Thursday, 28 August 2008
THE ENIGMA OF THE CATHARS: PART ONE
"...you must realize that when you are before the Church of God you are before the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, as the Scriptures teach. For Christ said in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew: 'Wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name there I am in the midst of them' " - Parfait Ceremony
"God is light and in him is no darkness at all." - First Epistle of John
The Cathars were the first, the largest and the most important of the great Medieval Heresies to challenge the Church. They were also the first to be put down with the utmost brutality; Rome launching a series of Crusades against them, each one progressively more savage, even by the standards of the Middle Ages. By the time the Inquisition had been set up to find and root them out, the fate of the Cathars was written on the wall. By the 14th Century all had been burnt, forced to convert or put to the sword, but not before they had turned the wheel of Western Spirituality in a profound way, the after effects of which are still being felt now.
So who were this mysterious sect? And why were they such an enormous threat to the Catholic Church? Pacifists, they had no army or military might to speak of. If they had weapons of any kind they were words and actions. Cathar denunciations of the corruption of Rome were such that they attracted the ire of the authorities quite quickly. Were it not for the fact that they were also enormously popular in some regions, particularly in the Languedoc region of what is now southern France (in those days it was a nation of its own), these denunciations might have gone unnoticed. But the problem for the Cathars was that they were too successful, which meant they were bound to get into trouble. In whole areas of the Languedoc Cathar followers constituted the primary expression of Christianity in the area. And when the Pope eventually did launch his Crusade against them, it was the ordinary people and nobility that came out to defend them. Heretics they may be, but they were also countryfolk and counted members of some of the most important aristocratic families of Toulouse, Foix and the Tranceval as part of their community.
The Cathars have been a personal obsession for me for about two years, when I spent a fortnight in the mountains, hills and towns where they lived, flourished, flared briefly and then died at the hands of the Church. Since then, every few months they crash back into my life, revealing another layer of information and meaning to what they were. Sometimes a book will grab my attention in a second-hand bookshop somewhere, or a chance conversation with a friend will reveal a similar passion for them. Each time some new mystery is revealed or another unravelled. Seven hundred years after they were extinguished the Cathars are very much back in the modern Consciousness. As Medieval Christian Gnostics, different esoteric and New Age movements from Rudolf Steiner and the Lectorium Rosicrucianum to the Kryon Organisation have become interested in them. In popular fiction, Dan Brown and Kate Mosse have both co-opted them into their Grail-orientated literary puzzle novels. As a ready-made tragic story of a pure spirituality being crushed under the jackboot of the Church, they have become icons of integrity and purity in a world which would destroy such things. This is not all that surprising, for even in their day commentators were horrified at the sheer brutality with which these holy men and women were hunted down like wolves and killed.
'Cathar' has been interpreted as meaning 'Pure One' after the Greek Katharoi, a word linked to Katharsis, or 'Purification'. It was not a name the Cathars used for themselves but one given them by their persecutors. Of the other term given them: 'Albigensians', Cathar has, nevertheless, stuck. Somehow the sound of the word as well as its connotations with Purity perfectly typifies who and what they were. Ironically, its believed that its actual origin is from the so-called 'Kiss of the Cat (Chat)', an obscene ritual the Cathars were accused of indulging in involving kissing the anus of the Devil in the form of a cat. Happily, this piece of grotesquerie has been forgotten in favour of the meaning of 'the Pure Ones'. The Cathars themselves referred to themselves as 'Good Christians', 'Good Men and Women' and sometimes 'Friends of God'. Although they are recorded as circulating as early as the 11th Century, it was in the 13th that their numbers suddenly rocketed, posing such a serious threat to the Church. No-one knows how this sudden upsurge in support happened, but pretty soon major Cathar movements were erupting in eastern Spain across Aragon and Catalonia, northern France, Rhineland Germany (interestingly, centres of later heresies such as the Beguines, Beghards and Brethren of the Free Spirits) and northern Italy. In the East, there was a sister Church which sprang up in what is now Bosnia known as the Bogomils (also 'Friends of God'). This parallel movement which shared common ideas with the Cathars and had important links ran with into similar problems with the Byzantine Church. But where the Cathars were destroyed, the Bogomils held out and eventually came to terms with Constantinople. The Cathars were wiped out by Rome, but in areas of Bosnia Bogomilism became the established Church, on occasions participating with the Byzantines on ambassadorial missions.
So what did the Cathars believe and why did they get into trouble with the Church? The difficulty with answering this is that we simply don't know, or we cannot know for sure, the reason being that the majority of records we have are those kept by the Inquisition, an organisation not famed for its impartiality and desire to deal fairly with your average heretic. Where the information given by Cathar followers was not given under torture it was hardly likely to be written down in a way which was designed to treat sympathetically non-Catholic spirituality. As much of Cathar doctrine was highly esoteric in nature and therefore incomprehensible to the average Priest (they believed, for instance, in 'Glorified Angel Bodies' and cycles of Reincarnation, of which more later) it was often recorded in as ridiculous and derisory a way as possible, liberally peppered with slander, often sexual in nature, and livid denunciations. Add that to the fact that, until the latter part of the 19th an early 20th Century predominantly Catholic France frowned on any exploration of Cathar history and that even today they remain massively controversial, sifting fact from fiction is extremely difficult. Fortunately, modern scholarship has unearthed a lot in the last century or so, particularly in the post-War period, and, with our present familiarity with other forms of Gnosticism and ideas thought only to be the preserve of the East (such as reincarnation), everything is becoming that little bit clearer... In all the haze of speculation, slander, romanticisation and sheer invention, though, one thing is often forgotten: the Cathars were Christians. Christians of a different stamp to any form of Christianity we may be familiar with now, but Christians nonetheless, inspired by the Gospels (especially John's) and the New Testament and believing in a God which was a God of Light and a God of Love...
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.."
But it was what this inspiration was and how they interpreted it which makes the Cathars so interesting...