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The Chivalrous Path

David Spangler

What is the chivalrous path? If I seek to embody chivalry in my life, particularly as a spiritual practice, what might that look like?

My first steps in taking a chivalrous path is to re-imagine chivalry, freeing it from a glossy glamour of gallantry, heraldry and privilege by drawing on the virtues central to traditional knighthood and finding their personal and universal applications. In this sense, chivalry is not a code to which to aspire but a description of our innate capacities, an expression of qualities intrinsic to being human. If I understand this, then acting chivalrously means paying attention to and expressing those qualities and virtues, all of which I can find within myself already if I choose to look.

How might I do this? We may find some clues by going back to the very roots of this idea, back to the origins of chivalry itself. A chivalry was essentially a cavalry, men on horses. This is a partnership. The life of the knight or mounted trooper depended on the well-being of his horse and his skill in blending with his animal partner. Lack of care for his horse or lack of ability to ride it could leave him dismounted and vulnerable. At the heart of chivalry, then, is an image of partnership between two very different beings, two different types of sentiency, who depend on each other for their well-being. It is a symbiosis based on respect.

In our day, skills of creating symbiosis and mutual well-being between humanity and nature are becoming increasingly vital. We may call these ecological skills but they are at heart “chivalrous” as we seek to find a new partnership between human beings and the planet we ride, the nature we inhabit. This is not a glamorous chivalry of knightly virtues but the same practical, down-to-earth, daily necessity that every mounted troop had to deal with: the need to take care of and respect the other lives with which I am in partnership.

For a cavalry force, care for their horses was paramount, for the life and ability to function of the group depended on it. I don’t have horses to care for, but I am in partnership with this world and all other lives upon it. We all are. If we damage or destroy the ecology that carries us upon this world, our own well-being will soon follow it into disaster. But at heart, it’s not an issue of not doing damage as much as one of caring and partnering. No member of a chivalry or cavalry would deliberately damage his mount, but he had to learn how to care for it and how to be a good partner. He had to learn to ride. We have to learn to be good riders of our world, as well.

The “knightly virtues” also emerged out of the life of the cavalry as a military unit designed to wage war and win combats. Certain attitudes and skill sets were needed to be a success at this. One needed courage so as not to flee when the enemy appeared. One needed martial skills to triumph over a foe. One needed loyalty in order to build a cohesive fighting unit. And one needed a willingness to sacrifice oneself for one’s comrades-in-arms so that warriors knew they could depend on one another in the heat of battle.

These are combat skills, and sometimes in thinking of how chivalry can be applied to the spiritual path, we may be tempted to think in terms of “spiritual combat” or “defeating” unwanted and negative tendencies within us. But more to the point, one could say that successful chivalry entailed developing the skills appropriate to one’s task, drawing upon innate human capacities and virtues. For a military unit, such skills, capacities and virtues are those needed to succeed at combat. But the “chivalrous path” could look very different for a different set of tasks. For the spiritual path, for instance, we may need skills like respectfulness, compassion, attunement, forgiveness, and the ability to create wholeness.

An image of a woman with a horse's head on top of her own.
Image by Seema K K, used under the Creative Commons license.

To walk the chivalrous path, then, I want to consider what virtues and skills I need for the tasks that I must meet. They might be “heroic” or “knightly” virtues; they might not. But whatever they are, they are essentially human virtues innate in me. They may benefit from training and disciplined development, but I possess them not because I am a knight or a scientist, a gentleman or a priest, or anything else, but because I am a person.

This also is a kind of partnership: a partnership between me and my tasks. For example, I am a teacher and writer. The skills that make up my “chivalry” are those that enhance my ability to communicate. There is nothing particularly heroic about them,.

But there’s also more to it than just matching skills to tasks. Chivalry implies a third kind of partnership, the partnership between oneself and a larger whole—or a larger wholeness. A chivalry wasn’t simply a band of mounted warriors riding here and there, fighting as the whim took them. As cavalry, they served the larger whole of the kingdom or, as in the quests of Arthur’s knights for the Holy Grail, they served a larger vision. They did not ride, in other words, for their own benefit alone but in dedication, loyalty and service to something greater than themselves.

