Tuesday, 2 September 2008


"That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." Gospel of John

So why were the Cathars so important? Historically speaking, as the first great heresy to challenge the Church in the Middle Ages they paved the way for the vast array of heresies which followed in their wake. The Lollards in England, the Brethren of the Free Spirit in Germany, the Taborites in Bohemia and the Beguines and Beghards of Belgium, Holland, the Rhineland and northern France were all influenced and affected by the grass-roots spirituality they represented. Its a fascinating and little remarked fact that many of the areas where these heresies sprang up were Cathar centres. All had in common with the Pure Ones an emphasis on the individual as opposed to the State and the Church. All believed in the ability of the Holy Spirit to dwell within us all and many, the Beguines and Beghards in particular, appealed to traditionally disenfranchised sectors of society such as women and the poor. Even the Mystics of the Rhine such as the genius Meister Eckhardt, Henry Suso and Johannes Tauler, all of whom vigourously denied heresy and spoke against these movements from within the Church, shared with the Cathars a vision of God and Christ becoming 'born' within the human Soul. Significantly, all three ran into trouble with the Inquisition, Eckhardt in particular falling foul of their investigations. Doctrinally and politically the Cathars may have differed from these later groups, but their attempt to reestablish an Apostolic, Mystical Christianity more closely modeled on that of Christ which stood in opposition to the Church was clearly an inspiration on movements to come.

The Cathars were also the first to translate the Bible into the vernacular, a key element in all the heresies to follow. In an effort to break the monopoly on the Word possessed by the Latin-speaking Church, they translated whole parts of the New Testament into Languedoc French. In so doing they helped pave the way for figures such as Wycliffe and Tyndale in England and Luther in Germany. Ironically, it was Church suppression of the Cathars which probably lead to the ultimate decline of Rome as the primary expression of Christianity in Western Europe. Although the Church defeated the Cathars the brutality with which they did so created widespread revulsion and helped fuel the growth of heresy and reform movements across the continent. Militarily they had won but morally the Cathars were victorious. The stain of the Cathar Crusade and the Inquisition is still being worked off today.

Ultimately the stone the Cathars set rolling would lead to the Protestant movement, inspired by Luther, which eventually fought Rome to a standstill. Luther's Christianity was a far cry from Catharism. Indeed the Cathars would have probably resisted it as little better than Catholicism, but that was probably why the military and political force was able to swing behind it to defeat the Church. The pure form of Christianity the Cathars represented would never have been appealing to the ruling classes and, by its very nature, would have abjured the military might needed to defeat Crusaders and Catholic armies. At the same time, it would have been unlikely that Luther would have viewed the Cathars with much enthusiasm either.

Ironically, Catharism also effected the Church. As mentioned earlier, the Dominican Order was explicitly set up to combat the Cathars as exemplars of the Apostolic Ideal within Catholicism. It is widely thought that the Franciscan Order was allowed to be founded for similar reasons. The moral call for a return to the way of the Apostles the Cathars put out was responded to in kind. Ironically, the Spiritual Franciscans, the branch of Order who most sought to emulate the original Little Brother's way of life, also ran into trouble with the Church and were denounced as heretics.

In our own time, the Cathars have undergone an enormous upsurge of interest. In esoteric circles, their doctrines have been taken up and identified as key elements in the development of Western spirituality. An eccentric French intellectual, Napoleon Peyrat first began the Cathar revival in the 19th Century, weaving rather lurid and fantastical theories about them (Esclarmonde de Foix, mother of seven children and matriarch of the Foix family was recast as a young, beautiful Joan of Arc figure by him, for instance). In the 20th Century, preeminent esotericist Rudolf Steiner identified the Cathars as important antecedents to Theosophy and Anthroposophy. Some have linked the Cathars to the founder of the Brotherhood of the Rose Cross, identifying Christian Rosenkreutz as a Cathar survivor smuggled to a Templar refuge after the fall of Montsegur. The Cathar-Templar connection has caused a great deal of speculation, particularly given the association with the Holy Grail ascribed to these two movements. A sympathetic relationship between them is disputed but the Templars had a major presence in the Languedoc (indeed they saw it as a prime candidate for their Ordenland) and, perhaps not insignificantly, they refused to take part in the Crusades against the Cathars. Some commentators have pointed to the possibility of certain Templar families having Cathar members as indications of a link. It is thought that the Templars, who seem to have been great absorbers of other spiritualities from Sufism to Alchemy and Kabbalah, adopted certain key Cathar ideas. That both movements were dedicated to protecting the scandalous knowledge that Christ was married to Mary Magdelene and had a child by her is entirely down to the speculations of Dan Brown and Messrs Baigent, Lincoln and Leigh... In this Winged Horse's humble opinion, this is the least interesting possibility concerning the Cathar-Templar connection and reduces two visionary, mystical groups to the level of keepers of religious gossip...

Keen esotericists will have spotted within Cathar doctrine key spiritual ideas - Reincarnation, Subtle Bodies/Higher Selves (the Angelic Bodies in the air which so echo those described as being left in the Pleroma by the Christian Gnostics of Valentinus), the 'Spiritualising' of Matter (a fundamental aim of Alchemy) and a God of Light that transcends the material world - all of which have fed into modern esoteric ideas and are shared in common with Eastern spirituality. Not everything about them may be that appealing to the modern sensibility: the extreme austerity of Parfait life, the hostility (or apparent hostility) to the created world and the body, for instance. Some of what they did may even seem ridiculous: so determined not to lie were the Parfaits that they developed a tortured way of speaking in the conditional which often gave them away. But there is something about the Cathars which haunts the mind and animates the soul. The purity of their vision, their absolute spirituality, their egalitarian outlook, their refusal to back down or recant even in the face of death, their belief in the possibility of universal transformation through the Holy Spirit, all testify to a remarkable flowering of an ideal in a continent famous for brutality, violence, materialism and religious hypocrisy. Simone Weil remarked upon their famous holiness, denying the Church's right to judge them as heretics on the grounds of their clear love for Christ.

In France today, the Languedoc has so embraced its Cathar past that the region is now known as the Pays Cathar ('the Country of the Cathars'). There is an element of commercialisation here but there is also a very real pride in an episode in their history when something remarkable flourished and was stamped out. Certainly walking in the area, standing in Montsegur, travelling among the Pyrenees, crouching in the caves they hid in and exploring the towns and streets they walked, one gets the impression that the Cathars are far from being a dead spirituality. Released from the flesh by the Church in the 13th Century they are back and walking among us now...

"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 nothing 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..."

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