A Knight at Pentecost: Mercy

Lancelot1Once, while out adventuring,  Lancelot came upon a valley. There an armored knight named Sir Pedivere, with naked sword in hand, was galloping after a woman with murderous intent. Sir Lancelot, following his knightly oath, rode in to intervene on behalf of the woman. The woman (who was wife to her assailant) accepted Lancelot’s protection. Pedivere pleaded with Lancelot that his cause was just. After all, he declared, she was unfaithful to him. Lancelot persisted in his defense of the woman, for not only did she protest these claims, but faithlessness is no reason to commit murder. Pedivere, seeing that his pleas would not effect Lancelot, consented to fight. As they both rode off to begin their tilt, in an act of treachery, Pedivere decapitated his own wife.

The murder, misogyny, and betrayal purported by Pedivere makes him a loathsome character. When I first heard this story, every fiber of my being longed for the catharsis of Lancelot running that dishonorable monster through. Pedivere needed to pay for his crimes.
Lancelot, sharing my opinion, rushed to slay the traitorous man. Pedivere, ever the coward, threw down his arms and begged Lancelot for mercy. Lancelot, bound by his oath, withheld his stroke, but began to plead with Pedivere to fight him. Lancelot, desperate to deliver justice, begged that he consent to a duel, where Lancelot would be without armor, and offered many other handicaps, but Pedivere, fearing Lancelot’s sword, refused. Because Lancelot decided long ago to always show mercy to those who ask mercy, Lancelot let Pedivere go, and carried on in anger and shame. This action of mercy brought Lancelot shame at the court of Arthur and caused a murderer to go free, but this action of mercy was in accordance with the principles of the Pentecostal oath.

This act of mercy is painful to read, much less act out, but according to the world of Le Morte D’Arthur, this act of mercy was an act of righteousness. Lancelot sacrificed his honor and his vengeance for doing what he had long ago decided was right. His act exhibits several important concepts about the moral system of Arthur’s world.

First, the decision to do what is right must be made before the moment to decide occurs. The passion of the moment would have dictated that Lancelot cut off the head of Pedivere, just as Pedivere had cut off the head of his wife. The passion of the moment, however, is only conquered by the conviction of the past. Because Lancelot had sworn the Pentecostal oath, because he had been previously convicted that showing mercy was good, he was able to act rightly. In the same way, we must make our decisions before the hour of decision, for otherwise the passion of the moment will make the decision for us.

Secondly, honor is not to be confused with virtue. Lancelot’s decision to spare Pedivere caused him shame among others. He lost honor from his action. Nevertheless, he did what was right. If our moral calculus is based on what others think, on how honorable we appear to society, our decisions are no longer done for what is right, but what builds up our reputation.

Thirdly, doing what is right can turn your stomach. Sometimes what is good is also difficult to accept. Lancelot would have certainly felt better about himself and his situation had he struck down Pedivere, but his conviction demanded that he act with righteousness, not act to appease his sensibilities. To kill an unarmed man without lawful action is to murder. By showing mercy, Lancelot was preserving a system of law and justice. ancelot sacrificed his sensibilities for the sake of society as a whole.  Sometimes what is right requires us to do something that is disgusting.

Fourthly, right action is more important than consequences. In my last post we discussed the importance of examining the results of our actions. When it comes to demonstrating righteousness, however, we must abandon that process of decision making. We must do what is right regardless of how it will affect the world. Letting Pedivere go seems to be an unwise action. Lancelot, rather than trust in his ability to make Pedivere pay for his action, trusted in God to bless his righteous action. Sometimes we have to serve or work with disgusting things, but we must do what is right, and trust in God to make beauty spring from the dry and worthless dust of sin.
The story doesn’t end with Lancelot’s painful mercy. Pedivere was made to carry around his wife’s head with him, a grim reminder of his sin and unworthiness. This shame lead Pedivere to redemption, where he repented of his sin, and lived his life in righteousness. Pedivere, undeserving of such mercy, received mercy abundantly. The act of Lancelot not only saved Pedivere’s life, but it saved his soul. When we read this story, we should act like Lancelot, but we should see ourselves as Pedivere. We are all guilty of disgusting treachery. We all don’t deserve what we have. It is only through the grace of God that we are given what we are given. We bear the severed head of our trespasses around our neck, and we must continually remind ourselves to whom we owe our lives. We ought to show mercy not simply because it is right, but because we too have been shown mercy.

This story isn’t fair. No-one gets what they deserve or want in this story. But life isn’t fair either. Thanks be to God for His abundant mercy.

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A Knight at Pentecost: Balin & Uwain

I am an expert eavesdropper. I am of the opinion that if a conversation is had in public, it is fair game to all who are within earshot. One such time I sat at a table, casually drinking coffee, when I heard a loud voice from the table next to me begin to speak in the sort of tone one assumes when speaking from authority. The young man who spoke declared that he had one piece of wisdom after having lived out his life thus far. With swaggering bravado he stated that in order to be happy, all you have to do is not care about what other people think, feel, or believe and just be yourself. Act out your desires and what you think ought to happen, and the rest of the world will get in line or get out of the way.

