to examine my own life and ask: how much of what I did as a Christian leader was truly for God’s glory, and how much was for my own? It was a difficult question to face, but through time spent in Eucharistic Adoration, God led me to examine my life through a story, specifically that of my boyhood hero: Arthur, the Once and Future King.

Why did this story appeal to me so much as a lad? As the eldest son and the eldest child in my family, I often had to figure things out for myself, and not always well. My older male cousins took pleasure in keeping me clueless and out of the loop, just as Arthur had been at the mercy of his step-brother, Kay. So I knew what a lonely, well-meaning little boy would do if he suddenly found out he was a king. He’d try to create a world where everyone would be welcome, where no one would be lonely, because then he wouldn’t be lonely. And he probably had just the right mix of compassion and arrogance to believe that he could pull it off as well.

And he came so close, didn’t he? I loved reading about how he gathered heroes like Lancelot into the Knights of the Round Table, tried his best to defend the defenceless, and loved his Queen Guinevere with all his heart. Good ideals and noble dreams…

But of course, however noble they may be, our dreams are often not God’s dreams, and it always moved me how the boy who wanted to heal the world ended his life a broken man – broken heart, broken dreams, broken everything. C.S. Lewis identifies the central theme of Malory’s text as Repentance, a turning again to the Lord. Arthur’s kingdom was built on the strength of men, and as such, failed by their weaknesses. It is only when we dream God’s dream that we ask for God’s strength.

“What we want is to see the Round Table sibi relictus, falling back from the peak that failed to reach heaven and so abandoned to those tendencies within it which must work its destruction. […] it is surely too harsh to say with Professor Vinaver that Launcelot repents not of his sins against God but of having brought all he loved to earthly ruin. It is in such a tragic glass that most men, especially Englishmen, first see their sins with clarity.” – C.S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature

“For in me is no trust for to trust in:” These are humbling words for a king to say. To put aside his saviour complex and admit that he is not the saviour. I think at the end of his life, Arthur too had to realize his need to repent. One of the genius strokes of the writer Malory is that he seldom makes value judgments on the actions of his characters, even when they seem rather horrific. Take for example, Arthur’s attempt to recreate Herod’s murder of innocent children, all in a bid to preserve his power:

“THEN King Arthur let send for all the children born on May-day, begotten of lords and born of ladies; for Merlin told King Arthur that he that should destroy him [that] should be born on May-day, wherefore he sent for them all […] and all were put in a ship to the sea […] So many lords and barons of this realm were displeased, for their children were so lost” – Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur

The wholesale slaughter of innocent children described so matter-of-factly, by our great hero-king nonetheless. But perhaps Malory does not judge because he knows that even the best of men have this darkness within them. I guess sometimes in fighting for our own dreams, we end up taking drastic measures to ensure their success. Malory, who describes himself as a ‘knight-prisoner’ imprisoned on charges of burglary and rape (which some theorize in that time to mean adultery), would have understood this well.

Viewed in this context, Arthur’s request for Bedivere to ‘pray for his soul’ becomes a lot more significant than it would appear on the surface. While Bedivere looks to his earthly king for guidance, Arthur reminds him that in the end, they have only one true king – Jesus Christ. For those of us who are called to be Christian leaders, perhaps the call is always to recognize where we are in need of healing, and bring those places to Jesus, so that in turn, we can bring those we shepherd to Him as well, and not to ourselves. I’ve once heard that a sure sign of a shepherd is that he is wounded for the sake of his sheep. But perhaps that wounding is necessary in order to humble them, to allow their hearts to break for what breaks the heart of Jesus. As another king who sometimes struggled to do the right thing put it, “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)

It’s a beautiful story, not least because it shows us our darker natures while simultaneously appealing to our better ones. For me, it showed me how I had been wandering dangerously close to the path of self-righteousness, and encouraged me to continually surrender to the Lord on a daily basis. And maybe, just maybe, one day the final word left by Malory on the Once and Future King could be said of me too, by He who is the greatest Storyteller of them all:

“YET some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu [been taken] into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say: here in this world he changed his life. But many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: Hic jacet Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rexque futurus (Here lies Arthur, who was king once, and will be king again.)” – Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur

© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

Spiritual Battles and Fantasy Worlds Part 2

Garrett reflects on “epic stories” and their presence in Sacred Scripture.

This article is a continuation of my previous article with the same title, where I discussed Stephen R Donaldsen’s essay, Epic Fantasy in the Modern World, and how fantasy fiction can inform our Faith. While my previous article focused on Donaldsen’s definition of ‘fantasy’, how fantasy speaks to the human heart, and how Jesus satisfies that desire as in C.S. Lewis’ words, ‘a myth that came true’. This time around, I’d like to focus on Donaldsen’s other definition – ‘epic’. As Donaldsen himself states, the term epic is much better understood than ‘fantasy’, and indeed, a deeper look at this term can tell us much about Faith and Scripture as well.

