Friday, 19 November 2010

The Cathars...

The Cathars or Albigenses lived, worked and preached in the areas of France from Toulouse to Beziers and from Albi to Foix in the foothills of the Pyrenees. There were, of course, Cathars outside of these areas. There were other sects whose practices were very much alike to Cathar practices such as the groups in Cologne in Germany, and the Bogomils from what is now Bulgaria and associated regions. It has been suggested often that Catharism originated with the Bogomils and was brought to the Languedoc by Bogomil missionaries. While this is indeed a possibility there are subtle differences between the two groups which suggests perhaps another, more home-grown and indigenous dualist tradition was already there. I suggest that perhaps the Cathars had a Priscillianist root system which in its turn, like many similar so called 'heresies' could trace themselves back to the Essenes of Jerusalem among whose members most likely was counted Jesus and most of his followers. It would only take a seed, a contact or contacts from this region to France or in the case of Priscillian, Spain, for this "heresy" to take root. And not only to take root but to spread.

What we have not been able to access in the history of the spread of Christianity, early Christianity that is, is that Priscillianism was widespread in the latter part of the 4th century; there were Priscillianist followers not only in Galicia, but the whole of Northern Spain, into areas as far south as Córdoba, and then into areas such as the Languedoc and Aquitaine of "Gaul": even into the northern part of Italy!

Priscillian's message was a serious threat to the power of the newly established Roman church: it said that priests and bishops were not necessary to understand the world of God. Not surprisingly it had to be stamped out!

But what is interesting is to see Priscillian's message re-emerge, centuries after Priscillian's death, but perhaps not so long after Priscillianism was forced underground in Spain. When we put Priscillian's message and the message of the Good Men side by side, the seams are almost flawless. How could this be? Many have suggested an influence from the Baltic areas, but do we really have to look that far?

Whatever the reason for their being, by 1143, the majority of Christians in the region were Cathar. Bernard of Clairveaux campaigned in the region against their practices but had no success whatsoever. Increasingly, the Popes, not surprisingly, became alarmed.

Like the Priscillianists, the Cathars had two levels of believer: most were the ordinary people who were allowed, though not encouraged, to marry - although strictly as a bond and not a sacrament - and bring up their families. These were the credentes. They were craftsmen and women, hard working weavers, metalworkers and potters. Above them were the Perfecti. It is hard for us to image the status these men and women had. Like their counterparts amongst the Essenes, these were the Pure Ones, those who had achieved perfection and redemption in this life. These Parfaits and Parfaites had renounced the earthly realm by receiving the only sacrament valid for the Cathars: the Consolamentum. To call this a baptism would be highly misleading. The Cathars renounced baptism as being of the material world. The Consolamentum meant baptism with the spirit and through it the supplicant received the Holy Paraclete, the gift of the Holy Spirit in exactly the same way that Christ had received it at the time of his baptism. For the Cathars the water was not only unnecessary but tainted. This was more a symbolic baptism of fire after which the Parfait became a comforter and a preacher of the only true way to the resurrection they had received, in this life. This is in many ways the core of the Gnostic beliefs and there is little doubt that both Cathars and Priscillianists were Gnostics especially when this realisation of the truth is linked to their dualism. Both groups rejected the Trinity, both made the extraordinary claim that redemption flowed from the understanding of the true nature of man's being, as pure spirit trapped in matter through either curiosity, or the machinations of a devilish trickster who wanted us to believe that faith in Jesus` death on the cross was all we needed to know for our salvation after death.

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