Monday, 1 September 2008

THE ENIGMA OF THE CATHARS: PART FOUR

"Neither pray I for for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us... And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them, that they may be one, as even we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one..." Gospel of John

It was this vision of the Parfait as receptacle for the Holy Spirit that is thought to be the origin of the Mystery of the Holy Grail. Aside from the wild speculations of Dan Brown, Baigent and Lincoln, the theory goes that the Legend of the Holy Grail as passed down through the Troubadours and Minnesingers (eg Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach) was a coded version of the Cathar doctrine of the transfiguration of the Self by the Holy Spirit sent by God through Christ. Thus the Grail, far from being a physical object (or even Mary Magdelene!) was us - all humanity - equally able to be transformed and reconnected to our Angelic Selves. In saying 'equally', this was literally true, as the Cathars made their particular idea of Redemption available to all regardless of gender, race or class. Focussing more on the Soul than the Body, they took the notion of Reincarnation to its logical conclusion. If one could be born as a nobleman in one life and a milkmaid in another, how could anyone possibly discriminate against anyone on such grounds? In this they were, once again, in accord with New Testament teaching. As Paul says:

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Jesus Christ."

This egalitarian approach was, as can be imagined, fairly anathema to the Church and the Feudal Authorities who depended upon people knowing their place. There is a famous story about a disputation taking place between a group of Cathar Parfaits and delegates of the Church at which Esclarmonde de Foix, a Parfaite from one of the most powerful Languedoc noble families, got up to speak. Used to being allowed to preach as a Cathar, she was shocked to be shouted at by one of the Catholic delegates who insisted that, as a woman she should sit down and shut up. Catharism's appeal to those areas of society which tended to be downtrodden and rejected by the Church - women, the poor - was one of its great strengths for the population of the region. The fact that women could play an equal role to the men set it apart from the institutional misogyny of the Church. Once again, the Cathars appeared to be connecting more closely with the ideals of Christ than the Priesthood and the Pope.

Another thing which infuriated the Church was the Cathar refusal to acknowledge any of their Feast Days or Sacraments, which they denounced as blatant corruptions of Christ's teachings. They rejected the the rite of Holy Communion, or rather the notion of transubstantiaton on the grounds that, firstly, Christ was not Material and thus the Host and Wine could not possibly become flesh and blood and, secondly, that there was something obscene about Christ's body passing through the digestive system of humans. Once again the Cathars understood the words of Christ about the need to drink of his blood and eat of his flesh symbolically. Always issues of Matter became Spirit for them. In their version of the Lord's Prayer, rather than asking for Daily Bread they asked for the 'Cosubstantive Bread', or Spiritual Bread (in fact closer to the meaning of the original Aramaic). In keeping with their anti-materialism, they offered their sacraments and absolutions from Sin without demanding money and never took tithes. This was equally frustrating to the Church, whose economic survival depended upon it.

Cathar sacraments were always held in natural places - in forests, caves, fields or by rivers. The only times they held services in buildings was, as mentioned before, in the homes of Croyants. Never once did they build a Church or Chapel of any kind, believing, like Paul, that God 'dwelleth not in temples made with hands'. Again as anti-materialists building monuments to God was anathema to them. Even the famous 'Cathar Castles' were not constructed by them, rather they were chosen as defensive positions and fortified by Cathar-sympathising families such as the Comtes de Foix. Herein lies a mystery. For a movement which purportedly despised Matter and viewed the natural world as the creation of Satan, the Cathars seemed to operate in perfect harmony with it. Forests, rivers, caves and fields are strange places to chose for worship for nature-hating people. Some commentators have drawn comparison between this practise of the Cathars and their Pagan predecessors the Druids who also held services in such places. Similarly in India such locations are regarded as ideal places in which to meditate and communicate with the Deity. It is believed that the Cathar Initiates, as they underwent the process of training to become Parfaits through the Holy Spirit were prepared through a long process in the cave networks in the Pyrenees mountains near Tarascon. Key complexes such as the Lombrives are said to have housed whole communities of Cathar Parfaits and served as the final hiding place of refugees fleeing the Inquisition. Haunting caverns such as those known as the Cathedral (so-called because it is equal in size to Notre Dame in Paris) and the beautiful Bethlehem Cave where the process of 'Perfection' was completed testify to the role of these natural hollows in Cathar Initiations and Rituals. And yet Church records insist that the Cathars viewed Nature as irredeemably corrupt and of the Devil. Clearly there is a contradiction here that needs further exploration.


Cathar popularity hit its peak in the early 13th Century, when it first drew the attention of the Church. To begin with, Pope Innocent sought to combat the growing heresy peacefully and by reasonable means. Church dignitaries were sent to preach against the Parfaits and disputations were held. Whole town populations would turn out to witness these debates. It was rather like a sort of theological football match. Records show that on almost every occasion the Church would lose before a word was spoken. As soon as the Dignitaries would turn up with their lavish robes, entourage and train of carriages and retainers, the crowds would look at the Parfaits with their simple clothes, ragged shoes and look of poverty and immediately the moral victory went to the heretics. Even the Catholic icon St Bernard of Clairvaux could not make any headway with them. Indeed, he came away from his encounters with them acknowledging that they 'could not be more Christian'. The legendary St Dominic, then just starting on his religious career, spent several years preaching in the Languedoc to no avail, finally unleashing a torrent of anger at the apostate southern French and fully supporting the Crusades that were to come. Indeed he and his Order were to become the chief architects of the Inquisition. The Cathars were too popular and the Church too corrupt in the region for peaceful means to make any headway. Then in 1208 Cathar sympathisers murdered a representative of the Pope. The reaction was swift and direct. A Crusade was ordered against the Cathars and the Languedoc nobility that tolerated them. An army lead by Simon de Montfort was launched against southern France and the fate of the Cathars was sealed...

4 comments:

nm said...

Well stated, Pegasus. I highly recommend a new book just released titled The Fire and the Light: A Novel of the Cathars and the Lost Teachings of Christ by Glen Craney. It tells the story of Esclarmonde de Foix and dramatizes many of these events.

Pegasus said...

Great. Thanks, NM! I will check it out...

AgcRefutes said...

I'm sure the Pegasus will check this and faithfully post back with your review. It is a novel. To the credit of Mr. Craney (who invited the AGC to his launch party )the book cover clearly states it is a novel.

It is a beautifully written book of fiction and as the anonymous nm carefully states "it tells the story of Esclarmonde de Foix and dramatizes many of these events."

These dramatizations should not be confused with historical fact which prove this to be a work of fiction.

Again, we commend Mr. Craney for making clear his book is a novel, i.e. a work of fiction.

Brad Hoffstetter
Communications Division
Assembly of good Christians
www.cathar.net

Pegasus said...

:-)