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Catharism : is Cathar Christianity a religion for today?
Immortality through martyrdom.
On March 16th 1244 nearly all of the last of the Cathars, over 200 people, clergy, laity and even some of the mercenaries paid to protect them who had converted to Catharism, voluntarily left their beseiged stronghold, the castle of Montsegur sitting high on its rocky outcrop in the south of France, and walked singing to the huge communal pyres that awaited them below. There they were burned to death and passed into the realms of myth and mystery.
It was the final outrage in the long history of persecution perpetrated on the Cathars by the Catholic Church of that time and, ironically and justly, it has ensured the immortality of the Cathars and their simple but profound beliefs.
The history of the Cathars, 766 years later, still fascinates and inspires what, to some people, could be a revival of an eminently practical and enlightened religion, a religion made for today.
Catharism: simple Christianity.
Thanks to various written resources much of the Cathars practice and beliefs are still known, some of that thanks to the prurient zealotry of the Inquisition, the strong 'compliance' arm of the Roman Catholic Church.
Depositions taken down, usually after the application of torture, have shed a lot of light on the simple Christian practises that the Catholics found so inexplicably threatening. Sadly, much of this practice has also been seized upon and twisted for that most powerful of persecution tools ... historical propaganda.
It is clear that the Cathars, or as they preferred to be known 'Les Bonhommes' (the good men), believed in a form of Dualism, the belief in the polar opposites of good and evil, much as many churches do today.
Where the Cathars diverted from the usual path was in the thought that their version of hell was here on earth. Heaven for them was the life 'in spirit' and the life on earth, in physical, bodily form, was the only hell there was. And it is here that the possible Eastern roots of their religion becomes apparent.
Their hell was not the everlasting pit of fire and brimstone with which the Catholics kept their masses subdued and controlled, but rather the everyday life of this world.
In this their religion had strong parallels with Buddhist beliefs with its basic tenet of reincarnation leading to a life incarnate, a life in which we are doomed to suffer unless we can transcend human desire. The core belief for both religions is that the eternal wheel of birth and rebirth goes on until one 'gets it right'.
To the Cathars, incarnate life was regarded as something to be got through by being as good as they could in the hope that not only could they return to a life in the lightness of spirit but that they could also remain in that state.
For them the earth had been created by Satan and spirit had been enslaved in flesh as a torment. It seems this was a very plausible attempt to explain why a good God would allow intense suffering into a world he had created.
As the rather intimidating and vengeful God of the Old Testament was well-known to be the Creator of the world it follows that Catharism thought of him as the Devil.
From this point it is easy to see how both this idea and the belief in reincarnation would put them on a collision course with the orthodox beliefs of the Catholic church which instigated, not just the everyday persecutions of torture and massacre, but also an all out Crusade against them.
The Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars ... ordered by a Pope.
In 1208 the inappropriately named Pope Innocent the Third, instigated the only Crusade that pitted one branch of Christianity against another. It is important that history records him as a zealous and warlike man who denounced, excommunicated, and sent armies and torturers after anyone who dared to disagree with the authority of the Mother Church and its interpretation of Christian dogma.
Deplorable as this may seem to us today it was simply the mores of a more brutal age and little seems to have been thought about God's representative on earth having every intention of wiping others human beings off the face of the earth.
The Albigensian Crusade, Albigensian being another, somewhat inaccurate, name for the Cathars, killed many thousands of men, women and children. One particularly shocking episode was at the siege of Beziers where many Catholics chose to side with the Cathars and they too were dragged from the church there.
When asked by his men how they could differentiate Catholics from Cathars, Arnaud, the Cistercian abbott/commander of the besieging forces is reported as saying ‘Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own’. It is estimated that 7000 people were murdered under those orders in that incident alone with many other atrocities occurring elsewhere in the town.
Having already outlined the main contentions: Dualism and a belief in reincarnation, it seems important to expand on the other enlightened aspects of this gentle religion. The Cathars:
- were non-violent and promoted pacifism; another parallel with Buddhism as well as a particular teaching of Jesus Christ.
- were vegetarians, except for fish. One presumes the thinking here is that if it was good enough for Jesus it was good enough for them, though their clergy was totally vegetarian.
- had only one sacrament, the Consolamentum, which symbolised a letting go of worldly things. This was administered by the laying on of hands before death for the laity, or earlier if one decided to become a Parfait, their version of a preacher and teacher.
- had women as well as men as priests, (Parfaite being the female appellation). They held to the sensible idea that Parfaits should usually come from people in their middle-age, after they had been wives and husbands and had children. This made the rule of celibacy imposed on the Parfaits easier to keep and thus a much more realistic concept.
- deplored the corruption and pomp of the Roman Church, preferring to preach and teach at meetings held in fields and woods or simple rooms with no unnecessary and showy valuables. They believed this purity of concept made them the True Christian church working within the original intentions of the Christ. To them the Catholic Church had moved well away from the basic principles of original Christianity.
- believed they were meant to heal people as instructed by Jesus, who was believed either to be either the 'True God' or his messenger.
- saw Jesus's resurrection as proof of reincarnation
- did not believe in oaths as this was seen as tying oneself to the material world. It is said that because of this the Cathars did not believe in marriage, preferring open relationships instead. As this was a particular anathema to the Roman Catholic church it is hard to say how much of this may be propaganda aimed at discrediting the Cathars in the eyes of the orthodoxy.
- believed very much in the life of the spirit and wished to return to it. This could be why, when they were close to death, they were thought to practice what was termed 'endura', which was the refusal of all food and drink after administration of the Consolamentum. This starvation hastened their death and was seen as the crime of suicide by the Catholic Church. That this was suicide may be hard to prove as many people 'in extremis' are actually incapable of eating or drinking.
- they preached, taught and wrote about their beliefs in the language of the region, the Languedoc, also known as Occitan, rather than Latin. This enlightened stance was so that the laity understood exactly what they were being told and could learn. Predictably, this was also deplored by the Catholic church, who used only Latin, presumably to impress and awe their naïve congregations.
Should Catharism be revived?
Of course, I have been unable to give more than a flavour here of this religion and its dead adherents. It is a vast subject and much has been written about it. There is also a lot of dissent about many of its aspects but certain things seem to me to be indisputable.
It was a pure, simple, practical religion that tried to closely follow the original instructions of Jesus Christ. And whoever you believe him to be, whether it is purely as a teacher and healer or as the son of God, is immaterial, as there is no doubt that he did leave us the perfect blueprint for a peaceful, tolerant and loving society.
It is only us who have stood on the plans and muddied them. It may perhaps not be possible, or even desirable, to revive such a long-lost religion but I cannot see why we should not at least try to follow in their path now that it no longer leads to the stake.