It is this connection and partnership with something larger that gives chivalry its power as a noble ideal and as a spiritual force. Even while respecting who we are in our uniqueness and sovereignty, it also calls us to look and to act beyond ourselves. Thus, in the chivalry of my teaching, I seek to serve those who are my students and the larger vision of what we are all capable of.

I now have three signposts for walking a chivalrous path. First, I am in partnership with the world around me. How can I care for my world? Second, I want to identify the tasks I need to do on a daily basis. What are the skills and virtues that enable me to do them well, honoring both myself and my tasks? Third, I am in partnership with a larger wholeness in the world and its emerging potentials. How can I serve that larger whole and that emergence in the context of my daily life?

Considering these questions, two things immediately come to mind. The first is that none of these questions ask how heroic I am. It may well be that to do any of these three things I will have to act with courage and in heroic ways; I may well have to rise to meet challenges within myself or within my world. But I can be chivalrous without needing to be heroic. Heroism is one of the skills and virtues that chivalry may call forth because my specific task in the moment requires it. But this is not necessarily so. A different skill or virtue may be needed.

The second point follows on from this. What is at the heart of all these questions concerning chivalry is love. Indeed, love may be seen as the heart of chivalry itself. To act chivalrously is to act with love. We can see this in the evolution of chivalry from military unit to code of conduct. The mounted trooper had to love his horse, at least sufficiently to respect it, care for its well-being, and find that mutuality of partnership that good riding embodies. The knight had to love his companions to be loyal and faithful to them and to be willing to sacrifice himself for their well-being. And he had to respect his foe, a form of loving, in order to meet him in honorable battle according to the rules of knightly and chivalrous combat. And to the extent that knightly virtues also express an attitude of service to a larger whole or a greater cause—that, too, is a form of love that takes one beyond oneself.

Love can certainly be heroic. We meet many unlovable situations and people in our lives; engaging with them with grace, compassion, caring, and respectfulness for all involved can call upon us to reach deep and reach high to find the inner spaciousness and openheartedness to do so. But not all love requires feats of inner heroism, even when meeting the challenges of the world. Opening my heart to the waitress who serves me and honoring her as a fellow human being doesn’t require heroic efforts on my part, but it does require me to be aware and attentive to what is going on around me. I can be chivalrous without being heroic. No glamour or drama is required. But in the moment a partnership of mutual blessing between the waitress and myself—a link along which a spirit of wholeness may flow—is created.

The chivalrous path is, for me, one of loving partnership in action. It can still resonate with the gallantry and pageantry of the many stories of heroes and heroines, of quests and adventures, and the meeting and overcoming of great odds that have come down to us through history and fiction. That part is fun and inspiring. I will always enjoy tales of chivalry, whether of Arthur’s knights, or George Lucas’s Jedi, or the real-life heroism of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But the greatest tale is the one each of us tells as we shape our lives each day in partnership and love with the world around us. It is this natural chivalry of our personhood that holds the power to bless and heal our world. Expressing it, we discover that the chivalrous path is not simply something we walk, but what we are in the loving fullness of our being.

 

David Spangler is an internationally known spiritual teacher and writer, and was instrumental in helping establish the Findhorn Foundation community in northern Scotland in the late 1960’s early 1970’s. Since then David has traveled widely within the United States and Canada giving classes, workshops and lectures. His themes have included the emergence of a holistic culture, the nature of personal sacredness, our participation in a coevolving, co-creative universe, partnering, and working with spiritual realms, our responsibility to the earth and to each other, the spiritual nature and power of our individuality, and our calling to be of service at this crucial time of world history. Many of these themes come together in his primary work, which is the development of a spiritual perspective and practice called Incarnational Spirituality. www.lorian.org

Read more about David Spangler

Comments (3)
  • I thoroughly enjoyed the article on a personal level. They are all partnerships that I try to achieve everyday and will continue to do so

    — Ikigami7 on May 7, 2010

  • Nice to know that the enlightened have begun to preemptively adopt ideas and the lexicon about the ideas for the purpose of creating higher ideals. Symbius, David. Happy to know that you keep on ...

    — David Faubion on October 11, 2010

  • Indeed Chivlary is not about spiritual warfare but about spiritual attention, intentin and discipline.

    — Jay bender on June 20, 2011

10 June 2009

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