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The Grail of Compassion

January 14, 2016

On January 13th, 2016 the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation held a Leadership Encounter with Professor Kim Samuel at the Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University. Kim shared an exploration of ancient wisdom and drew out the essential lessons for leadership today.  She offered practical applications and pointed to key learnings within two important social policy areas in Canada today – the settlement of refugees and advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.  Her full lecture is available below: 

Kim Samuel

Institute for the Study of International Development, McGill University 


Leadership Encounter

with the


January 13, 2016


 I. Introduction
Good afternoon. It’s a true pleasure to be here with all of you. While I spend a lot of my time in other parts of the world, I’m always happy to be home in Canada, even in the middle of January! And more so to have the opportunity to share some thoughts with brilliant young scholars.

All great leaders struggle to get the balance right between their individual goals and the greater needs of society.

As Sauvé Fellows and scholars, you are well on your way to becoming the next generation of public policy leaders, and no doubt grapple with balancing a myriad of policy options and programme needs with financial and other constraints.

Today, I hope to shed some new light on leadership and social policy by considering an ancient story—specifically, the medieval Grail Quest.

II. From the Grail Quest to the Grail of Compassion
I would like to invite each of you to accompany me through an ancient story and imagine, like many ancient stories in both oral and written traditions, what relevance this may have for our modern times too. But first, allow me to provide a little context for why I am drawn to this topic.

My own academic and programmatic work centres on the issue of social isolation, and how it can afflict individuals and groups, to the detriment of society as a whole.

In academic terms, social isolation can be defined as the deprivation of social connectedness. Beyond definitions, what matters most is how isolation is experienced—which I describe as the feeling of sitting alone at the bottom of a well.

The isolated person feels ‘less than’, trapped and alone, outside all circles of concern, suffering, invisible in a dark, cold place, where no one loves them and nobody cares.

My mission is to help people find pathways from isolation to connectedness. To help them rise from the bottom of the well and step into the light.

For several years I have been reflecting on how it is that every knight in every Grail Quest begins his journey in the deepest, darkest part of the forest, where, as Joseph Campbell writes, “there is no path.”

I’ve been thinking about how this experience relates to the person at the bottom of the well, the person who is alone in the dark, unable to create a path from which to move forward.

It may indeed seem at first blush that the isolated person is not on a journey at all, much less on a heroic quest.

That person did not choose to be at the bottom of the well, whereas the knight chose to embark upon a quest.

Yet in a spiritual sense, I believe the knight in the forest and the person stuck in the well are one and the same.

Neither one has received and retained the gift of compassion. And neither has yet become aware of their own purpose and uniqueness in the web of humanity.

Thus, while many people—even the knights themselves—see the Grail Quest as a solo endeavor, I see it very differently. I see it as the individual struggle to affirm role and place within the larger community.

I see the Grail Quest as a journey of an individual in reciprocal relationship with community, which shapes and is shaped by the knight in his quest. The values, history and traditions of community are what are being honoured in the journey.

I am reimagining the quest as the journey of seeking, not as one of the fanciful figures from the age of chivalry, but instead as somebody who, much like all of us, has a path and a choice, in the realm of community. It makes me think of what Pablo Neruda said in his Nobel lecture:

“All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song—but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.”

In other words, the Grail is both about finding ourselves, and understanding that we are part of something bigger.

Yet in both the well and the forest, there is some aspect of belonging missing, and I see this aspect as compassion, the gift the soul has inside it all along. This is the quest I believe has relevance for us all, the very human quest for belonging, which I imagine as the Grail of Compassion, consisting of three key principles:

  • Accepting and nurturing ourselves as we are, and accepting and nurturing those who are different from us.
  • Connectedness with everyone in the community, and knowing that everyone in the community has a purpose.
  • Respecting that as members of a community, we have a sacred responsibility to hold everyone’s life in high regard.

As I see it, the Grail of Compassion must first be found within oneself, and extending from there to all of humanity.

In order to reimagine the Grail Quest in this way, I am first going to take you back in time to the 13th century and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s story of the Arthurian Grail Quest, Parzival.

Then, I’ll draw out three themes that resonate with me as I think about Parzival’s experience and what it tells us about the Grail of Compassion and the journey from isolation to belonging.

And finally, I am going to begin the exploration of how we can connect these themes to contemporary challenges, in the hopes of inspiring young leaders like you to take up the mantle of change.

III. The Legend of Parzival
So, let’s begin with the story.

In Wolfram’s telling, Parzival’s father, Gahmuret, is a knight who dies in battle. Parzival’s mother, Queen Herzeloyde, does not want her child to be exposed to the lifestyle of chivalry, so she moves to the forest where her son grows up a free-spirited child of nature.

