Good Friday: Spirituality, Religion and Redemption in Parsifal
[Cosima's Diary, 26 October 1873]
Our conversation leads us to the mystic Meister Eckhart; R. begins
to read a sermon by him, which fascinates us to the highest degree1. Everything turned inward, the soul silent, so that in it, God
may speak the hidden word!
[Cosima's Diary, 27 October 1873]
The absence of all ideality brings the soul blissful peace, says R., and the way to this peace is through Jesus Christ.
[Cosima's Diary, 28 October 1873]
Talked with R. about Buddhism and Christianity. Perception of the
world much greater in Buddhism, which, however, has no monument like the Gospels, in which divinity is conveyed to our consciousness in a truly historic form.
The advantage of Buddhism is that it derives from Brahmanism, whose dogmas can be put to use where science reveals gaps, so far-reaching are its symbols. The Christian teaching is, however, derived from the Jewish religion, and that is its dilemma.
Christ's suffering moves us more than Buddha's fellow-suffering, we suffer
with him and become Buddhas, through contemplation. Christ wishes to suffer, suffers, and redeems us; Buddha looks on commiserates, and teaches us how to achieve redemption.
Today is Good Friday again! - O, blessed day! Most deeply portentous day in the world! Day of
redemption! God's suffering! Who can grasp the enormity of it? And yet, this same ineffable mystery - is it not the most
familiar of mankind's secrets? God, the Creator, - he must remain totally unintelligible to the world: - God, the loving teacher, is dearly beloved, but
not understood:- but the God who suffers, - His name is inscribed in our hearts in letters of fire; all the obstinacy of existence is washed away by our
immense pain at seeing God suffering! The teaching which we could not comprehend, it now affects us: God is within us, - the world has been overcome! Who
created it? An idle question! Who overcame it? God within our hearts, - God whom we comprehend2 in the deepest anguish of
[Letter to King Ludwig, 14 April 1865]
A warm and sunny Good Friday, with its mood of sacred solemnity, once inspired me with the idea of
writing Parsifal; since then it has lived within me and prospered, like a child in its mother's womb. With each Good Friday it grows a year older, and I
then celebrate the day of its conception, knowing that its birthday will follow one day.
n Wagner's poem it is on Good Friday that Parsifal arrives at the edge of the
forest with the Spear and with a burden of guilt. Here Wagner seems to be following his sources, in
which Perceval or Parzival, who had not been inside a church or made confession in several years, met some pilgrims who were shocked to see him wearing armour on
the holiest of days, Good Friday. They directed him to an old hermit whom they had just visited. In Wagner's drama the old hermit is identified with the knight
Gurnemanz. Parsifal's guilt is only increased when Gurnemanz tells him of the death of Titurel and
of the decay of the Grail community.
Und ich, ich bin's
der all dies Elend schuf!
Ha! Welcher Sünden,
welches Frevels Schuld
muss dieses Toren Haupt
seit Ewigkeit belasten.
And I, it is I,
who brought this woe on all!
Ha! What transgression,
such a load of sin
must this my foolish head
bear from all eternity.
Soon after, however, Gurnemanz blesses the new Grail king and cries out to heaven:
Du - Reiner!
Wie des Erlös'ten Leiden
die letzte Last entnimm nun
O - Pure One!
As the redeeming torments
you once suffered,
now lift the last load
from his head!
Good Friday Spell, orchestral version; Bayreuth
Festival Orchestra conducted by Siegfried Wagner; recorded in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in December 1926. Ogg format, mono, duration 11 min.
Left: Kundry and Parsifal with the Holy Spear on Good Friday, Franz Stassen, 1901. Above their scene in the meadow, the artist shows angels collecting
Christ's blood in the Holy Grail. Below the scene, he shows the melody of the Good Friday Meadows.
bviously this is a reference to the sufferings of Christ. Or is it? On closer examination it turns out that
the Good Friday morning scene is ambiguous from start to end. What at first appear to be references to Christian teachings can also be seen as references to
Buddhist doctrine. As Carl Suneson has suggested, Wagner's spiritual hero Parsifal can be seen as
a bodhisattva in the (Mahayana) Buddhist Mahāyāna tradition, as well as a Christ- figure. These alternatives are not
mutually exclusive, since some Buddhists have accepted Christ as a bodhisattva and thus integrated Jesus into their own belief-system. In the study of the
bodhisattva- doctrine by Har Dayal we can read the following:
[Har Dayal, The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature, 1932]
According to the Sata-sāhasrikā
prajñāpāramitā, a bodhisattva shows his karunā [usually
translated as compassion or fellow-suffering] chiefly by resolving to suffer the torments and agonies of the dreadful purgatories during innumerable æons, if
need be, so that he may lead all beings to perfect Enlightenment. He desires Enlightenment first for all beings and not for himself. He is consumed with grief on
account of the sufferings of others, and does not care for his own happiness. He desires the good and welfare of the world.
