from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Friday, 18 February 2011

The Pyrenees, the Cathars and Imago: part 2

The Cathars
I find it hard to write about, or perhaps I mean know when to stop writing about, the Cathars. For over thirty years now they've been an important and private area of study for me, with a very strong philosophical and psychological draw for me personally, and it's really hard to attempt to do them justice in a blog. I also recognise that they won't interest many people. (However, in the last three decades, I have bumped into an astonishing number of people for whom Catharism has a magnetic pull in some way.) And since they underpin Imago, I'd like to say a little about them.

I need to say first of all that I'm not an historian. I know a little about three or four specific periods in history, and shockingly little about the rest (The Man is incredulous about my inability to connect names, dates and historical/political events of note). What I'm about to say is largely from memory; having just arisen from my sickbed I have no energy for seeking out exactitudes from books right now.

What I do know is that C13th Southern France was a hotbed of political and religious turmoil. In many ways it was a very advanced culture, artistically and politically: for instance, women were recognised as legitimate landholders in their own right; and there were, of course, under Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Courts of Love – a much more radical innovation than most people are aware, as it is from this period (and courtesy of the Moors, oddly enough, given our popularised views on Islam's attitudes to the feminine) that our European cultural relationship to the concept of romantic love, and any notion of seeing women as other than servants of expediency in terms of the material acquisitions that governed marriage choices, emerged to shape and dominate our current views and expectations. The itinerant troubadours, connected with this time and its emphasis on romantic love, were probably relaying ancient spiritual wisdom about transcendence beneath the surface of their 'lays' (tales/songs/poems).

But that's another story. (My daughter posted a very funny blog on her Facebook site that included a brief analysis of our export of capitalism to the Arab world, and our import of romantic love from the Arab world: 'two of the Trojanest horses ever', she said.) (Which reminds me of my father saying, only half-jokingly, that 'those men in baggy trousers have a lot to answer for'. No doubt I shall pick all this up in another ranty blog on romantic love and projection some time!)

I am not a Christian. I also subscribe to Buddhist views on non-dualism. Yet the impact of dualistic Christian Catharism on me has been marked, and continues to resonate. I want to leave the personal on one side, though, and simply say a little about the 'facts', as far as we have them.

The Catholic church of that time was wealthy, corrupt and very threatened by 'heresy'. What we know of the Cathars, a quiet gnostic sect whose teachings are firmly in the original word of Christ but whose roots go back further, is largely from the clearly deeply biased Inquisitorial documentations. The Inquisitors were under Dominican orders to stamp out Catharism altogether; they were fervent in their creation and application of methods of torture. (Famously, at the siege of Beziers in 1209, when Simon de Montfort, the commander of the crusade, asked how one would know the Cathars from the rest of the Catholic population, a monk who was actually present at the siege recorded the answer of the Papal Legate to the Crusaders, Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux, as 'Kill them all. God will know his own.')

What we do know amounts basically to this: the Cathars, known in the region as Bonshommes and greatly respected, lived a very simple unmaterialistic life with few if any personal possessions. They did not have a religious hierarchy, believing, rather like the later Quakers, that one's relationship to God did not need mediating through a churchly elite. They did have a priestly caste, called (not by themselves) Perfecti, or Parfaits; these were individuals who had chosen to entirely dedicate their life to the spiritual. Women as well as men were Perfecti. They were vegetarian, dedicated to a life of non-violence, believed both in reincarnation  and the transmigration of souls, and felt that our purpose here is to be of service. Their raison d'etre was the evolution of love, in its truest sense. In all of this they resemble Buddhism, and some scholars have suggested common spiritual roots (not surprising).

They were, first and foremost, healers. They had a rigorous training in meditation and healing. They had no sacraments other than the Consolamentum, a very deep and ultimate form of initiation. The Perfecti were celibate, and the Cathar faith did not believe in marriage. They were known as dualists because of their belief that the world was created by two different forces: the material world by the force of the negative (described as 'evil' in some texts, but I am suspicious of a too-easy interpretation of relationship to the matter/spirit question); the spiritual by the force of 'good'. They felt, supposedly, (same caveat) that we are trapped by matter. (I have a whole book's worth of commentary on this, but will hold back!)

Needless to say, such a low-profile and simple faith was of great threat to the conspicuously consumerist hierarchically-driven power-machine that was the Catholic church of those days. The Church spared nothing to stamp out the Cathars.

The final overt triumph for the Church in Southern France was the siege of Montsegur. This story is incredibly moving. In brief, the chateau on its high bleak pinnacle held out for two years against the Inquisitorial army. Finally, though, ill, weak, starving, they were overcome by the mercenaries on Church business. The Cathars were given the option of recanting, or being burnt. Unusually, once it was clear that no one was going to recant, they were given two weeks' grace, on their request. We think this is so that they could celebrate the rite of Bema, which seems to have a connection with the spring equinox (again I have thoughts on this, but shall hold them). On 14th March 1244, the protecting garrison, Cathar sympathisers but not Cathars, and drawn from local people, were given leave to march out as free men, leaving the two hundred-odd Cathars alone to their fate. One of the most moving things is that several of the garrison opted to stay, and be received into the Cathar faith, thus ensuring their death on 16th March that year. (Another detail that I find almost unbearably moving is that, contrary to all expectations of the Gascon mercenaries who herded these people to their death, the Cathars went with no resistance into the flames.)

This conquest was seen by the Roman church to be an unqualified success; the 'dragon's head' of Catharism had been cut off. What I saw, though, in the mountains of C20th Languedoc, is that the central tenets of Catharism have not been forgotten; the movement merely went underground, as all 'heresies' or esoteric spiritualities tend to in times of persecution or ignorance.

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