The term "quest," in many contemporary religious movements, designates a personal spiritual search. The implication of the term is usually that the seeker expects to find a particular kind of assistance in, or a resolution to, his or her search for greater meaning or for a deeper spiritual life.
There are a few prominent models for the notion of a spiritual "quest." The one most frequently cited is the traditional vision quest of North American Indians. Among Native American tribes of the Plains cultural area, the typical adolescent boy's (and sometimes girl's) initiation involved going into the wilderness alone, and fasting and praying for a few days, until a specific kind of dream or (waking) vision occurred. In this vision, the seeker would ideally be visited by a figure, usually an animal but sometimes a human being or spirit, who would offer teachings and give a symbol that would serve as an amulet for assistance in the waking life. After the vision, the individual would return home and report the dream to a shaman or elder. Assuming that the quest was certified as successful, the figure who appeared in the dream would henceforth be regarded as the man's (or woman's) spiritual ally, similar to the idea of a guardian angel in Western religions. The symbol—such as a type of bird's feather or a musical instrument—would be worn or carried by the person on all significant occasions.
Other North American tribes also used the idea of a vision quest but did not necessarily require it as part of an adolescent rite of passage. The concept of receiving information about allies and important symbols in dreams or visions was quite widespread.
A second significant model for the idea of a "quest" comes from Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, which classically portrays the "quest for enlightenment" as the most important practice a person can undertake. Enlightenment (nirvāṇ a in classical Theravāda Buddhism, satori in Zen) is the ultimate goal of the religious life. The quest for enlightenment usually involves a commitment of many years, or an entire lifetime, under the guidance of a teacher who can instruct and monitor one's meditative practice and other aspects of one's daily life. In most Buddhist contexts, a person is expected to enter a monastery for this kind of intense instruction and discipline.
Several features are common to these two models:
- A "quest" is very much an individual matter, even though it may take place in a communal context (such as a monastery).
- The process involves some kind of altered state of consciousness, a vision or dream in the one case, enlightenment following on the practice of meditation in the other.
- Both are a kind of initiation into a higher spiritual status, which in the model cases are acknowledged by a larger community.
- In both these instances, the acknowledgment follows upon certification by a recognized religious authority.
The popular notion of a spiritual "quest" in contemporary Western culture borrows the first two of these: the lone individual seeking a spiritual goal, and the process involving some special insight or awareness. However, the seeker may or may not be officially certified by an authority or confirmed in any direct way by a community. The assumption is that if a person achieves satisfactory results from the quest, he or she will make the new insights central to life, and this normally will include finding a community that will accept these insights.
A third model focuses on community more directly: the "quest" for one's "roots." This direction for a quest has become popular, especially in ethnic communities, where one finds, particularly among people of Native American, African, Mexican, or Jewish descent, a search for spiritual values and practices within specific communal traditions. Traditions that are regarded as ancient are believed to be sources of deep wisdom, embodied in traditional beliefs or practices, so that in order to enrich the spiritual quality of life a person may take on a lifestyle that has not been practiced in the family for two or more generations. This kind of practice appears even in mainstream Christian traditions, where a return to the roots of Christian liturgy, for example, is regarded as a means of spiritual growth. In such examples a seeker is more likely to consider integration into an established religious community.
The notion of the spiritual quest was popularized from the 1960s through the 1980s by many religious writers, but perhaps none was more influential than the late Joseph Campbell. In his many books, notably The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he highlighted the personal spiritual quest—whether toward enlightenment or into the depths of one's ancestral past—as the primary model for modern religiosity. He emphasized the individual nature of the quest, the necessity for conquering obstacles, and the importance of receptivity to a higher awareness. Other writers of the same period illustrated the quest in different ways in their own lives, ranging from Alan Watts and Ram Dass, who appropriated Eastern traditions, to Carlos Castaneda, who represented the shamanic quest in Native American traditions. Many other writings followed, including secular versions such as the 1990s bestseller by Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way, which claimed to provide a step-by-step method of finding the true artist within oneself.
Gradually, the ideal of the quest permeated popular religious culture. So powerful did the concept become that a major publisher could use the word, all by itself, as the title of an advertising brochure for its 1999 offering of books on Jesus and early Christianity—another quest for roots. The academic referent of the word was unusual, however. For most of the millions of purchasers of spiritual books and tapes, "quest" continued to mean a highly individual search for insight that would bring both a greater happiness (or inner peace) and a greater insight or perspective on life itself.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a ThousandFaces. 1949; repr., 1972.
Dugan, Kathleen. The Vision Quest of the PlainsIndians:Its Spiritual Significance. 1985.
Foster, Steven, and Meredith Little. TheBook of the Vision Quest: Personal Transformation in theWilderness. 1992.
Torrance, Robert M. The Spiritual Quest:Transcendencein Myth, Religion, and Science. 1992.
541. Quest (See also Adventurousness, Journey, Wandering.)
- Ahab, Captain pursues Moby Dick, the great white whale, even to the point of losing his own life. [Am. Lit.: Melville Moby Dick ]
- Argo Jason’s galley, on which the Argonauts sailed in search of the Golden Fleece. [Gk. Myth.: Benét, 47]
- Dorothy young girl, lost in dream world, follows the Yellow Brick Road to find the Wizard of Oz. [Am. Lit.: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz ]
- El Dorado mythical land of gold treasures, object of Spanish expeditions. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 159]
- Golden Fleece pelt of winged ram sought by Jason and Argonauts. [Rom. Legend: Zimmerman, 113]
- grail its pursuit is central theme of some Arthurian romances. [Br. Lit.: Le Morte d’Arthur ]
- Hippolyta, girdle of secured after fight with Amazon queen; Hercules’ ninth Labor. [Gk. and Rom. Myth.: Hall, 149]
- Knights of the Round Table set out to find the Holy Grail. [Br. Lit.: Le Morte d’Arthur ]
- Pequod ship in which Captain Ahab pursued the great white whale. [Am. Lit.: Melville Moby Dick ]
- Ponce de León, Juan (c. 1460–1521) Spanish explorer; sought the fountain of youth. [Span. Hist.: NCE, 2188]
- Santiago old fisherman in search of marlin. [Am. Lit.: The Old Man and the Sea ]
- Siege Perilous a seat at King Arthur’s Round Table for the knight destined to find the Holy Grail; it was fatal to any other occupant. [Br. Lit.: Morte d’Arthur ; Benét, 929]
- Sohrab young warrior looks everywhere for the father he has never known. [Br. Poetry: Arnold “Sohrab and Rustum”]
- Telemachus relentlessly searches for father, Odysseus. [Gk. Lit.: Odyssey ]
quest / kwest/ • n. a long or arduous search for something: the quest for a reliable vaccine has intensified. ∎ (in medieval romance) an expedition made by a knight to accomplish a prescribed task. • v. [intr.] search for something: he was a real scientist, questing after truth. ∎ [tr.] poetic/lit. search for; seek out. DERIVATIVES: quest·er (also ques·tor) n.quest·ing·ly adv.
So quest vb. go in pursuit of game XIV; search, seek XVII; search for, seek out XVIII. — OF. quester (mod. quêter).