The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey
There is one particular aspect of the Arthurian mythos which, as far as I am aware, has not been reflected on as much as it should. After the Last Battle and Arthur's voyage to Avalon, a number of surviving knights join a monastic community which, in Rosemary Sutcliff's retelling, The Road to Camlann (1981), later develops into Glastonbury Abbey:
'Within half a year came Sir Blamore and Sir Bleoberis, and little by little certain others of the old lost brotherhood of the Round Table. And when in due time the ancient Archbishop died, Sir Lancelot, whom he had made a priest while he yet lived, stepped into his place and celebrated Mass for the rest as he had done and for all who chanced to pass that way.
'So they continued for seven years, living in prayer and poverty and giving their help and comfort to all who sought it; and keeping the last light of Logres alive as they kept the honey-wax candles burning on the rough altar, while the darkness flowed in over the rest of the land. For though Constantine, Duke of Cornwall and a young kinsman of Arthur, had taken the High Kingship and led his troops to battle under the dragon banner, he was not Arthur, and there was little that he could do against the Sea Wolves and the Old People from the mountains and the North.'
What is notable here is that the knights seem to intuit that the time for action is past and the time for contemplation has begun. Martha cedes place to Mary, you might say. The knights could, of course, have carried on the fight, pledging their allegiance to Constantine or forming a resistance movement in the hills. But no, they understand that fighting is behind them now and that the Round Table has served its purpose, leaving behind a glorious legend that will inspire the men and women of Albion for centuries to come. They recognise that something different is required from them, a prayerful, inner-directed counterpoint to the years of struggle and striving in the outer world. And this new orientation bears fruit in unexpected ways. After Sir Lancelot's death:
'Sir Bedivere and several of the brotherhood remained at the little church and its hermitage all the rest of their days, gathering others to them, so that at last the place became an abbey again; and later still, mighty and beautiful stone buildings arose where the little wattle church and its surrounding bothies had been. And men began to call it Glastonbury.'
The Sea Wolves sweep across the land, but the little church keeps the flame of faith alive, becoming a 'mighty and beautiful' abbey, a foretaste of the Christendom that gave us the great cathedrals which stud the land like jewels, from Carlisle to Salisbury and Canterbury to Durham. These mighty edifices - these 'sermons in stone' - are storehouses of spiritual energy, worthy successors to the stone circles of the Celtic and neolithic eras, and becoming increasingly popular. Visitor figures have been up for a while now, with Choral Evensong especially well-attended. Their finest hour may still be yet to come.
It is good to reflect upon these themes on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, two days of apparent defeat and despair. As Saturday evening in Jerusalem shades into Saturday night, nothing seems to be happening at all. There is nothing more to happen in any case. All is over, finished, consummated. Or so it appears.
But how deceptive appearances can be. Transformation is a mysterious, unquantifiable thing. Its ways are not our ways. Think of the tiny seed in Jesus's parable which grows without fanfare or headlines into the mightiest tree in the forest. This should give us hope on the micro-level too - all those occasions when we feel stuck, frustrated and shorn of inspiration. 'I've nothing to show for my life', we sometimes say, but we don't know that yet. We don't know it at all, in fact. For Jesus's followers on Holy Saturday, everything looked done and dusted, yet all the while He was setting the spirits of the dead free in Hades and breaking the power of death. The real work - Christ's Harrowing of Hell being the great archetypal example - goes on in secret and in silence.