When the boy turns 16, he meets some knights in the forest and decides he wants to join them. His despairing mother tries to foil his plans by giving him a ridiculous costume to wear, hoping that if he is dressed like a fool, he won’t get very far.

Still, Parzival leaves. And when he gets to King Arthur’s castle, he manages to win his first battle, and is taken under the wing of an experienced knight, Gurnemanz, who tutors him in how to behave. Gurnemanz offers Parzival his daughter’s hand in marriage, but Parzival, contrary to the customs of the Middle Ages, doesn’t want an arranged marriage; he wants to marry for love. So he rides on to another kingdom, where he helps to end a siege—winning the love and ultimately the hand of a beautiful queen called Condwiramurs.

After some time, Parzival decides it is time to embark on another adventure. One evening, he comes upon a fisherman in a boat, who directs him to a castle with moat and drawbridge. It turns out the angler is in fact the Grail King, Anfortas, also known as the Fisher King, and he is suffering from a devastating wound that will not heal.

Parzival joins the ailing Anfortas and the rest of his court for a banquet, and is amazed by what he sees. A beautiful princess carries something called the Grail to the banquet table—and somehow, this magical Grail is able to produce a boundless feast. Parzival has many questions, but remembering the rules of good breeding, he doesn’t ask them. He doesn’t ask the main question he wants to ask – what is wrong with the King.

The next day, mysteriously, the castle is silent and everyone is gone. So Parzival leaves, and encounters a woman—his Aunt Sigune—who explains to him that he has failed; that he has missed the greatest treasure in the world because he did not ask the question that would have healed the king and renewed the wasteland. Parzival is crushed, and resolves to find the mysterious castle again—even though Sigune tells him it is impossible to find it twice.

He reunites with Arthur and the rest of the knights, and is dining with them one evening, when a sorceress called Cundrie curses him in front of the Knights of the Roundtable for having failed to ask the question that would have healed the Fisher King. Parzival feels both ashamed and disgraced. And he also thinks life is really unfair.

As he sees it, he has not only become one of the greatest knights of all time, he had also grown in other ways too, such as marrying for love, and by sending all those he conquered in battle to serve a woman called Cunneware, to atone for her having been humiliated because of him.

So he sets off yet again—renouncing God and spending almost five years alone in the wilderness. Over the course of that time, he starts to undergo a kind of conversion. Slowly, he lets go of his frustration and his pride. His horse leads him to the home of a hermit, Trevrizent, who turns out to be the Fisher King’s brother.

Trevrizent helps Parzival understand that his anger will get him nowhere. Through their conversations, Parzival develops a more intuitive understanding of God. And in so doing, he is able to discover “the other”.

This happens when Parzival and another knight of equal ability are charging at one other on horseback, each determined to win.

Parzival’s sword breaks on the helmet of his opponent, who refuses to continue the battle since it would no longer be a fair fight.

When both men take off their helmets and begin talking, they realize that they are not enemies at all. Instead, they are family. The other knight is actually Parzival’s half-brother Fierfez. This is a critical point in Parzival’s journey for here he realizes there is no “other”, no enemy in the dark. The “other” is us. And in this truth, compassion lives.

Parzival finds the Grail Castle once more, and he goes there, with his brother. And this time, casting rules and convention aside, he asks the Question that is burning in his heart. Driven by compassion instead of custom, he asks, “Sire, what ails thee?”

Almost immediately, Anfortas is healed, the wasteland is healed, and all those in the kingdom are healed. And Parzival, having successfully completed his Grail Quest, becomes the new Grail King.

IV. Three Themes from the Forest
I see three themes in this ancient story that can help us confront modern challenges.

The first theme is the Inter-relationship between Individual and Community, which corresponds to the first principle of the Grail of Compassion:

Accepting and nurturing ourselves as we are, and accepting and nurturing those who are different from us.

To begin, Parzival’s story shows us that social isolation can happen to any individual—from a Fool to a Fisher King. And yet, as my friend Ovide Mercredi told me, it is not an individual experience.

When the individual suffers, the community suffers. As goes one, so goes the other. Ovide, who comes from the Cree community of Misipawistik in Manitoba, is also a former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

As Ovide says, for Indigenous peoples, isolation “is a collective experience.” And the only way to heal that pain is through a collective quest—one that first renews the community’s respect for itself. Because, while we all have our own wounds, we also have the potential to heal. And sometimes, the best way to restore belonging is to build it from within.

