Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Burning memories

Today I visited Montsegur, the mountain fastness that for over thirty years gave shelter to Cathar believers before it was confronted by the might of the French army and succumbed to siege in 1244.

Over 220 Cathar perfects, those that had participated in the rite of consolamentum, were burnt at the stake. This included over twenty who had taken the rite in the last days of the siege knowing that it would lead to certain death. In a rare act of crusading clemency, all those who acknowledged orthodox Catholic beliefs could go free, even though they had defended the Cathar 'heretics'. This was presumably because everyone now knew the game was up. Languedoc was firmly in the hands of the northern French barons, serving a consolidating French monarch.

However, it was not until the early 1300s that the last Cathar perfect was tracked down, deceitfully entrapped and inevitably killed. The mechanisms of the Inquisition were the ruthless model for all subsequent police actions of suppression - where Dominicans trod, the NKVD followed.

But if the Dominican and Franciscan inquisitors imagined that their thorough work would banish the Cathars from memory, they have been sadly disappointed. The Cathars' story has been emblazoned across the fabric of Languedoc, seeping into memory as an exemplar of a peaceful religious group persecuted for rivalling the power of an established orthodoxy. As Andrei, my companion, noted, it is a fitting site for the memory of all genocides, being (in the West), the sad first exemplar.

I was here first as a young man, just out of university; and, would that I had that body today, as I toiled up the hill to the summit, taking it too quick, and suffering!

I had come with a party on a tour of Cathar country, a party of eccentric friends. What held us together was a common spiritual search rooted in practice and experience. We were the 'spiritually alive of no fixed address', drawn to the Cathars not because we necessarily shared their 'dualist' beliefs (though I, for one, in the contemporary setting of their twentieth century champion, Simone Weil, can find much to ponder) but because they placed practice (and experienced transformation) above belief (or dogma). This transformation too was directly engaged with. There was no mediating priesthood except for the perfect's confirmation of the timing of your deepest commitment to the fullness of the faith.

Culturally too Languedoc was a road not travelled with its rough and ready tolerance, it's welcoming of different, competing beliefs, it's celebration of tolerance. It was snuffed out and we had to wait another four hundred years before anything vaguely similar (the seventeenth century Netherlands) for anything akin to it to emerge in the West.

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