Who Were the Cathars?

Who Were the Cathars?

Whenever the Templars are mentioned, the Cathars are generally not far behind. Tied together with some interesting data and facts, they tend to be the focus of intense esoteric and mystical knowledge. Taking a look at them with the facts we have may answer questions, or create deeper ones.

The Cathars were the followers of a 12th to 14th C.E. Gnostic movement in Southern France and Italy. This movement, Catharism, comes from the Greek word katharoi, or “Pure Ones.” Scholars agree that the people who practiced this religion did not call themselves by this name; in all honesty, it seems unclear what they did call themselves except “The Good Christians.” The movement first took hold in the small town of Albi, in France, and the followers were also known as the Albigensians, especially to the CatholicsThe ideas of Catharism were around for centuries before this larger movement took place, and possibly has its roots in what is called Paulicianism.

In the Paulicianism belief system, the adherents do not believe in the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and in fact believe that Jesus was “adopted” by God to be his “son” and endure the necessary trials. Paulicianism was vibrant around the 7th to 9th centuries C.E., particularly in Armenia. Cathars, like the Paulicians, primarily believed in a dualistic Christian system, wherein the were two “Gods,” one good, one evil, as well as deeper Gnostic concepts. The basic tenants of the Cathar religion seem to have come from a single priest, Bogomil, during the First Bulgarian Empire in the 10th century C.E. as a response to the rise of feudalism. In other words, the oppression and slavery of Feudalistic ideas spurred this priest and his followers toward a mindset of individual freewill and worth. Like later Cathars, Bogomilism did not believe in the ecclesiastical hierarchy nor did they believe in the need for church buildings. In a sense, Bogomils, and then Cathars, were an itinerant religion, spread by men and women of the church elite – Travelers.

Most of their beliefs were radical to a still-struggling Catholic Church, and in a time prior to Luther, Catholic ideas were the only “Christian” meal to be had. The church had struggled for over a thousand years to get itself “right,” and it did not need yet one more renegade group to get in its way. Cathars believed in reincarnation of humans and animals, and did not eat the flesh of animals for this reason. They had a vibrant tradition in their troubadours, and were traveling craftsmen of many trades. Men and women were mainly seen as equals, although it is thought that their last incarnation needed to be male in order to be “close to God.” Their Good God was the creator of all that was spiritual, ethereal and thought, while the Evil God was the creator all that was material. They did not believe in hell, it being the earth in which we currently live, but heaven was populated by angels and spirits performing the will of the Good God. By living their aesthetic life, they believed themselves to be the truest Christians, where the Catholic Church was a corruption of all of the Christian teachings.

Cathars had two levels of knowledge, for lack of a better term, to distinguish the teachers from the lay follower. Know as “Perfects,” or “Parfaits,” both men and women could be come one of the elites and were both known to travel and spread the doctrine. This seems to mimic some of the early Christian sects, who also adopted from the Cult of Mithras, Bacchus, and a few other mystery schools.

What is important to note as that for the first 500 to 700 years of its life, Christianity was nowhere near the juggernaut that it became in the 14th to 19th centuries. Out of the remains of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church rose to reinvent itself to be that empire once again, using religion instead of soldiers to find its way. There was not just one Council of Nicaea but seven over the course of 400 years.

The doctrine of the church was not set in stone – more like several tributaries that were flowing to a single great river. It took hundreds of years and thousands of theological discussions to get to where it is today – still fragmented but fairly solid. It is in the period of the Bogomils and Cathars that we see the Catholic Church coming into its own power, and asserting its right as the divine authority over layman and royalty alike all through Western Europe. It is also important to remember that this was a time before Luther – before the idea that the human could come to God in other ways and not via their connection to a priest. At this time, the spiritual afterlife of every person lay in the hands of the Catholic Church.

Clearly, the Catholic Church had money. And royalty. There was not much that was going to get in the way of it becoming the dominant force in Western Europe. In fact, many new ideas of suppression were tried on the Cathars, tools the Catholic Church would further expand as it moved through Europe imposing its will. The Catholic Church did see the Cathars as a heretical sect; yet, they debated whether they were even Christians. Either way, they could not survive.

