"Dearest uncle, what ails you"? is the simple question that heals the Fisher king in Wolfram von Eschenbach's medieval romance, 'Parsifal'. It is such a simple and natural question to ask when you are confronted by a person reverberating with pain, whose decaying stench must be staunched with billowing incense. Yet it is a question that Parsifal failed to ask on his first visit to the Grail castle bound, as he believes himself to be, to his first mentor's advice. He leaves only to discover later what he has done. A discovery that sets him off on a wandering path of loss from which he eventually finds his way back and with a deepened self-knowledge is enabled to ask the redemptive question.
The Fisher king's wound - its cause and consequence - it wrapped up in a complex cosmic vision of the war between good and evil - but one of its threads is that the king's wound is carried through the world, shattering its potential for healthy being - either within the natural or human worlds (that the story itself sees as an artificial distinction).
It occurred to me reading Martin Shaw's beautiful and arresting re-telling and commentary on Parsifal (Snowy Tower: Parzival and the Wet, Black Branch of Language) that Parsifal's question is not one we grant sufficient space to either in our private or public worlds. We surf our sufferings seeking distraction rather than quietly listening to them, hearing their complex voices that can weave cathartic and potentially liberating stories. We bustle on past other people's ailings, like the Levite on the road to Jerusalem, convinced that our work, our solutions are more important than listening to the Samaritan's call, blooded and beaten, from the roadside.
The evidence for this is everywhere - but one small political example from last week will suffice. In the UK, the UK Independence Party won its first elected parliamentarian. Whatever else this was - support for a liked local MP of integrity for example - it was a cry for 'ordinary people' to be heard by a remote, detached establishment. Did anyone pause, listen, ask what is it that ails folk? Not a bit of it. After muffled stutterings about the need to pay attention to the electorate on flowed the 'interpretations' of what people really meant, what should be done about it, etc etc...
"What ails you?" is a good and necessary question too little asked with the answers too little heeded.
It would be a question that we might necessarily ask of our planet too, our home, and if we listened to those cries perhaps we would learn the gallantry of genuinely caring for our place, rather than despoiling it. The Fisher King sits wounded at every place the world is ruptured from the path of its own self-healing, which is now too many places to count.
Martin Shaw's book does not directly address these issues but asks ones that are deeply related. What does it mean to listen to our stories and allow ourselves to be carried and instructed by them? What does it look like to allow ourselves to grow from brash, if necessary, ignorance, like Parsifal, through initiatory challenge and breaking, to maturing insight and wisdom? And, what does this particular story have to show us, here and now, in this our age?
Strikingly one of the things it points to (and remember this is a medieval tale) is that spirituality belongs as much to those that listen as to those that instruct and that spirituality is a more common, and vast, universe than 'religion'. Strikingly none of the truth bearers in Eschenbach's tale are priests or monks (or even nuns). The hermit, Parsifal encounters and learns from, was a knight and a lover and shows no signs of any truck with official religion; and, the central driver of the story is a wild virgin crone of the forest whose words are penetrating truth drawn from the earth, as well as heaven!
But as Martin rightly points out, every story has its meanings, each one glimmers with multiple facets that will show themselves forth differently at different times, on different occasions and on the lips of different tellers. That is the joy of story, amongst much else they teach you how to question and how to listen, for you never enter the same story twice.