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The Cathars

Memorial Stone on The Field of the Burnt Ones, Montségur

What makes the Cathar faith
so appealing and enduring?

Hardly the wonders of the church architecture it left behind for there isn’t any. Cathars believed that God’s temple was the heart not any stone building however magnificent. Nor does it lie in the glamorous richness of the costumes they wore for, to the Cathars, the essence of Christ's message was humility and total indifference to material possessions. Of course such simplistic teachings were bound to lead to their undoing, just as they had led to Jesus Christ's crucifixion, for they implied a complete disregard of the whole power structure of the Church. For if God could be approached directly through one's own heart, what need was there of priests or rabbis, or of fine cathedrals, or for that matter the whole hierarchy of the Church - any Church? For the Catholic priesthood, these were vicious teachings indeed, holding within them the threat of redundancy or at the very least a reduction in the power they held over the hearts and minds of the people. Thus they were quick to brand them heresy.

In the struggle against paganism, the Church had successfully separated man from his old familiar gods. Now there was only one God and he reigned in a far off heavenly kingdom surrounded by choirs of angels with an abyss of hellfire in between. The Church was the only bridge over this fiery chasm. Blind devotion to its creed might ensure access to this heavenly pathway. It was the key to the Kingdom and only the Church of Rome held the key.

All this would have been acceptable to far more people had not the priests themselves been so flagrantly corrupt. In the 12C., so many of them were living in licentious luxury that they were openly mocked by the laity and protest movements against such open abuse were inevitable. Even Pope Innocent III could see that the behaviour of his priests was endangering the power of his Church. He railed against it but was unable to control it. Of the Archbishop of Narbonne he wrote:

“…He knows no other God but money and has a purse where his heart should be. His monks and canons take mistresses and live by usury… Throughout the region the prelates are the laughing stock of the laity”.

The Spirit of Crusade
This chart illustrates the crusade against the Cathars which set the South of France ablaze in the thirteenth century.

The Cathar faith came into this fetid atmosphere like a breath of fresh air. Its advocates were called ‘parfaits’ and were known collectively as ‘les Bons Hommes’ or ‘the Good Men’. Rich and poor alike were eager to offer them hospitality just to listen to their teachings and many lords and ladies openly became followers of the Cathar way. Its chief appeal lay in its doctrine of a personal relationship with God. They held that everything material and physical was the work of the Devil, but deep inside our fleshly prison,was trapped an angelic spirit, a fragment of God Himself, and this angelic spirit was forever yearning to rejoin its Maker. Regular prayer would strengthen it and nourish it, preparing it for the day when death would release it and enable it to rejoin its Maker once again.

Cathar Eclipse

Click here to see a sample chapter from Cathar Eclipse - the companion volume to the Spirit of Crusade chart.

For all its shortcomings Catharism was a beautiful approach to Christianity. The world, particularly the Western world, is immeasurably poorer for its suppression. It is fair to say that the Roman Catholic Church committed a wicked crime against society as well as humanity, when it burnt all the Cathars and deprived us of their gentle faith. The world would have been a better place had Catharism been allowed to develop in its own way. But this was not to be. The Church would countenance no competition and it wiped out its rival in a fervour of feverish intolerance. Only the memory of Catharism and the stark strongholds of its sympathisers have remained. That is until recently, when a growing understanding of its teachings has led to signs of revival on a global basis.

In some ways the Cathars were well ahead of their time. For instance, they were pacifists totally dedicated to non-violence. When nobles and garrisons took their part they frequently defended them out of pure devotion. Sometimes the defenders even preferred to die with their Cathar brethren rather than deny them by accepting their proffered freedom. Cathars too were rigid vegetarians. On occasion their Inquisitors would give them chickens to kill and some went to the stake rather than kill the bird and compromise their beliefs. They also respected, even reverenced women, many of whom achieved high places in the Cathar organisation. But, above all else they were tolerant of other creeds and this was probably our greatest loss of all. There was no tolerance at all in the Church of the day. In fact the western world is still paying in blood for the merciless intolerance shown by its Crusader assassins during that time.

Although we may not be prepared to accept some Cathar ideas, the basic tenet of their belief …that there is an angelic spirit deep in all men and women forever seeking union with its Maker… is surely fundamental to all religions. We should be deeply grateful to them for this insight.

More than two hundred Cathars were burnt to death on the grassy slope beneath the walls of Montsegur, but their ideals did not perish in the bucher's flames. Like small flowers springing up between the flagstones of a cathedral precinct, they live on, inspiring all those who look for God, not in stone buildings or in formal groups, but along paths of their own choosing and in the quiet places of their own hearts.

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