In 1208, Pope Innocent III declared a crusade on the Albigensian region of Languedoc, which was not part of France at the time but its own kingdom. Known as the Albigensian Crusade, or later by the name of Cathar Wars, the killing of human beings was indiscriminate. Many Catholics, Jews, and Cathars died in these wars. This genocide bred the first use of the now-common phrase, “Kill them all. God will know his own.” This was the first time a crusade had been waged within the confines of conventional Western Europe, and by all accounts the Catholic Church called it a success. This was followed by what would be called the first Inquisition, whereupon torture and death were used to force conversation back to the true religion, Catholicism. The Crusade itself was ended in 1244, the date when the castle at Montsegur fell to the crusaders. The Inquisition continued well into the 14th century. The last known Cathar elite (called Perfect, as was their custom) was burned there in 1321 C.E..

Cathars did continue to exist in hiding and by all accounts, had eventually died off as a continuing sect. There are some who believe that that elements of the Cathar religion rose with Luther and Protestantism but there are no real supporting documents or links to this supposition.

Additionally, there was and is a supposition that the Cathars held a secret “treasure” which was spirited away prior to the fall of Montsegur; no evidence has been found of this treasure, although some believe it is knowledge rather than an actual treasure. There is also an idea that this treasure went to the Knights Templar, who were just being formed. Indeed, the one link between the Templars and the Cathars was Bernard of Clarvaux, later St. Bernard. Bernard is seen to have held some of the same ideas of the Cathars, even if he did see them as heretics to be eradicated. He had continued correspondence with a bishop of the Cathars and indeed visited. Bernard was also prominent in bringing the worship of the Virgin Mary to popularity, which was in keeping with Cathar beliefs.

The Cathars were and are an interesting off-shoot of the Christian religion from its earliest days, and it is a shame that not more of its own writings exists. Many have speculated if the Cathars still exist and if so, in what form. It may just be a single, dead branch of a tree that has its roots in far older and mysterious teachings. There are a few books about the Cathars; the one by Malcom Barber, who also wrote about the Templars, is interesting and factual. There is also another book about a woman who remembers her past life as a Cathar, in the 13th century C.E., titled “The Cathars and Reincarnation,” by Arthur Guirdham. It is relatively short with some descriptions of places and drawings associated with them. It is an entertaining read, and will leave it up to the reader to validate their own beliefs about the teller’s story. There is also a very thorough website, which has a lot of great references for anyone who wants to know more.

Is Freemasonry a Spiritual Practice?

Is Freemasonry a Spiritual Practice?

In keeping with the discussion surrounding soul and spirit, I wanted to complete the examination in a part 2, looking at Freemasonry as, to use the “new age” term, a spiritual practice. Freemasonry has been called many things in its lifetime: a fraternal group, an esoteric organization, a cult, a charity organization, and a religion, among other things. Whatever the masses call Freemasons or the Freemasons call themselves, their mission has been the same from the beginning: to create a better world starting with the improvement of humanity at the individual level.

“Remember always that all Masonry is work”, says Albert Pike, a prominent 19th Century Freemason. The Masonic “work,” in my view, is the internal, oblique ritualistic work by which Masons are made and educated for the exoteric work, which consists of activities for the welfare of mankind according to Masonic principles. It is in this mysterious, hidden ritualistic work where much of the speculation of what Freemasonry does and does not do begins. Indeed, sometimes Freemasons themselves may have a difficult time understanding what the “secret” things of Masonry are all about.

In at least one Masonic Order, and probably many others, it is specifically stated that Freemasons have a special charter to input esoteric knowledge into the Masonic members. By esoteric, let’s use the basic form of the word, meaning “knowledge meant only for a few.” Freemasonry, being a select organization, is “esoteric” in this way. That is, generally speaking, the percentage of the overall, human population that belongs to Freemasonry is extremely low. Esoteric, in its uncomplicated form, does not connote anything spiritual, religious, or occult. While some aspects of those forms of study may be “esoteric,” the word “esoteric” does not mean spiritual, religious, or occult.

AstralProjection3Be that as it may, many people find that Freemasonry lends itself toward “spirituality.” “Spiritual” means, quite simply, “pertaining to spirit.” This begs the question, then: what is spirit?

To be simple and clear, for this I’ll use the dictionary.com definition, which is “the principle of conscious life; the vital principle in humans, animating the body or mediating between body and soul.” Could it mean “the soul as it is separated from the body at death” or even “an angel, demon; sprite?”

