Parzival’s Sin

[Cross-posted from Quod Sumus. Happy Cinqo de Mayo!]

What was it? Scholars have long lost themselves in debates over the precise nature of Parzival’s sin at the Grail Castle. He is visiting the castle; life is going well. He is learning about knighthood, he is beloved and respected. He has life figured out, and he is about to achieve the greatest, most coveted spiritual prize of all. He is at dinner with the gravely ill Fisher King, and the Grail procession commences–overwhelming the senses, it is so entrancing.  So entrancing that Parzival ignores everything and everyone, as he is fixated on the Grail and the Grail Maidens.  And at that moment, though he didn’t realize it, he had committed a great sin, which in due course would be exposed in the most public setting possible, King Arthur’s court. His sin was that he failed to speak, to ask a question of his host. It is only at the very end of the story that we learn what the question was–“what ails you?”  It was the crowning achievement to his insidious self-indulgence and moral laxness, because it betrayed his utter and complete disregard for others’ well-being. Rather, he was only focused on his own gain, his own material interests–a state of mind first revealed in his abandonment of his mother, and then in his brutal killing of his kinsman Ither. Horrified, Parzival demands to know what he can do to remedy the situation. And he is told that there is nothing he can do. His mother and Ither are both dead, and he will not find the Grail Castle because he had proved unworthy. And at that moment, Parzival snaps. He flees the court, and loses his faith, his joy, his love, and everything that had made him what he was.

Except, that is, his physical prowess; tales began to spread of a mysterious knight who would show up at battles and tournaments, crushing all in his path, only to fade into shadow when the clash of arms had subsided. And that was how he lived, for some years, until called to repentance on a chance encounter.

Sound familiar?  Have you ever been in a situation like that, where you are suddenly made aware of a wrong you have done to someone, and then, utterly appalled, you wish to make amends, only to be told that you will not be allowed the chance to do so?  At that moment, you are Parzival. Hopefully, you will not lose your faith and your moral center, but it is hard not to do so. It’s funny how the world is full of messages of redemption, forgiveness, and friendship, but in reality people make exceptions for themselves–I don’t need to forgive this or that person, I only need to pretend friendship with this other person, I don’t need to redeem myself because I refuse to acknowledge that I did anything wrong. That is also to be Parzival, in a way. Or you rationalize your selfish behavior because, well, you see, it was necessary–what else was I supposed to do?  Am I supposed to put off my career or achieving my personal goals because someone else is needy?  Really, you have to look out for yourself, you can’t be inconveniencing yourself for your friends and loved ones all the time.

I’ve been all these different Parzivals, especially the latter. It’s hard not to be in graduate school, as a certain amount of self-centered-ness is essential if you’re going to pull through. But to fail in compassion, as Parzival did, because you are focused only on yourself, your goals, your achievements, is to sin grievously indeed. It’s quite simple, really: if you fail in charity, faith and hope haven’t much of a chance. When you fail to say a kind word, to take time from your own day to comfort a friend who needs help, when, perhaps, you speak many words, but only about yourself, not caring about the needs of others, you have committed Parzival’s sin. Any time you do what you want, or say what you want, regardless of whether it hurts others but because it’s important to you, you have committed Parzival’s sin. And any time you ignore others’ needs, their hurt, their pain, their uncertainty and need for a sympathetic ear, you have committed Parzival’s sin. It is not easy admitting that you are that person, and even less so that the damage caused cannot be undone. But if you’ve admitted all this, at least there’s some hope; it means that you aren’t a dead soul whose pride chokes out any admission of wrong-doing. Which, really, is to persist in Parzival’s sin in the most  pernicious way. Ironically, his despair was the one proof that his soul was not dead, only lost. It is those who refuse to see or admit their sin who are truly among the damned.

Not all speech is good, however, and I think Parzival undersells the two-edged sword that is speech, and overplays the moral certainty required to speak at the right time and place. Not all speech-failures are from want of charity; refraining from speech could be the greater charity. Sometimes failure to speak is a failure of compassion–Parzival’s sin. Sometimes, the desire to speak is the personal fear, quite divorced from any spiritual or moral good, that after speaking when you should not have, you then refrained from speech when you should have spoken, that you left something unsaid to someone, something unfinished because you decided not to speak, something wrong because you could not speak out to right it. And the opportunity, once gone, might never return. This has been on my mind a lot lately, as someone I used to be close to is about to leave town, after having done me considerable wrong over the last few years (and expecting thanks for the favor, but that’s a different point). And when you know that they’ve made decisions based on bad information, that you know things that would modify their opinion, but you’ve never mentioned said things because, well, what was the point, their minds were made up; do you speak, or hold your peace? Would speech be the selfish, uncharitable act in this case? Parzival’s sin in reverse, so to speak. They say “Least said, soonest mended,” but that’s not always true. In Parzival’s case, the more he spoke, the better things got. Reminds me of the theme of the last Rocky movie, that he needed to finish something in his life; and maybe others had something they didn’t finish, something they never said to someone. And after paying the freight–and Parzival certainly paid his–who could honestly deny him the right to achieve closure, to achieve the Grail? Which, in a sense, is what the Grail is.

Who can say what should be spoken, or left in silence? More importantly, how is one to know when speech is required of us, and when the greater sin would be silence?  When speech would be caritas, and when it would be egoismus and malificus.  One thing is certain: we will all get it wrong. Maybe occasionally, maybe frequently, but it will happen. None of us are perfect, and I have failed many times in friendship, in camaraderie, in moral fortitude, in humility, in host of other ways. I have sinned on both sides of Parzival’s dilemma, and certainly do so again.  What happens then?  Dust yourself off, and try again tomorrow, hoping that maybe things will be better, that the damage you have caused can perhaps be repaired, and that others will realize the same thing about themselves. That forgiveness and friendship survive, and that the Grail can be achieved. Hope does not simply spring eternal. It must spring eternal.  To give up on life, and love, and friendship, and your own moral character would be fatal. It would be the denial of grace, the error that Parzival fell into after his disgrace. Because in Parzival, the greatest sin is not the lack of speech, or the failure of friendship.

The greatest sin is despair.

Miserere mei Deus, secundum misericordiam tuam

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