A Legacy of Liberation

A Homily for Montségur Day

by Bishop Steven Marshall

Montsegur Day reminds us of what certainly comes to us as a great tragedy in human history. On March 16 in the year 1244, beneath the imposing ediface of Montsegur, the defenders of the Cathars and approximately 200 of the remaining Cathar parfait (perfecti), marched out in file where they were rounded up on a great field, fenced around and piled high with dry tinder and branches, and there burned to their deaths—effectively blotting out the outward glory of the Cathars from that time on.

Why do we commemorate such a tragic day? What connection does our contemporary and seemingly dissimilar practice of Gnosticism have to these simple exemplars of the Gnosis? One answer to the latter question is that we might conceive of Gnosticism as an ancient, underground stream, the living waters of the Holy Spirit that comes up to the surface in response to the descent of its Messengers of Light at various times and places throughout history and under various forms and guises; yet, it is still the same stream and the same message of liberation. The Cathars are one such surfacing of the Gnosis. Although subject to some debate among scholars, the Cathars seem to be a branch of the earlier Manichaean dispensation, having inherited their traditions from the Bogomil sect of Christianity, who themselves inherited the Manichaean dispensation when it came to Bulgaria. From Bulgaria the Bogomils spread the religion of the Cathars to some parts of Italy, Northern Spain and Southern France, where they were called Cathars (Pure Ones) or the Bons Hommes (the Kind or Good People). To answer the former question we do not so much commemorate the tragedy of their passing but the legacy of the Gnosis which has passed down from them through the ages in both a hidden and a revelatory fashion.

The polemics of the Church authorities described the Cathars as both earth-hating ascetics and immoral libertines. Actually they were both ascetics and libertines but not in the way that their enemies may have thought. In typical Gnostic fashion they eschewed the dogma, rules, regulations, indulgences, and penances of the mainstream Roman Catholic Church. For them a knowledge of a higher love and a practice of human kindness was what was spiritually and effectually necessary. “A new commandment I give unto you: that you love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and that you love your neighbor as yourself.” (The Gospel according to St. John)

As ascetics they had a perception and acceptance of the world that led to a transcendence of it. Their message was somewhat Carpocration in that they preached that one can transcend or rise above the world only by experiencing it and passing through it. One cannot truly renounce the world without really experiencing, at least at an intuitive level, the horror of it. One must first know the world-experience, the suffering, the horrors, the holocausts, the world’s pain that is mixed into whatever pleasure or beauty we may find in it before one can seek to rise above it. We transcend it not through repression of our instinctual appetites or regulations set over our social behavior but by a change of perception that allows one to leave behind our addictions and attachments to the world. Then one can truly enjoy earthly life, for one is no longer enslaved by it. One is then free whether in the body or out of it. The Cathars found something that allowed them to transcend the world by not being afraid to accept the world for the flawed creation that it is. A fragment from the text entitled the Gospel of the Cathars, illustrates the Cathar attitude towards the material world and their view of liberation.

“A certain woman came to the Son of God and said that her daughter was frenzied; and the Son of God placed his hand on her daughter’s head and healed her — which healing is nothing else than this; that the soul of the daughter went out of her body and that he healed the soul. For the Son of God did not free them from bodily infirmities but only from sins which are the infirmities of the soul. And this is why the Son of God was a good healer, because he drew souls to liberation.”

Their emphasis on liberation from earthly limitations grew from their insight that only freedom from these limitations could remedy the infirmities of the soul. By their acceptance of the limitations of earthly existence, the Cathars were actually far more forgiving and understanding of the weaknesses of human nature than the forever condemning and punitive reaction of the mainstream Church. Their tolerance and relunctance to moralize human behavior actually served to create less evil in their followers and those who had contact with them.

The Cathars lived a simple life without a lot of the physical comforts enjoyed by the rich and powerful, yet they preserved an elegance in that simplicity. Hairshirts or burlap rags were not their garments. They were by no means earth-hating in our contemporary frame of reference, as they were very close to nature, indeed closer to nature than those who would call them earth-hating. Like the Manichaeans and Buddhists their attitude toward the world may be better described as that of compassion. They did not find value in accumulating hoards of wealth, yet they retained what was necessary to see after their own welfare and those of others. They were one of the first religions to organize hospice work and education among the poor. St. Francis’ emphasis on poverty and his reverence of nature in his Hymn of the Creatures, as a reminder of the Light of God behind the creation, may have been inspired by Cathar teachings.

