Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Living gnosis

It was at this place, the fortress of Montesegur in the Languedoc, in 1244 that an organised tradition of 'Gnosticism' came to a tragic end. It was here that the Cathar made a last stand against the crusade organised against them by the King of France and the then Pope, rather inappropriately named. 'Innocent' III.

As Richard Smoley recounts in his excellent, if a little breathless, 'Forbidden Faith: The Gnostic Legacy from the Gospels to The Da Vinci Code', this is the moment when a tradition that can be genuinely seen as the fruit of an on-going transmission of Gnostic institutionalised practice is extinguished.

This is not to say that ideas concordant or resonant with 'Gnosticism' do not continue to influence patterns of thought and practice and indeed are given institutional form but those forms are 'artifice' - imagined re-creations shaped by radically different cultural contexts. It is rather akin to modern Druids who may sincerely imagine that they are connected to traditions of Iron Age faith, and whose actual faith may be wholly commendable, but who are irretrievably modern. The original embodied faith of Druids (who themselves indeed may be a 'modern' category) are lost to us.

I have always felt that this recognition is deeply sorrowful. Ever since I first read about the Cathars, as a student, and subsequently visited the Languedoc following their trail, I have wished that history had taken a different path. It would be good to step into a Cathar 'church'.

The culture of the Languedoc, for that brief moment of time (for a century before 1244) had offered a rare witness to religious toleration, where two versions of Christianity had sat side by side, intermingled, and enjoyed a degree of mutual speculation and quiet disagreement, that is, on reflection, remarkable. Remarkable too in fertilising the tradition of 'courtly love' that has shaped our notion of romantic love and its meaning ever since.

Beyond this, in the Cathar tradition, and, as Smoley argues, in the Gnostic tradition as a whole, there was a radical emphasis on the importance of experience. Faith only took you so far, in order to truly taste the mystery that is Christ, you must allow yourself to be experienced, and transformed, by it. This was not salvation through accepted intermediation, wiping away sins, but a knowledge that transforms consciousness. This was not a mysticism as an uneasy adjunct to the Church but central to its reality. Each individual must taste and see for themselves.

Interestingly the modern thinker who comes closest to the Cathar ideal receives only the briefest mention in Smoley's book. This is Simone Weil, who wrote two compelling essays on the Cathar and the culture of the Languedoc, and who partly frames her refusal to enter the Catholic Church on the basis of the Church's failure to see the purity and intelligence of the Cathar faith and the error of persecuting it. It is an apology (sadly one of many) that the Church still owes. Ironically both for her (and for me) our conversations with the Church, deep and resonant, were conducted through the Dominicans for it was St Dominic's first mission to preach against the Cathars (though, thankfully, eschewing all violence, though his heirs were not so graced).

This 'tasting for oneself', a radical transformation of one's capacity to know, a freeing of the 'doors of perception' was central to Weil's thought (as it was to Gnosticism/Catharism). Weil described being taken hold of by Christ in a radical act of grace, not looked for, but given. A reality that freely broke into the necessity of the world and its givenness.

I cannot think of a more apt description of the central Gnostic perception that we live in a world sundered from the Spirit, that grinds itself out and along, and yet is vulnerable to being raided by transcendence, freeing us into a different place: grace meets gravity (to use Weil's terms) and grace is victorious.


  1. I share your sorrow, Nicholas. Another example of a lost faith re-emerging in modern form is Celtic Christianity. All these new forms have the possibility of being marvellous and fulfilling needs in those of us who can't quite get ourselves to church, yet one hungers to belong to something real and profound. Perhaps druidry - gnosticism - celtic Christianity were in themselves expressions of the same need, felt in the past. Or is it just that the bad guys keep winning?

    1. In St John Climacus' Ladder of Divine Ascent, a monk is asked what they do here, all day long in the monastery, 'We fall down, and stand up, fall down and stand up' (!) Maybe it is like this for culture as a whole, for a period, there is a breakthrough and we see (as in the Languedoc or in Renaissance Italy) and each time, though what is seen fades and we fall back into a half tied image of things, something is left that nudges us along, offering the next opportunity 'to stand up' (and as the monk would be the first to acknowledge at some point, one is anchored in the light and the dynamic changes. We can hope!


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