Yes, absolutely; however, when speaking in relation to philosophical discussions, the first definition is the one to which most people seem to refer. It is the one that for the purposes of this exposition that we will accept and use. The “principle of conscious life” or spirit, and its existence or non-existence, has been for all of human existence the core of much conflict.

What is spirit? Why do people, cultures, and religions view it differently? Is the spirit of humanity divine? Why is this so important? What about the spirit of animals, trees, and rocks? Whence does this spirit emanate? What is its birthplace? The source of many people’s idea of “spirit” seems to be either what many would call God, or gods and goddesses, and the qualities or virtues we assign them accordingly. If we are animated by this “spirit,” and we ascribe this to “God” and say that this part of our being has “godly attributes” or it is “divine.”

However, as is defined above, the term “spirit” is not demarcated by some kind of divine or godly source. It simply is an animation or “vital principle in humans.” It is when we ascribe this spirit’s existence to a specific external entity – be it God, Allah, the Tao, Jehovah, or Zeus – that we run into human conflict. If one is right and true, all others must be wrong and false. Wars have been and continue to be fought over such questions as the origin of “spirit.” Yet, do humans fight over “spirits,” or do they fight over “souls?”

This is where the subject of spirit becomes confused and perhaps convoluted; it is when the word “soul” is interchanged with “spirit.” Wars have been fought over “souls,” not “spirits.” When we discuss soul, I feel we must continue to be very clear about the terms that we’re using, and that the meaning of the word should be as neutral as possible.

“Soul” to a Catholic is very different than a “soul” to a Wiccan, Neo-Platonist, or an Atheist. Resorting to Merriam-Webster for common ground, and looking at this from a purely English literary and linguistic sense, both “soul” and “spirit” originate from a core meaning of “breath, life.”

The major difference between the two seems to be that one is immortal (soul) and one is pure animation and life (spirit) with a specific beginning and ending event. The idea, from these definitions, is that the soul lasts forever while the spirit comes into existence at birth and expires at the death of its human host.

In the base meaning of the word “soul,” there is also the inference of “life giving” qualities. Given that both concern themselves with the essence of life and seem to inhabit the same physical space, it is easy to see that these could be confused and muddled in discussion, debate, and theology. I hear many Freemasons refer to Spirit and Soul interchangeably, but I am unclear whether or not they mean the same thing or spiritual eyesomething different. I do believe that Freemasonry helps provide us a path toward an answer.

We do not normally say we perform a “soul practice”; what we are concerning ourselves here with is the idea of a spiritual practice, as most Westerners use the term. As a verb, to practice is to do something again and again until we’re better at it.

Interestingly, the word “practice” is not a noun – it is in all cases a verb. It is an active principle; as we’ve noted above, so too is Freemasonry. A spiritual practice, using the terms we’ve outlined here, would really indicate “to regularly or constantly work at bettering the vital principle of conscious life.” The term “spiritual practice” is something which we might say develops, by repeated efforts, that vital principle animating humans, “animating the body or mediating between body and soul.”

As the soul is the vital “breath” of humans, one must ask whence it comes, in order to understand if it can be developed. Yet, if this principle is just that, a principle, can it be “trained?” Is it not already perfect how it is? There have been many philosophers, Aristotle, Plato, Plotinus, and Socrates that have all debated this very question – the immortal and thus incorruptible nature of the “soul.” Can something which is, at its core, incorruptible and pure, be “trained?”

Again, if we examine the word soul, as a vital and immortal principle emanating from a divine source, then one must assume that it is something that is pure and pristine as it is. If the Divine is infallible, is not the soul then also infallible? However, if the spirit, being that conduit between or mediator of the body and soul, is truly a breath that can expire at death, then perhaps it is this part to which we are seeking refinement. It would be the washing away of the film of emotions and desires that cloud the conduit that would be the province of a spiritual practice. This is very clearly outlined in some allegorical journeys of English Rites, particularly the higher degrees. In truth, we see it in all allegorical journeys, and stages, that the Freemason takes throughout their entire Masonic career.