When I think of how to restore belonging in this way, I first envision the presence of respect, which begins with respect for oneself. Self-respect, which also can be expressed as self-esteem, is an essential ingredient for the individual or group in finding a way forward while honouring the timeless traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation.

From this place, we must all come to each person with a basic level of acceptance and support. It means I may not always agree with you but I will honour our differences and I will count on you to do these same things for me.

At the core of the symbiotic relationship of the individual within community, lies a sense of belonging both to the present realities, and to the timeless traditions that weave generations together.

In my role with The Samuel Family Foundation, I was privileged to support a beautiful example at Ahousaht, a Nuu chah nulth community off Vancouver Island. I joined with HRH The Prince of Wales’ School for Traditional Arts in running a series of workshops there last year.

Like Misipawistik and many other First Nations, Ahousaht has faced more than its share of struggles. A decade ago, Ahousaht was hit by a suicide epidemic, as dozens of young people who felt hopeless about the future attempted to take their own lives.

Residents describe the loss of their language and culture as contributing to their sense of isolation—a colonial legacy of forced assimilation, and Canada’s notorious residential schools. These schools took children away from their families, ostensibly for education, but in actuality these institutions existed both literally and culturally, to “beat the Indian out of the child.”

Today, Ahousaht is reclaiming its pride, in part by reclaiming its heritage, which in turn opens potential new pathways to education, employment and other aspects of building community, honouring the wisdom of the First Nations.

Through the workshops, designed by the community for the community, we celebrated local culture and crafts, such as the cedar bark weaving tradition, emphasizing geometry and four-fold symmetry, all rooted in Nature’s patterns and harmony.

Community Elders worked side by side with First Nations youth to share this ancient wisdom. And, as I watched the students, I could see their pride and confidence blooming before my eyes. Not simply because the art they created held such value and meaning for their culture—but because the experience of creating the art helped them recognize the value in themselves.

The second theme is the Duality of Existence, which corresponds to the second principle of the Grail of Compassion:

Connectedness with everyone in the community, and knowing that everyone in the community has a purpose.

Parzival’s experience teaches us that we must recognize duality in order to understand oneness. Parzival is at once a fool and a knight; a boy raised in the forest and a man who will be king. But amidst these contrasts and contradictions, he charts a middle path.

In Parzival’s case, he began his journey as nothing more than a material quest for fame and fortune. Yet, he then gained knowledge and wisdom. And finally his path transformed into a spiritual journey. Parzival could not have found the light if he had not first passed through the dark.

Here too we can think of great leaders and recognize that they all experienced failure. Through struggle and even dredging the depths of their soul, clarity emerges.

It is not hard to imagine this struggle when we think of Nelson Mandela. He survived because of his connection to a broader movement and brotherhood and was helped along the way by poetry. He told of how, during those long hours of solitude, he read the poem

‘Invictus’ by William Ernest Henley over and over again:

“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be,
For my unconquerable soul.”

Our souls are unconquerable. And if we can accept both the light and the dark, in our world and in ourselves, we can ultimately find our pathway to balance and belonging for ourselves and for others.

One of my favorite examples of this is a community called L’Arche, where people with and without intellectual and psychological disabilities live together. L’Arche was created in 1964, when Canadian philosopher and humanitarian Jean Vanier visited an institution for people with intellectual disabilities and was appalled by what he saw.

So he bought a small home in the north of France, and invited two men from the asylum to live with him. He thought that he was the one helping them—but soon realized that he too had been transformed.

As Vanier says, their life together helped him become more human. In his words:

“We tend to reduce being human to acquiring knowledge, power, and social status. We have disregarded the heart, seeing it only as a symbol of weakness, the centre of sentimentality and emotion, instead of as a powerhouse of love that can reorient us from our self-centredness, revealing to us and to others the basic beauty of humanity, empowering us to grow.”

Today, L’Arche communities exist in 35 countries on six continents. If you visit one, as I have, you will see it is a model of what community should look like in the world: inclusive, caring, human… where joy and sadness, good and bad, life and death are all around; and where some measure of suffering is necessary for transformation, yet nobody need suffer alone.

Holding the mirror to others, and helping them to see their hidden beauty, is a pathway to belonging. It is an act of recognition that not only helps others see the light, but reflects their light onto us all.

The third theme is the Power of Transformation, corresponding to the third principle of the Grail of Compassion:

Respecting that as members of a community, we have a sacred responsibility to hold everyone’s life in high regard.

Remember that Parzival’s moment of transformation does not come from finding the castle—but from finding the question that was in him all along, and whose expression had the power to change the world.