Another misconception of scholars that serves to expand the seeming gulf between the practice of the Cathars and our contemporary practice of Gnosticism is that the Cathars were anti-ritualists and anti-hierarchical. The Cathars had bishops and deacons as did the earlier Alexandrian Gnostics and the early Christian Church as a whole. They held a distinction between the initiated Knowers (Perfecti) and the uninitiated and faithful Believers (Credenti). They celebrated a communal meal in a sacramental fashion, recited the Lord’s Prayer as a sacrament and were particularly known for their practice of the sacramental rite of the Consolamentum. The descriptions of this ritual that have recently come to light describe a highly liturgical rite with a complex series of ritual responses and genuflections culminating in the blessing of the candidate with a Bible opened to the First Chapter of the Gospel of St John.

They were anti-hierarchical primarily in the political and social sphere. They combined both nobility and peasantry and treated each other from whatever social class as brother or sister. They were not anti-ritualists; they opposed the Catholic sacraments in response to the increasing materialism of the Roman Catholic Church, its practice of unconsciously performed rituals and the equally unconscious leaders within the mainstream Church. The Roman Catholic Church of their time had begun to reduce everything to the physical exteriorized form without consciousness of the spiritual intent or purpose. A line from the Gospel according to the Cathars describes the Cathar attitude towards the officials of the Catholic Church of their time. “Pharisees, seducers, you who sit at the gates of the Kingdom; you who hold back others who would enter, yet will not go in yourselves…”

The Cathar movement was only in part a response to the increasing corruption and materialism of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet to call them proto-Calvinists, as some scholars have done, would be a blasphemy to their name and legacy, for their message exactly opposed that of the Calvinists. The Cathars judged one’s closeness to God and the Spirit by one’s spiritual stature not by one’s material status as did the later Calvinists. The Cathars arose to bring back the living waters of the Gnosis, the spiritual dimension that was being forgotten by the Christian Church of their day, and to restore the consciousness (Gnosis) of what was being done in the form of the Christian religion.

Because of their popularity, the Cathars eventually became a threat to the power and authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic churches grew more and more empty as people flocked to the spiritually living movement of the bons hommes (the good people), preaching a doctrine of simplicity and a higher love. The crusade against the Cathars, however, was primarily a political rather than a religious one. King Phillippe Auguste of France wanted the rich lands and wealth of Southern France, so he joined with the Pope (Pope Innocent III) to declare a religious crusade against them. The crusade went on for many years. In every city, hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of people were maimed, dispossessed, slaughtered by the Kings’s soldiers, or burned at the stake by the officials of the Catholic Church. The most conservative estimate is that a quarter of a million people were slain. When the King’s soldiers asked the Abbot of Citeaux how they should know the Catholics from the Cathars, the Abbot replied, “Kill them all, God will know his own.

The last Cathar stronghold was at Montsegur. The remaining Perfecti (Parfait) of the Cathar movement gathered there with their supporters. Having taken religious vows against the shedding of blood, the Perfecti were unable to defend themselves against the armies of the King, but, throughout the crusade against them, thousands of people, some not even of their faith, villagers, noblemen and their knights rose to their defense. After a ten month siege 200 Cathar Perfecti and 300 defending soldiers stood off ten thousand soldiers of the King of France, but eventually the king’s soldiers found a way through the defences of the fortress, and the defenders could protect the Cathars no longer. On March 16th of the year 1244, the remaining Cathars surrendered and filed out to their captors. They were herded onto a great pyre surrounded by fencing and soldiers, yet through the flames they exited the world and entered into that liberation beyond the limitations and cruelty of this world, where no more torment could touch them. It is said that they went without a cry, not even a whimper, but left their earthly lives singing a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to the God of Kindness and Compassion who was certainly not of the world that inflicted such cruelty upon the truly “good people” of all humanity. Such was the God to whom they prayed:

“Holy Father, Thou just God of all good souls, Thou who art never deceived, who dost never lie or doubt, grant us to know what Thou knowest, to love what Thou dost love; for we are not of this world, and this world is not of us, and we fear lest we meet death in this realm of an alien god.” (The Gospel according to the Cathars)

The hymn which they sang may have resonated with this selection from the Liberation of the Light from the writings of the Holy Prophet Mani.

“I have found the Haven—the Haven is the Commandment! I have set my foot on the Path—the Path is the Knowledge of God! Ferry me to the Sun and Moon, O Ferryboat of Light that hovers over these three realms! Disperse the dark cloud that is before my eyes, that I may be able to cross rejoicing to thine honoured dwellings. I have worked to see thy Light, so I have no concern with the Darkness—therefore let no one weep for me; see the Gates of Light have opened to me…I rejoice, I rejoice for eternity of eternities! I worship Thee, O Father of the Lights, and I bless you, O Aeons of Joy, and my brothers and sisters from whom I have been far away and have found again once more! I have become a holy Bride in the peaceful Bridechambers of the Light; I have received the gifts of victory…She knows the way, the doors fly open, the heavenly ships of salvation land her on the shore, the clouds of ignorance and doubt disperse—the Soul steps out boldly, singing, in her overwhelming ecstasy. Free, free for all eternity! Free from every hindrance to a perfect union with the beloved Spouse, long dimly visioned during faithful service of ages in the dark Abyss that now lies behind!”