[Ian Beresford Gleaves, in Wagner News, July 1995]
It is still Good Friday as the final curtain comes down on Wagner's Bühnenweih- festspiel and
Good Friday still symbolises Christ's sacrificial act on behalf of humanity; and it is entirely characteristic of Parsifal that
he effects the miracle of the return of the Spear on the holiest of all days, without knowing it was that day until Gurnemanz told him. There is thus a reciprocal, mutually interactive connection between Parsifal and
the Grail (already observable in Act 1) and between the Spear and the Blood in
the Holy Chalice; and as Parsifal prepares to ascend the steps of the shrine to take the Chalice from the boys who have already
opened the Holy Shrine in preparation for this moment, the point of the Spear glows red in mutual attraction and empathy with the
Blood in the cup.
ichael Tanner, in his essay The Total Work of Art, regards Parsifal as
being a work about religion, more precisely the psychopathology of religious belief. He suggests that the words of Gurnemanz are
addressed, not to Christ, but to Parsifal as man redeemed and transfigured (and perhaps enlightened). There is a certain tidiness
about this view of the text, in which Parsifal not only restores the power of the Grail to intervene in
the human world, but becomes a new Christ, one that does not die. This interpretation seems to be adopted in productions in which Amfortas shares the same fate as Kundry: Wieland Wagner suggested that this was necessary for reasons of
symmetry. It is also consistent with some of the medieval sources, in which Anfortas is a
symbol, or type, of Christ and the unseen Titurel is a symbol of the hidden Creator. In this symbolic interpretation of the
Grail legend, the Grail bearer (Wolfram's Repanse de
Schoye) is a symbol of the Virgin Mary, who bears the Grail, which represents the body of Christ.
interpretation seems to stretch the text too far, however: Gurnemanz's words are clearly about Parsifal but addressed to the once-suffering Redeemer. Wagner's letter to King Ludwig of 7 September 1865 is
evidence that the composer related Parsifal to Christ, but not that he identified his hero with Christ; Wagner repeatedly denied that Parsifal was a Christ figure. It is true that the
religious symbolism reinforces the relationship between Parsifal and Christ: in the last act, the episode of the Magdalen and the dove descending, as at the baptism of Christ in St. John's Gospel. So it
was natural that Parsifal should be represented as a Christ figure in the first productions outside Bayreuth, productions which
treated Parsifal as a religious work, rather than a work about religion or as a non-religious work employing the symbols of
religion. The composer's instructions do not imply an identification between Parsifal and Christ, nor do they indicate that
Amfortas should die - as in Wolfram, at the end of the opera he is restored to health and lives on. To
some extent the symbols have moved into the foreground, obscuring the meanings that Wagner had intended to convey to the audience.
Therefore it might be justified to reduce or remove some of the religious symbolism, as some recent
productions have done.
nother view of the work is that it is about spirituality rather than religion. The elements of mystical Christianity and Buddhism give the work its tension between redemption through the suffering of Christ and
redemption obtained by following the Buddha down the path of enlightenment. Wagner was also interested in
oriental religion and esoteric spirituality, for example in the poems of the Sufi mystic Hafiz. Parsifal's enlightenment seems to come from within, from
God within our hearts, - God whom we comprehend in the deepest anguish of
the hidden word.
[Michael Tanner, Wagner, pp.198-199]
[Wagner was] still convinced of the pain inherent in being alive, and of the sovereign value of the
identification of one's own sufferings with those of others. It is only in terms of this ethic of compassion, founded on a metaphysic of the unity of living things, that
Parsifal makes sense. As soon as one has grasped that, the apparently Christian elements in the work, which can be embarrassing or seem merely added for
colour, function much more actively as constituents in a profound drama of spiritual awakening and fulfilment. New life is brought to the Grail community, and it will be able to continue, invigorated, not through any injection of supernatural energy-boosters, but through
the radiant example of Parsifal, showing the possibility of emerging triumphant from gruelling ordeals, neither complacent in
his achievement nor exhausted by it.
This sounds like the first of Meister Eckhart's sermons as they appear in the edition of the German works by Franz Pfeiffer, 1857:
Dominica infra octavum Nativitatis Domini
, the first in a sequence of four Christmas sermons. For this sermon Eckhart takes as his texts Wisdom
18:14-15 and Job
4:12 (in which he finds verbum absconditum
, the hidden word). Both texts refer to silence, silentium
. Eckhart says:
dû solt swîgen und lâz got würken und sprechen
: "You shall keep silent. Let God act and speak".
It might not be coincidental that Wagner makes a play on begreifen
, to take in, and ergreifen
, to grasp, which
suggests Luther's translation of the first chapter of St. John's Gospel:
Und das Licht scheint in der Finsternis, und die Finsternis hat's nicht
ergriffen. [Johannes 1:5]