Saturday, May 24, 2014

Camelot and the Miracle of Forgiveness

Last weekend I stumbled across a video circulating on the internet, of actor Jim Caviezel delivering an impassioned message to the members of a San Diego mega-church. Caviezel, a devout Catholic and the intense, handsome star of The Passion of the Christ and TV’s Person of Interest, assured the congregation that God’s grace and forgiveness are greater than their sins. “God forgives you,” he said, “and so now you need to begin again, to accept forgiveness.” As it happens, last weekend I also came upon a powerful, mythic example of that very lesson.

As part of the research for my book on chivalry, I was re-watching the 1967 musical Camelot, featuring Richard Harris as King Arthur, Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Guinevere, Franco Nero as the impossibly perfect Lancelot, and an incredible score by the songwriting team of Lerner and Loewe (the soundtrack from the original Broadway musical was America’s best-selling record for over a year). The movie spun out of the Broadway hit, which was based on T.H. White’s extraordinary 1939 novel The Once and Future King, itself based upon Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the 15th century compilation that is largely the basis for our familiarity with the Arthurian legends and with the tragic love triangle of the movie’s main characters.

Lancelot enters the story as the pinnacle of knighthood, a warrior of such unequalled valor and monastic virtue that he takes for granted his ability to surpass mere mortals. In fact, as White puts it, “he wanted, through his purity and excellence, to be able to perform some ordinary miracle – to heal a blind man or something like that, for instance.” As he proclaims in his signature song “C’est Moi” in Camelot,

And here I stand, as pure as a prayer,
Incredibly clean, with virtue to spare,
The godliest man I know!

But Lancelot soon discovers to his secret shame that, like all of us, he is far from perfect. Indeed, he betrays his friend and liege Arthur through his adultery with Guinevere, which leads to his slaying of a fellow knight in combat. Arthur, his Knights of the Round Table, and all his subjects believe him to be the purest knight on earth, but Lancelot lives with the knowledge of his terrible sins in his anguished heart.

Then one day Lancelot is called upon to do just that for which he had once arrogantly hoped –perform a miracle. In the novel (which differs somewhat from the play and movie versions), a knight cursed with wounds that will not heal comes to Arthur’s Round Table seeking the purest in heart to heal him, and everyone naturally looks to Lancelot. The author T.H. White asks the reader to imagine the terror that Lancelot now feels, knowing that his very public failure to perform the miracle will expose him as living a lie:

Miracles, which you wanted to do so long ago, can only be done by the pure in heart. The people outside are waiting for you to do this miracle because you have traded on their belief that your heart was pure – and now, with treachery and adultery and murder wringing the heart like a cloth, you are to go out into the sunlight for the test of honour.

His spirit broken by sin, and with all eyes upon him, Lancelot kneels beside the knight and prays from a place of deep humility for perhaps for the first time in his life, asking God to please save the knight not for his own glory, but for the knight’s sake. Magically, the knight’s wounds close, and the crowd exults in jubilation.

Forgotten amid the celebration is Lancelot himself, who remains kneeling and weeps like a child because he knew “a secret which was hidden from the others. The miracle was that he had been allowed to do a miracle.” The humbled Lancelot had been granted forgiveness and the grace to perform the impossible. His own healing process had begun.

This struck me as a beautiful example of Jim Caviezel’s point: no matter how undeserving we may believe we are, there is a power, whether divine or human, that is greater than our failures. Forgiveness itself is the miracle; we only need be willing to accept it and begin again.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/20/14)