I’d like to preface this article by saying that it’s going to be even more… ‘technical’ than what I usually write. In an article like this, context is important, and a large chunk of this article is going to be me paraphrasing and quoting stuff from other sources. But that said, I still hope that this will be an informative and interesting read. So, let’s get into it!

Continue reading “Spiritual Battles and Fantasy Worlds Part 2”

Thoughts in the Confession Queue

Garrett shares a reflection he had while queuing for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

I arrived in the mostly empty main church hall about half-an-hour before Mass. With an inward sigh of relief, I saw that the queue for the Sacrament of Reconciliation was mostly empty. Only one other person was sitting in the pew placed strategically outside the Confessionals, an elderly lady. Giving her a smile, I sat down.

The priests of our parish usually start hearing confessions about fifteen minutes before Mass, but if you allowed the queue to build up, you might find yourself attending Mass without having received the Sacrament. So being second in line pretty much guaranteed my chances. Continue reading “Thoughts in the Confession Queue”

A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis Part 4

In the final part of the analysis, Garrett discusses the trials and responsibilities of creating art.

Welcome back to our final instalment of our analysis of G.K. Chesterton’s poem, A Christmas Song for Three Guilds! As always, the previous three parts can be found on this very site, and I highly recommend at least reading Part 1 first to provide some of the context behind my analysis. Otherwise, you might find some of the more violent imagery in the poem a little off-putting. Today, we’ll be listening to Saint Luke, the Patron Saint of Painters, as he teaches us the virtue of Prudence.

So why is Saint Luke the Patron of Painters? Wasn’t he a doctor? Well, Christian tradition has him as the first painter of religious icons, with various holy images attributed to his hand. In fact, in the medieval era, it was common for Painter’s Guilds to be known as Guilds of Saint Luke. Chesterton portrays Luke’s message as a warning to painters and those involved in the arts, exhorting them to be careful about what exactly they’re painting.

So for the final time, let’s begin our analysis!

Continue reading “A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis Part 4”

A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis (Part 3)

In the third part of the analysis, Garrett shows how St. Crispin teaches us the virtue of humility.

Welcome to Part 3 of our analysis of G.K. Chesterton’s A Christmas Song for Three Guilds! Part 1 and Part 2 can be found elsewhere on this blog. I highly recommend giving a read through to Part 1 at least as over there I went through some important principles to take note of when reading this poem, especially on Chesterton’s use of violent imagery. In Part 3, we’ll be look at the second guild, the Shoemakers, who are addressed by their patron, Saint Crispin!

Now, Saint Crispin is a little obscure, so perhaps a bit of an introduction is in order. Crispin and his brother Crispinian are two martyrs from the time of the early Church, that mysterious, legendary group that I wrote about last month. The two brothers went to preach the Gospel in Roman Gaul, that is to say, modern-day France. Along the way, they earned their keep by making shoes, much like how Saint Paul supported himself through tent-making. Eventually, they were captured in the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian and martyred for their Faith. So the legend goes.

What we are learning today from Saint Crispin’s address is the virtue of humility. So let’s get right into it!

‘St. Crispin to the shoemakers said on a Christmastide:
“Who fashions at another’s feet will get no good of pride.’

Continue reading “A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis (Part 3)”

Obi-Wan Kenobi and Spiritual Mentorship

Garrett uses the Star Wars phenomenon to reflect on Christian leadership.

With the premiere of Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, and a whole slew of movies, books, and various other media on the horizon, it seems that Star Wars is poised to seize the hearts of a new generation of fans.

So why is Star Wars so popular? Father Dwight Longenecker from the blog “Standing on My Head” offers a rather convincing explanation. The reason behind Star Wars’ success is that it follows the “Hero’s Journey” narrative. The movies tap into the innate spirituality and heroism that dwells in the average viewer, inspiring them to be something greater than themselves:

“Star Wars works because it works at a deeply human level of awareness. Following the hero’s quest, the films unlock the human potential for greatness. With the spiritual theme underlying the hero’s quest the films also keep alive in the human imagination the importance of prayer, spirituality and a “higher force”.”

Continue reading “Obi-Wan Kenobi and Spiritual Mentorship”

A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis (Part 2)

The analysis continues as Garrett moves on to Saint Joseph’s address to the Carpenter’s Guild.

If you’re coming here after reading Part 1, welcome back! If not, do be aware that this is Part 2 of four-part series where I’ll be analysing G.K. Chesterton’s A Christmas Song for Three Guilds. We’re taking it one stanza at a time, and the first part does establish some very important context for us while reading this poem. So I’d highly recommend giving it a read-through to avoid any confusion. Part 2 will still be here when you’re done!

In Part 1, we talked about the birth of Jesus being a challenge to us to lead inspiring Christian lives, no matter where we are in life or what profession we are in. In this next part, we will be examining this through the life of St. Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus, and whom we know of course, Jesus inherited his first profession from. So who better to look to when asking how we can live authentic Christian lives in the secular world? Without further ado, let’s dive into the poem, and let St. Joseph teach us a thing or two about the virtue of Kindness.

Continue reading “A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis (Part 2)”