Perhaps, what we call a spiritual practice is something that is not to improve or better the spirit itself but to find a way to remind our bodily world of what spirit, and soul if one believes in this, really is. Perhaps it is not to develop the spirit or even a relationship to the spirit but to be conscious and aware of it, to be cognizant of what clouds, conceals, obstructs, or harms that clear pathway of information between body and soul.

If our Divine self, as the soul, is to speak in the material world, the spirit must be clear to enable this to happen. Perhaps this is the reason that Freemasonry does not concern itself with a single religion but with Religion as a whole; if one is to know there is a soul, then there must be a reason for its existence. Perhaps this is also the reason that one must have a belief in a divinity to even be a Freemason. Why would you want to improve Stone_Masons copythe channel between body and soul if you did not believe that one of these pieces did not exist?

To develop the spirit first means to remove those things which impair the conduit and support that which assist the spirit in its duties. This practice would not concern itself with the reason for the soul’s existence – only that it would be able to communicate clearly with the other members of the human world.

This is where Freemasonry interests itself, specifically. As we progress through the degrees, different stories and symbols speak to us; based on our experience, one may find resonance more in one than in the other. They bring forth ideas and discoveries that enhance the channel between body and soul; by bringing forth triggers which illustrate our own blockages, we can identify the reasons and clear the path.

Being self-aware is the first step. As we rise in Freemasonic degrees, the perception and understanding of what bars our way becomes more subtle and refined, and practice of clearing the way becomes more layered. Freemasonry teaches its adherents, with many varied messages and depths, how to clear and keep clear the conduit; it teaches us how to act according to “the Great Law” which permeates the idea of human existence.

One reason Freemasonry builds upon itself, in my opinion, is that you must be able to remove the common, grosser obstructions in communication before you can work on the subtleties. Yet, if we slip, we need to start again. Practice. Hence, the reason Freemasons consider themselves to “always be in the first degree.”

In addition, Freemasonry seems to concern itself with all aspects of the human being, refining and finessing as we progress deeper into its teachings. That is, it concerns itself with our mental, physical, and emotional well-being and actions. One must learn the fundamentals of the physical world, via ritual and memorization, before he navigates into the emotional world: subduing passions, for example. Then, only by understanding and mastering these worlds can he hope to achieve any sense of stability and growth in the realms of the mental.

Most, if not all of us, struggle at any one of these levels and have to pick ourselves up from a setback, working at their rough courser nature again and again. Is this not practice?

Perhaps, then, all of this work we do in all these degrees is the aspect of Freemasonry which seeks to refine the spirit. If one views the degrees as a spiral of life, then one can see the practice built into each of them, culminating in a birth/death. Not only does Freemasonry teach us how to improve the spirit it also tells us why.

Freemasonry does not ascribe a specific religious or theological source to the soul or the body or the spirit – it accredits the supreme & sovereign manifestation with the lessons of the degrees –  a divine source. It assists us to understand how to let the unique symbols_masonic_collagemessage of our individual Divine sparks to be heard and enables us, through the lens of Freemasonry, to understand why it exists in the first place.

There are many ways to understand the soul; religions provide manifold reasons for its existence and purpose of being. While some religions also teach us through their ritual how to access the soul, they may or may not allow for the rich diversity of human culture and multifarious modes of understanding.

I believe, in their dogmatic and rudimentary way, they seek to remove the moral obstacles which block the spirit (conduit) from achieving its goal, which is the free flow of Divine essence from the soul to the expression within this physical, emotional, and mental realm called Earth. Where they might fall short is the lack of cultural messaging that seeks to embrace all, with different messaging tailored to the different human stories that arrive at their doorstep.

Freemasonry seems to provide support for not only a diversity of “soul origins” but also finds that middle-path, the neutral ground in order to develop that pathway that connects between the world we live in and that world in which the Divine resides. The repeated journeys of the degree system seek to teach us, in a variety of ways, what the blocks might be and how to remove them, in straightforward, non-confrontational, and non-segregated language.

Freemasonry allows us as individuals find our own path to the Voice of whatever Divinity speaks to us, and encourages us to express it as who we really are – without pretense, illusions, or corruption. The Work of Masonry is the Work on our self – repeated trials and approbations, developing, cleaning, clearing, and recognizing the path which connects the Divine Soul to our human host. In this way, to me, nothing else could be more spiritual.