Goodness is a universal principle, either on its own terms or in contrast to what is not goodness; in other words, human beings need both the positive and the negative so that we can clearly see the universal appeal of goodness and its great truth, and strive towards living by its codes. It is and has been the supreme aspiration of most religious and spiritual traditions throughout the history of humanity.
It could be said that everything and everyone we encounter throughout our lives bears crucial messages for our spiritual progress if only we know how to notice them, interpret them and then choose to apply them. Imagine a comprehensive curriculum devised for your spiritual development throughout the whole of your life, laid out before you. It is a blueprint, and if we follow its dimensions, we have the opportunity to become a strong enlightened being who has transformed human shortcomings, learned from our mistakes, and so returned to our original innocence or goodness. It would seem that many of us have lost sight of the flawless loving nature we are endowed with for our term as human beings.
The Church of Love laid down the dimensions of such a blueprint in 1244 in medieval Europe. Its creed is a masterpiece of balance and harmony all resting on the foundation of pure goodness. The Cathars, known as Les Bons or Les Parfaits, took absolute refuge in the pure and positive light of God, a spiritual God. Their creed has great relevance to life today, an era beleaguered by social decline, war and natural calamities, and estrangement from the great truth.
To summarise that creed, the participants needed no physical church because understanding was their venue. Membership came down to simply knowing they belonged there. They had no ambition, only an unconditional wish to serve. Boundaries and nationalisms were deemed unloving; no walk of life, no race, colour, creed, religion, or class was a barrier. All teachers of all ages were revered if they had shown the truth of love. The principal practice was to live the truth of love in all of their being.
‘Those who are, know.’ This is perhaps the cornerstone of their manifesto. In other words, if they allowed themselves to simply be, they would know everything they needed to know. This was amplified by the Cathar commitment to not teaching or
instructing intellectually in order to enrich or edify, but simply allowing a return to a natural flawless state of being. There were no teachers or hierarchies in the Church of Love, as there was equality between all people. There was no discrimination between lay and clergy, member or non-member, because they believed that every life constituted the way to return to God.
In the wake of environmental deterioration in today’s world, we modern people have turned to ecology and prevention measures. But 700 years ago, the Cathars were fully aware of their responsibility to the planet Earth, seeing it as an organism of which humans were part, along the lines of the Gaia hypothesis. So, they called for a supreme transmutation, or the conscious change of the self-serving ego, into a reintegration with the whole, in other words, the universe.
Cathars recognised each other only by their good deeds, and by their eyes, which were filled with love. They loved everyone and everything in silence while living normally in their communities. There were no rewards to offer in exchange for practice or good works, except the condition of full joy in simply being and loving. They listened to everyone around them, and the planet, and never felt fear or shame. Neither did they have any secrets or mysteries. The only initiation was a true understanding of the power of love, and the recognition that if humans changed, then the world would change.
This blueprint is fundamentally over-flowing with goodness. There is no doubt at all that the Cathars took refuge in the pure positive light of God, while immersed in the human world of suffering, and worked tirelessly to extricate those ensnared by the so-called devil’s tricks and delusions.
Almost twenty years ago, I had the great privilege to live for several years in a tiny village in the remote eastern Pyrenees, on the Mediterranean side of this gigantic mountain frontier between France and Spain, in western Europe. This region is known as Languedoc-Roussillon. It was a simple life, mostly sequestered away from the media and other such worldly distractions. I was a practicing Buddhist at the time, but entirely on my own, ironically without either sangha or teacher.
It was a heavenly location, with unhindered views of untouched primeval forests and stunning peaks. The village was medieval, largely abandoned by young people who had moved to the cities to make a living, and mostly in ruins.
My long days were spent restoring and cultivating a sizeable medieval garden to try to provide all the food we needed, and making the carcass of an old farmhouse more habitable. Early mornings were spent exercising on the sandy roads once trodden by Les Bons or Les Parfaits, nowadays used as shortcuts by shepherds and their flocks, and vineyard workers.
I would go as far as to say that my personal spiritual blueprint had designated that I was transported to these mountains to tread the footsteps of the Cathars as they fled from the relentless hounding of the Church of Rome, or ‘of wolves’ as they saw it. They were pronounced heretics because of their creed and their refusal to be embraced by the Catholic Church.
I dreamed many Cathar dreams, both subtle and gross, during my time there, and came firmly to believe that my ancestors had been Cathars. To my absolute delight, this was later confirmed in the conditions of their promised revival.
The history of the Cathars remains mostly unknown. They left little trace of their existence until the time they were finally rounded up and eradicated, because their presence was mostly unnoticed as they were not a visible religious group. To grasp their definition of goodness, we must understand their legacy from the Essenes, the first generation of Christians of the Dead Sea, which viewed the world of humans as a battleground between heaven and hell. This struggle was represented in each human being. In other words, the spirits of truth and falsehood were in constant conflict inside the human heart: Good versus Evil, and good triumphed. I believe this struggle is universal and timeless.
As I reached deeply into the lives of Les Bons (the Good), each of my own days became a triumph of good over evil. The thin veil of my death, which they believed was the sole thing separating beings of flesh from the spiritual world, the visible from the invisible, threatened to blow away at any moment. I found that my life lived in this belief was light and joyful, and that indeed I had everything I needed to realize such joy inside me.
If we examine their creed above in this light, we can see that evil could be represented by the opposites of all its tenets, for instance, lack of understanding, exclusion and elitism, rivalry, ruthless ambition, nationalism, sectarianism, relying entirely on intellectual ways of thinking, etc.
Les Parfait (the Perfect), another name they were known by, lived inconspicuously amongst their communities working usually as weavers, but behind the scenes they were devoted to purifying all beings by administering the consolamentum, a kind of baptismal rite given to those who aspired to become a Perfect, or sought liberation in the face of death. They lived in a state of moral perfection and were admired for it by dignitaries of the Roman Church, such as Bernard de Clairvaux, (1090-1153) But they enraged the establishment of Rome because they denied the pillars of the Catholic Church: holy baptism, the crucifixion, procreation, confession. They regarded the human body as merely a vehicle for the spirit, irredeemable and vile, whereas the Catholics
To Les Bons, the ‘paraphernalia’ instituted by the Roman Church, accessible to all its members at a price, was deliberately cultivating evil and sin, and miring worshippers in the material world ever more deeply. As they believed in original goodness, they believed that we all had the capability of returning to that state of divinity, by transforming the negative into the positive. Christ to the Cathars, as to the Essenes, was a spiritual Christ, universal and glorious exactly because there was no vile body, no trap for evil to creep into.
According to Les Bons, we humans were manifest as flesh exactly so that we could transcend the suffering world and return to our spiritual origin. Thus, death was simply a fine veil which could easily be lifted so that the visible and the invisible would become one once more.
The village of Montaillou, in the province of Ariege in southern France, became the sole window through which we could view Catharism, by virtue of the testimonies given to and recorded by the Bishop of Palmiers, between the years 1318-1325. The whole village community, 250 inhabitants, fell under suspicion of harbouring Cathars, and so receiving the Consolamentum, and were duly interrogated, tortured and incarcerated if they confessed. I visited the remains of this village often and felt the horror of the prolonged interrogations.
Metempsychosis, the belief that at the moment of death a soul could migrate into another body or animal to go on learning spiritual lessons, was accepted in the Catholic view of the omniscience of God. For Les Bons however, it promoted forgiveness, an essential element of goodness, naturally. The following testimony given by Bernard Bélibaste, a well-known Cathar later burned at the stake, exemplifies this.
When a man steals away someone else’s possessions or commits evil, that man is none other than an evil spirit which enters into him: this spirit makes him commit sins and makes him abandon the good life for the wicked. Everything is full of souls. All the air is full of good and evil spirits. Except when a spirit has been dwelling in the body of a dead person who when he was alive was just and good, the spirit which has just escaped from a dead body is always anxious to be reincarnated. For the evil spirits in the air burn that spirit when it is among them; so they force it to enter into some body of flesh, whether of man or beast; because as long as a human spirit is at rest in a body of flesh, the evil spirits in the air cannot burn it or torment it.
Béatrice de Planissoles, a minor aristocrat who fled from the valleys of the lusty friars to the high mountains to become a Parfait, confessed:
Pierre Clergue (known as a Parfait) told me that both man and woman can freely commit any sin they like during their life. And do whatever they please in this world. Provided only that at the end they are received into the sect or into the faith of the good Christians (les Parfaits). Then they are saved and absolved of all the sins they have committed in their life…..thanks to the laying on of hands of these good Christians, as it is received on the brink of death.
And forgiveness depended on faith, as Guillaume Austatz, stated:
Those who have possessions in the present life can have only evil in the other world. Conversely, those who have evil in the present life will have only good in the future life.
According to my experience with the descendants of Cathars I met during my time in Languedoc, and as there are no extant Cathar texts, I have written an impressionistic account to try to capture ‘goodness’ as expressed in the lives of Les Bons, as follows: Fabrisse de Caramany, is a householder of the village, and August an itinerant Parfait. She is talking in secret to her favourite rock, Ram Rock.
The floor of the threshing yard was strewn with perfectly winnowed barley that day. The first harvest; its ripe creamy grains gathered in the thick flounces of mountain sunshine. Mmmmm! Do you know that dry earthy scent which comes off it?
August went on squatting, the wet-earth back of his robe perfectly at home in the enclosed courtyard full of our crop. He could not resist playing with the grains, watching them intensely as if a thousand rosaries had been broken there. And in a bright silence between us, as I brushed aside a strand of hair which had blown into my eyes, and he ran his long olive fingers over an arc pattern of grains he was making, he said, “Each grain has an original blessing,” and looked at me full, his head slightly bowed, “like you.”
He trained his shining eyes down again on the grains saying, “and me.” Behind him a pair of grey and white wagtails boldly pecked, and I shooed them away with a sharp intake of breath, which unnerved him.
“Those wagtails are real scavengers,” I said, irritated by them. You know, I was irritated by their opportunism, always ready to rush in and thieve, and at the same time, feeling my cheeks a little hotter than usual in the presence of this Parfait.
He smiled and said, “You have done the work of removing the husks for them. Look! They are pleased.” And at that moment a single hen wagtail moved towards him and pecked at the grain he offered her in the palm of his hand. He looked for many moments deep into the eyes of this twitchy silvery bird, in a kind of trance like soothsayers lapse into.
Then he said, “God is here in the flapping feathery spirit.” He continued in silence to scrutinize it, and then turned away to look at me sideways again.
‘And God is here in these full lips, and on the sweet breath of Fabrisse of Caramany.’
As mentioned, Les Bons were branded ‘heretics’ and tortured unmercifully and burned alive. The Catholics even redeployed all of their armies fighting the bloody crusades in the Holy Lands to single-mindedly stamp out the Cathars Perhaps the Church of Rome was afraid of their sincerity and courage; threatened by their confidence and quiet goodness, and their utter dedication to an invisible God. They needed nothing, no stone church, no sacraments, no exotic incense or candles imported at great expense from Rome. In the inhospitable high mountains, Les Bons could thrive and fulfill their mission with stealth; whereas the indulged friars and dissipated canons were intolerant of harsh conditions and deprivation of any kind.
Human beings have a tendency to always search for something outside themselves, beguiled by other places and envious of other people, when all the time we have all we need for complete happiness inside us. It needs only activation. It is so simple to love unconditionally, and live to the full; finding joy in the joy of others, and supporting them in their sorrow.
We have the capability of accumulating virtue with every human breath we take, and constantly repenting our mistaken deeds, views and thoughts, and those of our ancestors. The Cathars prepared for the future in a realistic way: future lives depending on the causes we are making in this very second with our thoughts, our words and our actions.
We do not need to make any personal choices if we listen carefully to the messages all around us. All we have to do is to let the fear, discrimination and power-seeking fall away like a chrysalis to free the butterfly of goodness and innocence, our true nature, our divine nature.
Finally, the Cathars made a prophecy, before their extermination, that a new era of Catharism would be staged by those born in the 1940s and 1950s, 700 years later. I was indeed born in 1950s and found myself by what seemed chance at the time in the place of their final decline. It was not by chance. Today, I consider myself a Cathar aspiring to live by their creed of goodness and love.
Life is glorious if we see each human being embodying a Church of Love, walking on the face of our foundation, the planet of Love.