His story teaches us that loyalty and truth and most of all compassion are expressed not through sword and armor, not through skill and ambition, but instead through heart and hand.

Transformation occurs through the experience of seeing ourselves in the other, and vice versa. That is why, the first time Parzival finds the Grail Castle, when he obeys the laws of knighthood … he fails.

It is not until he becomes aware of what people are for, and the interdependent web of community which binds us together, that his wisdom begins to grow. It is not until he suffers through his years in the wasteland that he is genuinely able to move forward. And it is not until he follows the laws of his own heart and allows his compassion to rule that he finally succeeds.

When Parzival reaches out to soothe another’s pain, he not only heals the ailing Anfortas but becomes the Grail King himself. That fusion of the healer and the healed is the essence of reciprocity – the reality that we can’t touch another’s life without being touched in return.

This ancient wisdom expresses an Indigenous worldview based on the inter-relationships between all life forms, emphasizing the connection between all human activities and natural phenomena.

This transformation and understanding is powerfully experienced in Indigenous cultures and ceremonies the world over. Here in Canada, we can think of the potlatch on the west coast, the sun dance on the prairies and the vision quest of eastern Canada.

Each of these ceremonies involve individual struggle and sacrifice with the aim of finding or restoring place and harmony. Each secures the individual within the collective and honours everyone’s role and responsibility to bring a good heart and mind to all individual tasks for the greater good of the whole.

In his book, “Tsawalk”, Richard Atleo writes of Nuuchahnulth traditions and explains through complex stories of transformation, the modern laws of governance and leadership within their community. In his recent book, Wab Kinew also speaks to this when he shares his own experience of the sun dance and says,

“As the son of a hereditary Chief, I had always known I would someday rise to this rank, but I assumed that day was far in the future.  Perhaps it would arrive after I had achieved something great.  Instead, it came when I was at one of lowest ebbs of my life.  My community, my family, and my father responded by giving me a second chance.  That which was broken, they tried to make whole again.”

We have both the obligation and the rich opportunity to appreciate, to learn and to truly understand these ceremonies and the Indigenous worldview and strive to apply these lessons to current policy challenges.

V. Building Belonging through Compassion
This brings me full-circle to the Grail of Compassion as a pathway to belonging, bearing in mind that pathway isn’t of any use, unless we’re prepared to walk down it.

If we don’t create and nourish community, then we are very likely to end up with social isolation. We always have a choice.
For as Ovide Mercredi explains,

“Isolation is not just a sociological term. It’s about relationships and it has to do with political and economic power and how that power is not evenly or equally distributed in society.”

A divided community will become fractured, weakened, broken and dysfunctional. A house divided against itself. A house that cannot stand.

History is scarred with examples of this, from the ordinary to the unfathomable. Everything from schoolyard bullying to genocidal warfare.

And not only history. Just look at the headlines—from Daesh terrorists to Donald Trump.

We saw this in action a few days ago at a Trump rally when Rose Hamid, a Muslim woman, standing in quiet protest, was escorted out of the stadium to jeers and taunts from some. She said, “This demonstrates how when you start dehumanizing the other it can turn people into very hateful, ugly people,” and went on to say, “It needs to be known.”

I couldn’t agree more.

If we do not learn from the past, we cannot change the future.

Confucius once said, “Wisdom, compassion, and courage are the three universally recognized moral qualities of man.”

At a time when the voices of extremism and xenophobia are growing ever louder, let us ensure that the voices of wisdom, compassion, and courage will never be drowned out.

Even as messengers of hate and prejudice try to turn us against one another, let us ensure that the light of human connectedness can prevail.

Let us always embrace the power of seeing ourselves in the other, as in the Sanskrit aphorism Tat tvam asi, “thou art that.”

For, when we value our common humanity over our differences—when we acknowledge that there is no otherthat the other is us—we are enabled, and ennobled, to realize our own best selves.

And this is where we may begin to see connections to policy issues surrounding us in Canada today. I’d like to draw your attention to two key examples.

First, I want to highlight the critical issue of refugees and in particular, the plight of Syrians. This crisis came into clear focus when we saw the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year Syrian child who washed up dead on a Turkish beach.

How could we look at Aylan’s tiny, limp body and not imagine our own children on that beach? How could we hear the words of Aylan’s anguished father—“I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die”—and not feel our own hearts break?

Yet, what makes compassion meaningful is when emotion is connected to action, and that is what happened here.

At every level, from the national government to local agencies to individuals, the people of Canada have stepped forward in the wake of Aylan’s death to sponsor and support refugees.

