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The Cathars and Western Reincarnation

We are all familiar with the eastern faiths whose major pillars rest on the idea of reincarnation. From Buddhism to Sikhism, in western society, it is often assumed that only the eastern hemisphere subscribes to the idea of one’s soul living many different lifetimes. However, this could not be further from the truth. I was a world history teacher for many years, and even though I am no longer in the classroom I still have a passion for delving into our world’s past. One group we studied, mainly as a footnote of the Crusades, resonated deeply with me and in our text, they were presented as heretics due to some of their radical beliefs that went against the Church’s teachings. One of these beliefs included reincarnation. The Cathars, also known as the pure ones, were a small religious sect in the south of France and prospered during the 12 century C.E. The Cathar faith is sort of a mixed bag of influences. Ultimately, it was acquired from the Persian religion of Manichaeism but directly from another earlier religious sect from Bulgaria known as the Bogomils who blended Manichaeism with Christianity.

One of the beliefs the Cathars held dear was that men and women were equals. In fact, they believed that the Divine was both male and female in origin. This appealed to many who were disenchanted by the Church’s teachings at the time. Other beliefs included no taxes, vegetarianism with an allowance of fish to those higher up in society, the honor of performing manual labor that even the highest-ranking members of their society participated in, suicide (known as the ritual of endura) as a rational and dignified response under certain circumstances, the discouragement of procreation, the ritual of marriage was frowned up, they also rejected the symbol of the cross, and any literal interpretation of the biblical books. As fascinating as all of these beliefs are, the story of how reincarnation fits into this is quite beguiling and sure to ruffle a few feathers.

According to Joseph J. Mark, a professor at Marist College New York, it began when the devil arrived at the gates of heaven and requested entry but was denied. “Once he finally gained entry( after 1000 years), he gathered an audience of divine spirits around him and told them they were losing out by continuing to love and serve God who never gave them anything, and if they would follow him, and leave heaven, he could provide them with all kinds of pleasure such as lovely vineyards and rich fields, beautiful women and handsome men, wonderful riches, and the best wine. Many souls were seduced and for nine days and nine nights they fell through the hole in heaven the devil had created. God allowed this for those who wished to leave but other souls were falling through the hole and so God sealed it. After the souls had fallen, they found themselves in the devil's realm without any of the good things he had promised, and, remembering the joys of heaven, they repented and asked the devil if they could return. The devil replied that they could not because he had fashioned for them bodies which would bind them to earth and cause them to forget all about heaven.

The devil made the bodies easily enough but could not manage to attach the souls to them so they would think, feel, and move; vexed by this, he asked God for help. God understood that the souls who had fallen would have to work their way back to his grace and that they could do so through struggling with these bodies so he made a deal with the devil: the devil could do as he liked with the bodies, but the souls which animated them belonged to God. The devil consented, and humans were created.

Trapped in these bodies, the soul would live, die, and be reborn in another as long as that soul remained attached to the body and the pleasures which the devil had promised it back in heaven. Once the soul renounced the body and all its temptations, it would be freed to return to God and resume its former state. The whole purpose of human existence was this struggle against the devil (known as Rex Mundi, “the king of this world”) and the prison of the flesh.”

Whether or not this is your cup of tea, this resonated with many people in Europe at the time. Eventually gaining sympathy with powerful nobility such as Eleanor of Aquitaine. The Cathars were brave and stood up to the rigidity of the corrupt medieval Church, but were almost completely annihilated on the orders of Pope Innocent III during the Albigensian Crusade. It was a bloodbath and after the Cathar’s last stand was crushed, the highest-ranking priests, perfecti, were burnt alive at the stake. Despite this, the Cathar’s faith did live on, although in secret and among a small community. The Cathars now a small section, in our history books, certainly broke the mold when it came to another take on what we call Christianity today. Among the most prominent, of their so-called “radical” beliefs lie with reincarnation. Even though the origin and explanations of reincarnation vary between all faiths that subscribe to it, the idea of the soul living many lifetimes remains constant. Today, with past life regressions and past life regression therapy with the use of hypnosis gaining in popularity, you can decide for yourself whether the idea of reincarnation is in fact a true component of your soul’s story.


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