Thursday, November 4, 2010

Appendix: "A Catharist Prayer" and Bibliography

In my second post above I quoted from a Cathar prayer that was found by Rene Nelli, who translated it from Occitan to French, and which appears in English in Oldenbourg's Massacre at Montsegur as an Appendix. Here I want to reproduce the whole prayer and give an analysis of it.

Here is the first of the prayer's three paragraphs, with the French above it from my postcard.

This first paragraph contrasts the “just God of all good souls” with the “alien god” of this world, to which we, the good souls, do not belong, and in which we don’t want to remain at death. The emphasis of knowledge of divine things and love of divine things suggests a Gnostic orientation: if God wills it, good souls can have knowledge of the world of the Father. Whether we can have knowledge of the other world in this life or only in the next is not clear. The word for "know" here in the original Occitan (Nelli p. 39) is "coynosher" ("connaitre" in French), which means direct knowedge, knowledge by experience or acquaintance, as opposed to "sabor" ("savoir" in French), theoretical or inferential knowledge. (Occitans is the language that was spoken in Languedoc at that time--some people still speak it; it is halfway between French and Spanish.

Second paragraph: Those who claim to offer salvation, the priests of the Roman Catholic Church , are actually only keeping souls out of the Kingdom of God. Yet God can still provide salvation to those who merit it. This emphasis on merit suggests that salvation is not merely a matter of receiving Gnosis or predestination Yet the flourishing of souls is also a gift from God. God can also provide salvation, until such time as all the good souls are gathered up. Then presumably will come the end of the world, as in Gnostic apocalyptic literature. Rene Nelli, in a footnote to his edition of the prayer (p. 39), suggests that until then unsaved good souls will go from incarnation to incarnation.

The paragraph goes on to talk about how Lucifer lured spirits to this world, from the Seven Kingdoms, which probably are the seven heavens, as mentioned in the Vision of Isaiah (Nelli p. 41). These realms might also be comparable to 7 of the 10 Sefiroth of Kabbalah, which was being expounded at this time in Narbonne. Jews and Cathar sympathizers would have had contact; e. g. Raymond VI was forced to repent his hiring of Jews. In heaven, souls had no freedom; they were only allowed the good, because in heaven that’s all there is. In Lucifer’s world of matter, he promise them, both good and evil will be available, including pleasures that are unknown in heaven: spouses to be loved dearly, the hunt, and power over others. These pleasures are not, I think, meant as wrong in themselves; some of the Cathars' best friends were counts. But these pleasures are only part of the world in which the souls find themselves, and often they are enjoyed at the expense of others.

How false is the Devil being said to be? According to the translation above, he is "false to the core." The Occitans original is "am semblansa d'engan," literally "with semblance of deceit," Nelli says; I assume that means, "with the seeming that is deceit" but it could also mean, "with a seeming deceit." Nelli suggests "sous pretexte fallacieuse," "under false pretext." Nelli also suggests why it is false: because one cannot choose both good and evil. In having the power to do evil, one is already choosing evil. I find this interpretation unconvincing. I thinkthe sense is that the world in which such choice is possible is already evil, because of the way it was created by Lucifer (with disease, natural disasters etc.), because out of ignorance and weakness all will not choose only the good, and because some choices are so inexcusable as to make the person evil no matter what else he does. Most souls in fact will for one reason or another choose evil, consciously or not, some of the time, thus adding evil to a world already created evil by Lucifer.

Third paragraph: The language of Genesis is most apparent here. Knowing both good and evil, the souls here below will be like God in heaven. This wording echoes the serpent’s words to Eve in the Garden of Eden. They will taste of the tree of good and evil. Knowing both, they will appear to be on a higher level than before. But the world in which such a choice is possible as a whole is actually a hell—Lucifer has deceived us. Partly it is a hell because of people's choices, and partly because of Lucifer's style of creating, in which he gives us much evil.

