Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lancelot, In Brief

Recently I read The Once and Future King, a retelling of King Arthur tales. I'd never been fully exposed to these stories, and I'm not sure how close the book stays to the more "original" sources, but I felt the story was as much if not more about Sir Lancelot as it was Arthur. His and Guenevere's story was an unexpected treasure amongst what I expected to be a story full of magic and swordplay. I believe I cried when I reached the end of it.

This Christmas Robyn asked that we all share a Christmas story on Christmas eve. I don't have any story I'm particularly fond of but the story of Lancelot and Guenevere had been lodge so lovingly in my head for the past few months that it kept coming to the forefront of stories I could share. The problem is it's not exactly a Christmas story. I do wholeheartedly believe it's a story about God and Christ and in the spirit of retelling and Christmas I decided to retell it myself. And although this is not my story, writing it has been one of the most fulfilling things I've ever written. And, as my family can attest, I definitely cried when I reached the end reading it to them.


A thousand years ago the world was a different place. Back then even grown men believed in miracles the way children still do today. It was common at the time for a person to believe that if they were virtuous enough and righteous enough they would be blessed by God by being allowed to not only witness a miracle but perform one. This story is about a man with such a belief.

When Lancelot was a child, on the verge of becoming a man, he sailed from France to England with his father, a French nobleman and knight. They sailed to join Arthur, the new King of England, in a great battle against the old ways of English nobility. They fought against brutality and privilege. They fought for the rights of peasants and a new kind of goodness. During these battles it soon became obvious that Lancelot was skilled in the art of war far beyond what was normal for his age.  

When the war was over he met Arthur and instantly loved his goodness and majesty. He swore on that day that when he arrived back at home he would train and live with an eye single to the goal of becoming the greatest knight in the entire world so that he could return to Arthur's court and spend his life striving for goodness and protecting the weak.

Crucial to this task was the belief that he must remain pure and chaste before the Lord. For the Lord would never allow the greatest knight in the world to be a bad man. And secretly, in his heart, he hoped that in addition to being the greatest knight he would one day be allowed to perform a miracle. He held to this future miracle like a treasure of endless value.

Back in France he trained and fought and trained. Day in and day out he practice sword and shield, he rode his horse, and spent countless hours jousting against any man willing to sit in a saddle opposite him. At eighteen he left home to return to Arthur. Arthur lovingly embraced him and quickly Lancelot became the head knight at Arthur's famous round table. He defeated all foes in tournament and in war. He saved countless other knights and always made his king proud. He and Arthur became the closest of friends.

But no man is perfect, and Lancelot had his own weakness. On the day he returned to England to join Arthur’s court he also met Guinevere, Arthur’s beautiful young wife. At first he despised her because of her closeness to Arthur. But soon he realized he slighted her with his coldness and determined himself to be more kind and gentle with her. Eventually the two fell in love. Their love remained pure for years but one day Lancelot was tricked by a witch and their love was consummated. He had committed a sin against his king, his best friend, his country, and his God. The sin was a secret they kept unto themselves. But it caused him internal grief, sorrow and pain. He fought this temptation as often has he raised sword against foe, but with always the opposite outcome: defeat. Although he was the greatest swordsman in the world, he had no defense against his own heart.

As time went by his sin continued to worry his soul. He worried he'd soon be dethroned as the greatest knight in the world. He worried about losing his friendship with Arthur. He worried about the damage that would be done to Guinevere if their tryst was uncovered. And he worried that he'd never be able to accomplish his miracle. One day he slunk away from the kingdom and Guinevere, and he repented of his sin, turning his face fully toward God. As a reward for his repentance God blessed Lancelot by allowing him to set his eyes upon the Holy Grail, one of only a handful of people to ever do so. And to humble him, God put before him a noble knight whom he could not defeat in combat. This knight disappeared with the Grail into God’s great and mysterious mists soon after defeating Lancelot; neither the Grail nor the Knight have ever been seen since.

Lancelot eventually returned to court knowing he'd turned a corner. But before long he returned to Guinevere's side. This time he fell even deeper into despair, knowing how far he'd fallen after being so close to God. Lancelot was so depressed that he stopped competing in battles--he didn't want anyone to know of his sin, and he knew that his sins would cause him to lose in battle, that it was impossible for him still be the greatest knight in the world given his moral flaws.

His friend Arthur worried greatly about him. He'd never seen Lancelot so removed. He constantly kept looking for something to draw Lancelot out of himself. The people attributed Lancelot's refusal to participate in tournaments as a sign of him getting old, but Lancelot knew better.