As far as human history is concerned the Cathars came and went very quickly, but something mysterious and timeless remains from their brief time upon the earth. They brought a treasure, a spiritual treasure that could not die. That treasure is the message of the Messenger of Light whose dispensation and descent they describe thus:

“For the Son of God was none other than one of the heavenly spirits who knowing the dreadful sorrows and penalties which one needs suffer who should desire to come among men and uplift the human race, nevertheless told the Father that he himself desired to be his son, and to fulfill all things which were written in the Father’s book, however grievous they might be.” (The Gospel according to the Cathars)

The Savior of the Cathars was a heavenly spirit who knew the trials and suffering of incarnate existence, yet nonetheless volunteered to come down and to fulfill the promise of the Father of Light. It was necessary that he come and that the light of the hidden Gnosis might rise to meet him in their time as it is further described in their gospel:

“For all those that acknowledged the mastery of Lucifer, and fell from Paradise, and come from the seven kingdoms, they rose up on a sky of glass, and for every one that rose aloft, another fell and was lost; and for this cause God came down from heaven with the twelve apostles and took a phantom shape in Holy Mary.”

Both a dispensation from above and a response of Gnosis from below is necessary for liberation. A savior with a greater dispensation than the previous messengers was necessary, because, before that dispensation, for every soul that was liberated by its own personal struggles and efforts another would fall into darkness and be lost again. Freedom once gained could be lost again. A dispensation once given could be corrupted and rendered ineffective. Through the pure dispensation which they carried, the Cathars were given the means whereby their freedom once gained might be eternal and endless. This was the promise in the Cathar rite of the Consolamentum.

There is nothing in the mainstream Bible that gives us this story of the spiritual Liberator. How did the Cathars come by it? They received it by Gnosis. They knew something. And they knew it because it came from their own experience of their own lives as spirits in the world. Just as the Heavenly Spirit who descended as the son of God, so too have we made our promises to the Father of the light and the Mother of Compassion to do our part for the upliftment and liberation of souls, not through vain shows of evangelism or crusades involving large numbers of people, but one by one, through sharing the light we have received quietly and as directed by our intuitive spirit with those who come within our individual sphere of life.

The external movement of the Cathars died out quickly, yet the spirit survived. Something survived to continue in the spirit of the liberating work that they had begun. There is an old French legend that just before the fall of Montsegur, when the crusaders were preparing to storm the bastions if those within did not surrender, under cover of night and hidden by a cloud-like mist that moved as they moved, four Cathar Perfecti climbed down from the castle on a rope and lowered themselves down the steep side of the mountain. They carried with them a mysterious treasure. Some say the Holy Grail, others a collection of sacred texts, while others a sacramental sword in a carved wooden box. The cloud hid them as they passed into the fastness of the Pyrenees mountains to safety.

What this legend signifies is that something of the Cathars escaped destruction. Something was saved. Something was liberated from the grasp of their enemies. Yet the mysterious treasure of the Cathars is a legacy of the spirit, not a physical treasure. Part of the Gnostic experience of our contemporary practice of the Christian mysteries is an intimate insight into the inner spirit and reality of the Cathars that is in many ways different from what scholars have reported in the history books. Whether it is past life memories, or simply an archetypal and spiritual connection with those who have drunk from the same well of the living waters in the past, I cannot say. But something was transmitted, a spiritual legacy.

Their spirit has continued—through the romance and poetry of the troubadors, the traditions of chivalry and courtly love—even to this day some part of their Gnosis has survived. The timeless stream of the Gnosis of Light, Life, Liberation and Love of which the Cathars were the inheritors, guardians and transmitters has not run dry. It is not bound by the limitations of human nature or of the world, its kings, or its dictators. It exists in the eternal and yet we, when we become knowers, are heirs to it even while we exist on this temporal earth. And so we keep the memory of those who remembered the way to bright shores, for whom the Ships of Light came on a spring morning so many years ago. And so may the Light above the Aeons shine upon us and lead us into the Light of Liberation, the Light beyond shadow, and may such love shine through our hearts as did shine through the hearts of the bons hommes, the truly kind, the “good people,” that one by one we might awaken the light of liberation within the hearts of others and so manifest the spiritual legacy of the Cathars in the world anew.

Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.