On an Excalibur-wannabe, story, and grace
Years ago, I was staying with the family of my friend Alessandro just outside of Siena. At dinner my first evening there, Ale's father asked what we had planned for the next few days. There was much to see and do in Siena, of course, but Ale informed him that since the weather was supposed to be beautiful the next day, that we would go to see Excalibur. His father nodded. "Good plan," he said.
"Excalibur?" I said. "Like in the sword?"
"Of course," Ale's mother responded, as if everyone knew that Excalibur was somewhere in Tuscany.
I knew that Italians purported to have just about everything imaginable there: they had vials of Mary's breast milk, they had Jesus' foreskin, they had Veronica's veil with the face of Jesus imprinted on it. Why, they even had the entire house of the Virgin Mary that some angels picked up down in Palestine and flew - every last stone of it - to Italy. I guess I wasn't surprised that they also said they had Excalibur. Of course they did.
The next day we went to a place called San Galgano, which was an old abbey named after a monk who lived there as a hermit. What this hermit had to do with Excalibur I was not entirely sure, but the church was fantastic – a soaring medieval church which had lost its roof centuries before so stood roofless, arches pointing up to a sunny and clear Tuscan sky.
“Are you ready to see the sword?” asked Ale.
"You're telling me, " I said, voice dripping with doubt, "that I am about to see the actual Excalibur? Because for starters, it's a story. But, even so, I seem to remember that it returned to the Lady of the Lake and was never seen again. You're telling me that it was actually here all that time and no one knew it?" I think that if I had rolled my eyes any harder, they would have flipped back into my head.
"Madonna!" Ale exclaimed, obviously perturbed. "What does it matter?"
I was thinking it mattered quite a bit, but I just smiled and said, "Lead on."
From the roofless church we walked to the hermitage of this saint - Galgano - and Ale read his story to me from a guidebook that he had picked up at his parents' house. Before he found faith, Galgano had been a man of his age, and it was, of course, a violent age. After coming to the Lord, though, he decided to give up on fighting once and for all, so he famously took his great sword and lodged it in a large, solid Tuscan stone. Scientists had done studies (don't they always?) and discovered that the giant stone was, indeed, solid and that the sword was actually completely inside of it, and that the metal of the stone did date back to Saint Galgano's time.
"So not Excalibur, per se," I said, feeling vindicated by the information in the guidebook. Ale ignored me.
We entered the rotonda and there it was, just as it had been described to me. It was pretty amazing, I had to admit. “See?” Ale pointed, obviously proud of the sword in the stone. "Even if it's not the actual Excalibur," he said (still, I felt, kind of suggesting the ridiculous possibility that it was) "it's obvious this is where the idea for Excalibur comes. It's one or the other.”
I was, of course, thinking that it could actually be neither, but I kept my mouth shut. Instead I was wracking my brain trying to drudge up things I had read over the years about the Arthurian legends. I remembered one Geoffrey of Monmouth who maybe was writing around the same time as this sword-and-stone hermit Galgano lived. But I'm sure the legends were around earlier. Did some passer-by meet Galagano in his hermitage and tell him the tales? Did Geoffrey of Monmouth ever make it to Italy? Did sword-in-stone legends occur in other cultures? In those pre-smart phone days, I would have to actually wait to do some research, but my mind was racing with questions and hypotheses.
Ale turned away from Excalibur(ish). “I can hear the wheels turning in your head. For heaven's sake, just enjoy it.” He touched the plaque that was on the railing protecting the sword at the stone and walked away.
He was right, of course. I was standing next to a sublimely beautiful roofless church where a holy man had lived 800 years before and seemed to have put a sword in a stone to show that he wanted to follow the Prince of Peace. Pretty amazing stuff. Shouldn't that be enough? I'm always going on and on about the power of stories, but I was standing in the middle of one trying to figure it out in a way so that I could explain it away.
I walked away, knowing that I needed to be more open to the wonders that God put in front of me all the time - wonders as grand as a sword stuck in a stone and as subtle as the sound of the breeze that hummed around me. My obsession with having all the answers should never get in the way of a good story where grace is made manifest. I bet old Galgano knew that, and sought the story, sought the grace, and allowed himself to be lost in the wonder of the God of both fantastic and subtle wonders.
Just how far was it, I wondered, to that house that those angels flew to Italy?