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The Cathars:  Cathar Beliefs:  Basic Tenets

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.)




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Selected Cathar Castles. Accommodation provided. Transport Provided.

Cathar Origins, History, Theology.
The Crusade, The Inquisition, and Consequences

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A modern carving of a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, which Cathars believed dwelt in every Parfait. The sculpture cleverly reflects Cathar belief in that the representation is not a material object.