And, in so doing, they have not only made the future better for others, but they have given themselves a gift too: the gift of reciprocity, of seeing that everything is mutual and that we only belong if we belong together.

I understand that many of you, the Sauvé Fellows, have decided to focus your group project on efforts to welcome and help Syrian refugees contribute to the current and future growth of Montreal. I applaud your efforts.

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told immigration staff and volunteers who had gathered at Pearson International Airport in Toronto last month to welcome the arrival of 163 Syrians:

“How you will receive these people tonight will be something they will remember for the rest of their lives, but also I know something that you will remember for the rest of your lives. And I thank you deeply for being a part of this because this matters, tonight matters, not just for Canada but for the world.”

In making the plight of Syrian refugees one of his top policy priorities, Prime Minister Trudeau is not simply being “soft-hearted.”

He understands that strong, engaged immigrant communities can and will contribute to this country’s health and welfare, now and for decades to come.

He understands that doing the smart thing means doing the right thing, too. He’s charting a course that is true to our interests and true to our values as well.

And that is the kind of principled leadership each of us should try to pursue… in our professional careers, and in our personal journeys as members of the human family.

I’m proud that, in Canada, we continue our efforts to build a nation which welcomes others. I hope you will help us redouble our efforts, as individuals and as a country, so that welcoming is sustained and that belonging is achieved.

It’s not a matter of favouring one group over another, it’s a matter of embracing all, so that every individual sees a reflection of his or her role and responsibility within community.

And this brings me to the second key issue – the recently concluded Truth and Reconciliation Commission and broader efforts required across Canada to achieve reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.  Thanks to the tireless and comprehensive efforts of the Commission, we now, all of us, enter into the era of reconciliation.

In the words of former Commissioner (and I’m proud to say my fellow Professor of Practice at McGill), Marie Wilson, “reconciliation … is about restoring respectful relations.  It is about creating conditions where peace is possible in one’s heart, in one’s home, in one’s family, in one’s community and in one’s country.” Marie also shares that it involves change and transformation. As she says “the status quo is not going to get us anywhere. If nothing changes, nothing will change.”

This call to resolutely embark on a path of reconciliation is urgent and it demands action. Action that addresses the failure of education and child welfare services for Indigenous youth, action that addresses the absolutely appalling situation of murdered and missing Indigenous women and action that brings justice, hope and opportunity to every Indigenous person from coast to coast to coast.

This work will demand the very best of all of us, requiring new conversations that must lead to new awareness and ultimately to understanding and to change. The TRC has provided key principles and 94 important recommendations on the path forward emphasizing instruments like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework for our efforts.  It calls on us to act in “mutual respect and partnership”.

It may seem like difficult and daunting work. Yet, when asked what his concluding message would be, TRC Commissioner Chief Littlechild reflected for a moment and said simply, “It’s time to lift each other up”.

Moreover, as Justice Murray Sinclair explained so beautifully, “Reconciliation turns on this concept – I want to be your friend, and I want you to be mine.  And if we are friends, I’ll have your back if you need it and you’ll have mine.”

Understanding, friendship, and compassion.  These are the key ingredients to new policy dialogue, justice and action needed now for reconciliation among all Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Canada.

So today, I leave each of you with a challenge—because every moment matters.

I challenge you to create your own Grail Quest, in whatever traditions resonate most with you. And I ask you to embrace compassion in every stage of your own journeys.

As leaders, you will face many exciting challenges and complex issues. As you develop programmes and policies, I ask you to think of this ancient wisdom and how it compels us to act.

To include the voice and interests of all affected.

To build solutions by building belonging.

To act with vision, energy, and empathy—and to understand how all of those are linked.

This is what true nation-building means—and it can only be achieved with compassion.

You can be the ones who carry that banner and inspire us all.

I would like to conclude with a prayer known as the “Grandfather Story”, written by Kesheyanakwan, an Anishnabe elder and spiritual leader. His name means “Fast Moving Cloud.”

Also known as Dr. Art Solomon, Kesheyanakwan brings us to our true home, where we dwell in harmony, with love and honour and compassion. This is my prayer too, for all of us, for all of humanity, and for Mother Earth.

Look at our brokenness.
We know that in all creation
Only the human family
Has strayed from the Sacred Way.
We know that we are the ones
Who are dividedAnd we are the ones
Who must come back together.
To walk in the Sacred Way.

Sacred one,
Teach us love, compassion, and honour
That we may heal the earth
And heal each other.

Nia:weh. Merci beaucoup. Thank you very much.