The Cathars: Cathar Beliefs: Basic
The Cathars were dualists. That is, they believed
in two universal principles, a good God and a bad God, much
like the Javeh and Satan of mainstream Christianity.
As dualists, they belonged to a tradition that was already
ancient in the days of Jesus. (The revered Magi in
the nativity story were Zoroastrians - Persian Dualists).
Dualism came, and still comes, in many flavours.
Even the Cathar variety came in more than one flavour, but
the principal one was this: The Good God was the god
of all immaterial things (such as light and souls).
The bad God was the god of all material things, including
the world and everything in it. He had contrived to
capture souls and imprison them in human bodies through the
process of conception. As Cathars put it, we are all
divine sparks, even angels, imprisoned in a tunic of flesh.
According to later Cathar ideas, when we die the powers of
the air throng around and persecute the newly released soul,
which flees into the first lodging of clay that it finds.
This "lodging of clay" might be human or animal.
The soul would therefore be condemned to cycle of rebirth,
trapped in another physical body. By leading a good
enough life human beings or rather their souls could win freedom
from imprisonment and return to heaven, the immaterial realm
of the good god. For members of the
Elect, death was no more than taking off a dirty tunic.
The realm of the Good God, heaven, was filled with light.
(Some Cathars regarded the stars as divine sparks,
or souls, or angels, in heaven). The realm of the bad
god was the material world in which we serve out our earthly
terms. Satan had entrapped these divine sparks and created
humankind as their prison. Thus there was a part of the Good
God trapped in all men and women, longing to rejoin its Maker.
The Bad God filled humankind with temptations to frustrate
souls from ever making that reunion. They could be tortured
by disease, famine and other travails, including man's own
inhumanity to his fellow man. Yet the Bad God had no power
over the soul - a divine spark of the Good God. His remit
was confined to material things. Any hell
that existed was here on this material earth. To confound
the Bad God it was necessary to abstain from all earthly temptations
and to strengthen the inner spirit by prayer. It was a persuasive
argument and it seemed to provide a rational explanation for
all the misfortunes of the world.
Early Christianity adopted Neoplatonist ideas and these ideas
paralelled Dualist ideas. Neoplatonism taught a doctrine of
salvation alongside Dualism. Human bodies were material objects
made of earth and dust, but our immortal souls were not, they
were sparks of the divine. The divine was charaterised as
light, opposed to the darkness. According to Plotinus, souls
were illuminated by the divine light. Matter on the other
hand was just darkness, and had no real existance. These Neoplatonist
ideas were an integral part of Early Christianity, later dropped
in mainstream Christianity when it switched from Plato's philosophy
to Aristotle's as a result of Thomas Aquinas's attempts to
reconcile Christianity with Aristotle's philosophy. The Cathars'
teachings on this, as on many other matters, reiterate those
of the early Church, and suggest that their origins date from
early Christian times. The Cathar Consolamentum,
almost certainly preserves this ancient tradition:
Moreover, you must hate this world and
its works and all things that are of this world
Many early Christian writings reflect the same early Christian
distaste and even loathing of the material world. Most of
these writings were discarded from the orthodox version of
the New Testament, but a few passages made it into cannonical
scripture. Here for example is 1 John 2:15-17
Love not the world, neither the things
that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love
of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world,
the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the
pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.
And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he
that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
The idea that flesh was inherently evil was particularly
popular in mainstream Christianity - it was formalised in
the concept of Original Sin and was enormously popular up
until the twentieth century. Today this traditional teaching
is played down, and it comes as a shock to many Christians
to hear the words like that of the Burial service from the
Book of Common Prayer, contrasting an evil material
body with a good spiritual one: ".... our Lord Jesus
Christ, who shall change our vile body that it may be like
to his glorious body."
Cathars were also Gnostics. Gnostics believed, and
still believe, that divine knowledge is granted only to
an inner elite, like the "esoteric" knowledge of the Pythagoreans.
The inner elite undertook a long period of training
before leading severely ascetic lives. These were the Elect,
or as they are now popularly known Parfaits. Cathars were
also universalists, which means that they believed in the
ultimate salvation of all human beings.
Here is an account of how they saw themselves, recorded
in 1143 or 1144 by Eberwin, Prior of the Premonstratensian
Abbey of Steinfeld writing to Bernard of Claivaux (St Bernard):
Of themselves they say: "We are the poor of Christ,
who have no fixed abode and flee from city to city like
sheep amidst wolves, are persecuted as were the apostles
and the martyrs, despite the fact that we lead a most
strict and holy life, persevering day and night in fasts
and abstinence, in prayers, and in labour from which we
seek only the necessities of life. We undergo this because
we are not of this world. But you, lovers of the world,
have peace with it because you are of the world. False
apostles, who pollute the word of Christ, who seek after
their own interest, have led you and your fathers astray
from the true path. We and our fathers, of apostolic descent,
have continued in the grace of God and shall so remain
to the end of time. To distinguish between us and you
Christ said "By their fruits you shall know them".
Our fruits consist in following the footsteps of Christ.
(Sancti Bernardi epistolae, (letter 472,
Everwini Steinfeldensis praepositi ad S. Bernardum) cited
by Walter L Wakefield & Austin P Evans Heresies
of the High Middle Ages, (Columbia, 1991) p. 129.)