Balin causing trouble

Balin was a knight of Arthur. Balin managed to pull a magic sword from an enchanted scabbard that only one of the strongest knights could pull from. Needless to say, Balin was a powerful knight. Anyone who is successful, however, will attract jealous rivals, and Balin was no exception. Lancelor, an Irish knight, was filled with envy at the success of Balin. So envious was Lancelor that he challenged Balin to combat. Thus, in self defense, Balin slew his attacker. Immediately after the death of Lancelor, a woman approached the scene in great sorrow, shouting
“O Balin, two bodies thou hast slain and one heart, and two hearts in one body, and two souls thou hast lost”
~Thomas Malory Le Morte D’Arthur Book 2 Chapter 6
She then took the sword of her dead lover, and slew herself over his body.

Uwain causing trouble

Uwain was a knight of Arthur. Uwain decided to go on a journey. He ventured to a magic spring, where he was told that to pour a basin of water onto a mysterious stone was to create a massive storm. He promptly did so, and caused a thunderous tempest which sent him into a great terror. Soon after, a lord rode up to the spring, fuming with anger. Uwain’s curiosity had caused great destruction to the lands of this lord, devastating his crops. This lord then challenged Uwain to combat. Thus, in self defense, Uwain slew his attacker. Soon after, due to his being chased by the lord’s men, Uwain hid in the castle of the slain lord, where he had to sit and watch in anguish as the wife of this lord grieved and mourned the loss of her beloved husband. As she extolled the now lost virtues of this man,

“She beat at herself, and tore
At everything her hands could reach.
And lord Yvain suffered
Such pain, it was hard, no matter
What happened, to keep from running
To grasp her hands.
Yvain The Knight of the Lion, Chretien de Troyes, Trans. Burton Raffel, lines 1300-1305.

Both Balin and Uwain acted well within their rights. They defended themselves and only struck out when challenged. Both Balin and Uwain did no wrong in the eyes of the law with their actions. But something else condemned them. Their actions, while permitted by their rights, had grave consequences. Every body they cut down had hopes, dreams, friends, and love behind them. They cut down more than a man, they cut down a world. These two stories illustrate a concept present in the Pentecostal Oath. The weeping maiden and weeping wife of the men slain by Balin and Uwain are the medals won by acting as my Starbucks philosopher dictated. Acting based on who you are alone leads to destruction. Your will, desires, and rights are not to be the principle decision maker for your actions. Having a right does not give you license to act.

The knights who swore the Pentecostal Oath were forfeiting their freedom to liberally use their power in order protect those who needed protection. They sacrificed their freedom for the construction of a better world. You, just as Balin and Uwain, are responsible for the consequences of your actions. The way you express your emotions and self should be conscious of how that expression affects others. When you exercise your right to speak, you are responsible for how those words affect others. The utterer of a rape joke has supported a system and culture of disgusting abuse. The voter is responsible for the ballot they cast. The abstainer is responsible for the ballot they didn’t cast. The speaker is responsible for the words that their audience takes to heart. Even the Facebooker is responsible for how their statuses affect others. Every action we take is charged with meaning and significance, and to some degree we are responsible for what those actions bring about. This is a great deal of responsibility. This Atlas-load is easy to shirk off under the herald of self-expression, but the consequences of this shirking are widespread and painful. Perhaps some would declare that I am sacrificing freedom in the name of “political correctness” or a hyper-sensitive culture. Rather than in the names of these causes, I ask that we sacrifice our freedom in the names of the weeping maiden of Lancelor and the mourning widow of Uwain’s attacker. Let us withhold for the sake of compassion lest we, by acting, cause greater tragedy.

A Knight at Pentecost: The Oath

ImageThe knight’s oath is vital to the survival of knighthood. Through the use of arms and martial prowess, knights possess power. As a result, they have the ability to both help and harm those who are weaker than they are. Protection, oppression, or indifference are the three options available for those in power. Indifference, however, allows the weak to be trampled on by other people in a position of power, thus indifference becomes oppression. Therefore the knight has but two options; he must choose between protecting or oppressing those weaker than him. Unfortunately, people are prone to use their power for oppression, hence the invention of the knightly oath. The oath of a knight is a declaration that those in power have a responsibility to protect those who are weaker, forcing those in power to act based on what is right, rather than based on the exercise of their desire. The most well-known oath of knighthood is the Pentecostal Oath, sworn by Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. As Thomas Malory describes in Le Morte D’Arthur,

“The king stablished all his knights, and gave them that were of lands not rich, he gave them lands, and charged them never to do outrageousity nor murder, and always to flee treason; also, by no mean to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen succor upon pain of death. Also, that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no law, ne for no world’s goods. Unto this were all the knights sworn of the Table Round, both old and young. And every year were they sworn at the high feast of Pentecost.”
~Thomas Malory Le Morte D’Arthur Book 3 Chapter 15

Just as the knight of Arthur, we have power. Perhaps it is not as pronounced as the power tempered steel gives to a knight, but every action we take affects those we come into contact with. We have the ability to shape how others view the world, and are accountable for what our influence creates. By our actions, we can either protect or oppress. Just as the knight is responsible to protect those around him, so are we responsible to protect those around us. We ought to stand alongside Arthur in a confirmation of our duties. In the next few weeks, I plan to examine the Pentecostal oath, and call both you and myself to action. Let us swear oaths with Arthur, that we may act in a manner worthy of a knight.