The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal by Arthur Edward Waite
(Rebman Limited, 1909, 713 pages)
This is a very strange book. A. E. Waite was an English writer who produced scholarly research on mystical, occult, and esoteric themes. Despite their academic quality, Waite’s books on these subjects are not simply detached observations about the development of occult practices and secret societies. Waite himself was a Freemason and a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He eventually founded his own order, the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, which fused interests in occult and magical practices with Christianity.
In The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal, Waite provides an extensive study of the textual sources that make up the legends of the Holy Grail. Grail legends which traced the progress of the chalice from the table at the Last Supper and into Europe were ubiquitous in the medieval period. Waite compares the Celtic, English, German, and French versions of those legends, which are mixtures of Christian allegories and pagan folk-tales. The study is extremely thorough (and by thorough I mean boring), but tracing an extensive history of these texts serves a different purpose than simply academic record keeping. In the Introduction, Waite says that he is “about to set forth after a new manner, and chiefly for the use of English mystics, the nature of the mystery which is enshrined in the old romance-literature of the Holy Graal” (vi). The book is ultimately about the practice of hermetic rituals as it is about literary archaeology.
Waite believes that the various manifestations of these legends point to an actual phenomenon, what he calls an “arch-natural Eucharist.” As varied as the legends are, Waite sees them as pointing to a set of secret rites centered on the Grail that are known to only a few (the “secret Church”) and embody the true spiritual meaning of the official Church and its Eucharist. Waite writes in a way that indicates personal knowledge of this “secret Church” and its rites, but he is pretty cagey about the details.
My interest in this book, and in Waite more generally, springs from the influence that it exerted on Charles Williams. Williams’ novels contain occult themes, and he was a member of Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross for a time. The imaginative impact that Waite had on Williams is most evident in Williams’ two volumes of Arthurian poetry, Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars.