Can Catharism Survive?

(by Colum Hayward)

This article first appeared in Watkins’ Mind Body Spirit #34, Summer 2013.

Yes, the title is provocative: most of us are clear that the Cathars were all but wiped out with the fall of Montségur in 1244. In fact, there were rekindlings of the flame – no horrid pun intended – until a few decades into the fourteenth century, and then nothing. Nothing, that is, unless some secret core kept the Cathar truths alive and allowed them to rekindle in another form, and another, and another – some esoteric brotherhood, which is what some people have posited.

A hundred years ago (very roughly) and seven hundred years after the Inquisition wreaked such havoc upon a peaceful people (even more roughly) there was a great upswell in interest in the so-called Cathar or Albigensian heresy. It began with a highly romanticised account of the oppressed people and their nobility, by Napoléon Peyrat in the nineteenth century, but it really took off through the work of enthusiasts like Antonin Gadal and Déodat Roché in the years between the two World Wars. There were also writers like Maurice Magre and the controversial Otto Rahn, and I have a personal link with those times because my grandmother, the medium Grace Cooke, travelled down to the valley and hills of the Ariége in 1931 with members of the ‘Groupe des Polaires’, a Paris-based esoteric brotherhood. I’ve written about that trip in a chapter of a new book, The Cathar View (Polair Publishing, 2012).

THE CATHAR VIEW: The Mysterious Legacy of Montségur edited by Dave Patrick, published by Polair, paperback (144 pages).

An old prophecy from Cathar times was revived in the 1930s. ‘After seven hundred years, the laurel will bloom again’. It did: neo-Catharism was suddenly alive.

After that, there was the work of Arthur Guirdham, a psychiatrist from the Bath, Avon, area, who unearthed what seemed to be a group reincarnation among his patients (there’s a personal memoir of Guirdham in the same book). Since Guirdham, the number of those who remember Catharism as an ideal have been swollen by those who remember it as an incarnational experience. There are vast numbers of them: probably more people remember the flames than died in the flames. But it means, whatever, that there is in both France and Britain a great revival of attachment to an old tradition that saw itself as older still. For Cathars believed themselves to be directly in line with the Christianity of apostolic times, even with Jesus himself. It was the Church, not they, who had erred.

If he or she really believes in Cathar ideals, the neo-Cathar must know what those ideals are and live them once again. For to be a Cathar parfait, an initiated one, was in fact very demanding. You had never again to touch any sort of food which came from an animal. You renounced procreation. You would never harm another human being. You even promised always to travel with another Cathar, so that you could mutually ensure that your vows were kept. Few of today’s would-be Cathars could commit to such a programme, myself included – though my grandmother, returning from her Cathar trip in 1931, began a tradition of vegetarianism in my family that now spans five generations.

THE MEDITATION LIFESTYLE: Going Beyond The Practice by Colum Hayward, published by Polair, paperback (144 pages).

To be a present-day Cathar requires discipline – and yet there are gentler ways of starting off. Softly softly catchee monkee. In my new book, The Meditation Lifestyle (Polair Publishing, 2012), without mentioning Catharism as such, I’ve tried to set out some of them. Above all, we have to believe in the world of light, and not believe in the world of darkness. Meditation frees us to do this, and I’ve said that The Meditation Lifestyle is not a twenty-minute practice first thing in the morning, but something which can inform every breath we take. I’ve included exercises that can be performed every minute of the day, whatever else the reader may be doing. I’ve shown how the lifestyle both asks for non-violence and actually helps to generate it through the way in which it modifies our brains towards control of the fight-or-flight response. I’ve offered deeper meditations designed to bring the light of spirit right into the body, and enable us to be channels for bringing the light into the physical world.

For that is the essential Cathar task. The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not was an absolutely key saying, and the Cathar unfailingly carried St John’s gospel with him or her at all times. Cathars were dualists, which notionally means that they saw the earth as evil and the good God reigning above the world of matter. I argue in another chapter of The Cathar View that we may misunderstand Cathars if we make their dualism too absolute. If they truly went to the flames joyfully, they did so because there was a spiritual joy they not only expected, but had in some way witnessed. I think that the ‘light’ St John refers to was absolutely real for them. I believe that they knew they had to manifest this in the darkness, and that in doing so they were agents for change of the most far-reaching sort possible.

That is a very modern perspective, and yet I believe it is the key both to understanding and following the Cathars. Bringing the light into the darkness – so easily done, so universally available as a goal (and yet requiring so much concentration and attention). Catharism will indeed survive while we remember and enact this key principle: the manifestation of light in our lives. It can be done through a form of visualisation in meditation, as described in my book – or it can be done, as the Cathars were famous for doing, by ‘caring with quietness of spirit for the needs of every soul we encounter, the needs not necessarily of the body, but of the soul’ (White Eagle).


Colum Hayward

Colum Hayward is the author of the meditation lifestyle and of two chapters, one called ‘Cathar Joy’ and the other ‘A Trip to Ariége in 1931’, in the cathar view, edited by Dave Patrick (both Polair, 2012). There are 25 contributors in all. He has also written a preface for asia mysteriosa, the first English translation of Zam Bhotiva’s remarkable book which describes the special vision of the Polaires (first published Paris, 1929; English translation Polair, 2012). He teaches meditation in the London White Eagle Lodge.

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