Now the problem is both how to make the world less of a hell, and how to escape it and return home. Tasting of material pleasures, our souls are too heavy to rise. They fall back as though sliding down off a dome of glass. This image might mean reincarnation, rising up briefly only to enter a new body in accordance with the merit of one’s previous life, with new suffering. This interpretation however does not do justice to the word at the end "perish." In looking at the French, I see that it says, following the Occitans, "et autant s'y evelerent, autant tomberent et perirent." This could mean "as much as they raise themselves up, they fall and perish." Without the help of Jesus, even the good souls cannot raise themselves up sufficiently and instead fall back. This interpretation seems to me the best, because Jesus does in fact appear in the next sentence, as though offering a solution to the problem. A third interpretation that occurs to me: the "they" might refer to the souls who take the path of good in the sense of the Cathar consolamente, but backslide. And they do not merely fall back, but perish! Then the suggestion would that the consolamente is not to be taken lightly, because failure could mean no second chance, even in another lifetime. In practice that didn't happen; people were given a second chance, a second consolamente, if their conduct warranted it. But the danger of perishing without another chance still existed.

Finally God takes pity on his creatures and descends to earth in the womb of Mary. He is come to teach us how to return home.There is no suggestion that Jesus is a man or an angel: he is God himself. That he takes ghostly form might mean that he is material in appearance only. Actually, the Occitans says he "adombrec se" in the womb of Holy Mary. Nelli (p. 43) doesn't translate the phrase, but leaves it in Occitan with French grammar: "s 'adbombra.'" "Ombra" in modern Catalan means "shadow." I think the verb is the same as that which Mead translates as "shadow forth"--explaining that it means "riddle"--in his translation of the "Mystery of the Cross" sequence in the Acts of John ( It is also the word in the expression "through a glass darkly"--which means, literally, in an enigma. What the sentences might mean is that God descends from heaven and appears enigmatically in the womb of Mary. Another possibility is that the word means "shadowy." In that case God, as Jesus, is inthe spiritual world but also projecting his shadow, like a shadow- puppet, into Mary's womb. This does not imply that Jesus's being in this world is illusory, except in the sense that all material existence is an illusion, as the "nothing" created by Lucifer, as in the Cathars' translation (from the Greek) and interpretation of John 1:3-4: "without him [the Logos] was nothing created."

For some, "in shadow" might have meant simply "in the souls trapped in matter." Lambert (Medieval Heresy p. 28) cites a man questioned in Milan: "The Son, Gerard said, was "the soul of man beloved of God'...".

The whole prayer has a marvelously paradoxical quality. Souls are lured to this world with the deceitful promise that they can choose both good and evil. What is deceitful about that? They do indeed have the choice here that they don't have in the spiritual world. Any choice up there that is not in accord with the good removes them from the scene, in a disastrous fall into matter. Up there is only good; to choose evil one must leave there. What I think is this: A fall into matter is a fall into ignorance, so that one does not even know what the good is. Evil appears good. In one sense, Lucifer is not deceitful: we really do have a choice. But he is also deceitful, at a more basic level: the choice he offers is between good that appears evil and evil that appears good. How can one choose in that situation? One can only choose to submit to that which one recognizes as higher than oneself, and choose it again after each failure, each slide down the sky of glass. And pray that God will "give us to know what you know and love what you love."

Bibliography of works used in this presentation:

(1) Sean Martin, The Cathars (2005). This is an easy to read introduction to the subject.

(2) Malcolm Lambert, The Cathars (1998). Thoughtful but hard to follow, as he skips a lot. 80% of the pages are on-line in Google Books. Good maps.

(3) Zoe Oldenbourg, Massacre at Montsegur (1961 in English, 1959 in French). Very thorough on the events leading up to the massacre, with an excellent time line at the back, as well as the Cathar Prayer in English. She also has written a novel about a Cathar young woman, in English as Destiny of Fire.

(4) H. C. Lea, A history of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages (1888). Every page of its 3 volumes is in Google Books; volume 2 very detailed and helpful on events in Italy that are mostly ignored by other writers.

(5) Charles Wakefield et al, Heresies of the High Middle Ages (1991). Sources by, or seized by, its enemies (some pp. in Google Books, including those of Inquisitors' descriptions of Cathar beliefs and translations of Cathar rituals; the book has some alleged original theological works by Italian cathars, although how representative they are is unclear).

(6) Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou (1978), the classic sociological study of the village, based on Inquisition records.

(7) Rene Nelli, Ecrivains Anticonformistes du moyen-age occitan, vol. 2; sources in French and Occitan (Portland State University has it). Source for “Cathar prayer” in French and Occitans.

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