Then, one winter another knight in Europe was cursed by a defeated foe’s mother. The curse bestowed upon him kept his wounds from ever healing. Instead he remained in eternal pain and constantly bled. With the curse was also foretold the cure: the greatest knight in the world would be able to heal his wounds by a simple laying on of hands. The bleeding knight searched all of Europe for the greatest knight but time after time the knights who tried to heal his wounds failed. After many such failures a knight from England told him that if the greatest knight in the world was what he sought then he should make his way to England and speak with Sir Lancelot. This he did and when he arrived at the shores of England Arthur caught word of his approach.

Thinking this was the perfect opportunity to pull Lancelot out of his shell he insisted that the knight come on Christmas day, and on that day a tournament of might would be held but without a single sword being raised. Instead, each knight would have their chance to bless the bleeding warrior, with Lancelot being the last, and of course, in Arthur’s mind, the only one to succeed at the task.

When Lancelot heard of the event he dreaded its approach. He knew that soon everyone would know of his sin, of his lowly state. But he couldn't refuse his king, and above all else he knew it would be his punishment--worthy of his sins--to be rebuked by the Lord in front of all the kingdom. He was so despondent that he considered taking his own life rather than be a part of the tournament.

Christmas arrived. Lancelot sat in his own room listening to the celebrations. Everyone knew Lancelot would be the last one out and that he would succeed, for they all knew in their heart of hearts that he was still the greatest knight in all the world, and that today they would be seeing a miracle. Their cheers depressed him more. A man who had never known fear now buckled at the knees with each knight’s failed attempt, as his time of denouncement grew nearer. Finally a guard entered his quarters and told him it was his turn. Lancelot put on his white cloak and white shield and walked through the door and toward his destiny.

He walked out into the courtyard. There he saw his king, as radiant as ever. He walked between rows of knights on revert and bent knees. The courtyard was full of bright flags whipping amongst the wind and light snow. With a bowed head he approached the platform where the suffering knight lay bleeding in great pain. He ascended the steps. Standing before the knight, Lancelot shed a tear before placing his hands upon the man. And there, on the Lord's birthday, all of England witnessed a miracle. The bleeding stopped and the man was saved from his curse.

The people of England thought that the curing of the curse was the miracle, but in his heart, Lancelot alone knew that the real miracle was that God had allowed even him, the lowest of the low, to heal the man.

One might argue that this isn't a true Christmas story, sure it's a story about God and Christ, but not about Christmas. But like Lancelot, Christ was a savior from the most unlikely of places. The Jews of the time looked toward the rich, the powerful, and the noble for their savior. Instead Christ came from the most unexpected of places.

God works through us and this story is a reminder that all of us have a reserve of goodness within us. Sometimes the place we least expect to find goodness and greatness
is from ourselves. We have not only endless opportunities to share goodness, but also the ability to do so, even when we don't think we do. To be an agent of God we need not be kings or prophets or presidents or saints. We need not be perfect or without sin. We simply need to act.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

I'll Never Let Anything Hurt You

"I'll never let anything hurt you." I look into her eyes and I mean it. And she believes it. And I know it can't possibly be true, but I mean it. I really do. Let's disregard all the little bumps and scrapes she'll undoubtedly acquire throughout life. We can even skip over broken bones and other more serious but non-life-threatening injuries. With all that put aside, it's still possible there are loose electrons flying through her body right now; she might already be her own cancerous time bomb. It's possible one day a car will fly off an overpass and land on ours. It's possible a psychopath will mistake killing children for some form of bravery or vindication and do the unthinkable. It's true I can't even guarantee my own safety; I can't prevent so many others from hurting me. Even so, I look her in the eyes and without flinching I say it again, "I'll never let anything hurt you." And in case she doubts me, "Ever."

Some nights I lay awake thinking about the possibilities. If someone were to break in, what would I do? What could I do? They'd have a gun, of course. In these moments the space between her bedroom and mine stretches out before me. Twenty feet, tops, between her crib and my bed. The intruder would see me streak across the hallway like a lightening bolt and hear the doors open and close like thunder. Then what? We jump out a second story window? I hate guns. But shouldn't I own one just for this scenario? Somewhere else, in a small corner of my mind, I see her finding it and a different Godforsaken tragedy, the cure becoming the disease.

Somewhere there is an electron rattling around the insides of a skin-cell, and a bullet ricocheting around the insides of a rib-cage,  and a car bouncing around a freeway like a pinball. So what? I still won't let anything hurt her. I put the idea away, like a man filing his favorite novel amongst his non-fiction books--because it's absolutely true, somehow.

Yet, on a day like today, it's not enough. There is no solace in the thought. Instead I wrap my body around hers. A lead blanket that deflects cosmic rays. A bullet proof vest that rejects bullets. An invincible force-field  that can stop anything. A simple hug, nothing more. A single, frail human body protecting another, yet frailer human body. This is the tool I have. I lift my heart to God and hope it will always be enough.

And peace unto those who have been shown it's not nearly enough.