Friday, 29 August 2008
THE ENIGMA OF THE CATHARS: PART TWO
"Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." - First Epistle of John
To understand Cathar spirituality, it is first necessary to understand the structure of the movement. Like some of the spiritualities that came before them, such as the Manicheans and the Valentinian Christians, theirs was a two-tiered faith. Cathars were made up of the ordinary Believers who made up the majority (Credentes in Latin, Croyants in French) and the elite/priesthood, known as the Perfects (Perfectae or Parfaits). Again, these too were names given them by their enemies, who distinguished between ordinary Believers (ones for whom there was still hope) and 'Perfect Heretics' (ie ones who had gone the whole hog). The Inner Mysteries of Catharism were kept by the Parfaits who adhered to the strictest form of the faith, the austerities of which the Croyants were not expected to follow. 'Perfection' was for select souls only, specifically those who had undergone a cycle of seven or nine special incarnations (depending upon which Cathar one spoke to) which lead to the state of particular spiritual purity which meant they were ready to receive the Holy Spirit, a condition which required the state of rigour and self-denial associated with the 'Pure Ones'. This self-denial involved an austere regime of fasting, strict vegetarianism and total sexual abstinence, not for reasons of self-punishment, but because it was the only way in which the body could remain pure enough to house the transfiguring Holy Spirit which made them 'like as to one of the angels':
"Know ye not that ye are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwelleth within you?"
This notion of reincarnation, that the Soul needed to undergo a sequence of lives in order to achieve 'the Kingdom of Heaven', connects the Cathars not only to the earliest Christian Gnostics but the Buddhists and Hindus of the East. In fact, perhaps closest to the ethic of the Parfaits would be the rare Jain sect of India, whose extremely pure lifestyle involves similar practises ascribed to the Cathar elite. Quite naturally, such notions of reincarnation would have been completely alien to the cosmology of the Middle Ages, however familiar it may now seem to us. One can well imagine the incredulity and bafflement of the Inquisitors faced with such doctrines:
"Denying also the Resurrection of the flesh, they invented some unheard of notions, saying, that our souls are those of angelic spirits who, being cast down from heaven by the apostacy of pride, left their glorified bodies in the air; and that these souls themselves, after successively inhabiting seven terrene bodies, of one sort or another, having at length fulfilled their penance, return to those deserted bodies."
The Cathars are often described as being Gnostics and also Dualists. While not entirely false, these terms are misleading as they would not have understood or recognised either. By Gnostics, commentators mean that they believed in a fundamental conflict between a True God which was purely spiritual and beyond Time and Space and a Demiurge, or Lesser God who governed the Material World and sought to entrap humanity within his domain. Dualism is another term for this conflict, being composed of a battle between two cosmic forces. In this instance, the True God vs the Demiurge.
This analysis is not completely wrong as we shall see, but the reality of Cathar spirituality was probably more subtle. What is certain is that they believed in the Kingdom 'not of this world' and the need to be wary of and resist the Rex Mundi, or "Prince of this world" spoken of by Christ in John's Gospel:
"My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight... but now is my kingdom not from hence."
For the Cathars, the True God of the New Testament was a God of Light and Love of pure Spirit who dwelt in the eternal Light Realms. Each human Soul was born of that Light Realm and made up of that Light. At the moment of Satan's rebellion against God, shards of this Light fell with Satan to this universe, each shard being an Angel which had been persuaded to fall from God's bosom in the process. In order to entrap these Angel Souls with him, Satan created this world of Matter, cloaking their Light in 'tunics of flesh' (ie mortal dress) so as to make them forget their rightful existence on High. In order to make this forgetfulness total, Satan offered Divine Humanity the lure of temporal power and the pleasures of lust and physical sensation. Thus the Fallen Angels, unaware of their true nature, were formed into Princes and Subjects so that they could lord over one another and were offered the temptations of riches, power and sensual delight. At the same time, Satan made sure that life was an agony for most so as to get his revenge. Thus the afflictions of this world - disease, old age, death, violence - resulted from the Devil's defective Creation. Angelic Humanity were therefore doomed to continue to incarnate time and time again into this world, eternally deceived subjects of the Rex Mundi who promised everything but delivered nothing, unmindful of the Light Realms from which they came. While this might seem very bleak, it should be remembered that by ascribing the presence of Evil and suffering in the world to the Devil, the Cathars held to no doctrine of Original Sin. The human race was not responsible for the darkness in the world thanks to the Sin of Adam. Thus there was no terrible primordial crime to expiate, no guilt we were lumbered with at birth. The Devil was the culprit and his chief weapon was Ignorance - Ignorance of our true nature as Children of God, of Angels thanks to the corrupting influence of Matter and the Flesh. Hence the use of the term Gnosis by modern commentators, for it was through Gnosis - or 'Knowledge' - of the True God that the Demiurge Satan could be defeated and a return to the Light Realms be acheived. This was where Christ came in - Christ and, through his agency, the Holy Spirit...