Thoughts Caused by Reading Zoé Oldenbourg’s
Destiny of Fire
One thing I did during my last visit to Paris that brought me great pleasure was buy a copy of Destiny of Fire, by Zoé Oldenbourg, (Carroll & Graf, New York, 1999 [English translation of Les Brules, Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1960]) This is not my first book by Zoé Oldenbourg, so I knew I would love it and be touched by it. I have great respect for her non-fiction works on the subject of the Cathars and the "successful" crusade against them. I was sorry to hear that she is no longer with us, she died in 2002. (Wikipedia has a nice account of her life and works).
On page 359 of Destiny of Fire there is a touching scene between a mother, Arsen, and a daughter, Gentian. The daughter is saying her final farewell to her mother, who is staying at the fortress on top of the rock at Montségur knowing it will be taken quite soon. When it is taken, she will die in flames for her faith. A point of historical fact is that about 200 Cathars walked into the fire set for them at the bottom of the trail off the rock of Montségur, a few days after the fortress was overpowered, which was about a year from when this fictional but credible scene took place.
Her mother is telling her that as she is executed, she will come to and communicate with her daughter, just as her husband had communicated with her as he was executed:
. . . “On the day of my death I will call out to you, and you will hear me.
“I cannot tell what I shall say to you when that day comes. But I know what your father told me when he was in the executioner’s hands: that there is no hatred, only love, unreasoning love, love without a beginning or an end. Love is never destroyed, never dies, never exists in vain. If I have lived so long it is to be better able to tell you that. We shall never be defeated, either on earth or in Heaven, if we have loved to the very end.”
“Pray God, “Gentian said, kneeling, “that He grant us the grace to love in this fashion.”
She embraced Arsen and her blind companion, and then went up to the castle. It seemed to her that her mother would never die, or else that she was dead already: it seemed the same thing. She was living timelessly, world without end, with her restless, quivering, immutable, stubborn love; love unwavering, like fire and water; love too patient, too enduring. No one could do anything against her. Then why, Gentian wondered, does my heart ache so at the thought of her old and withering flesh being delivered to the flames? So much, indeed, that I would give my life to prevent it. What is this power of the flesh?
[NOTE: all missionaries for the faith, as Arsen was, traveled two by two through their assigned fields of labor, as in the New Testament, and as practiced by the followers of Francis of Asissi; Arsen’s companion happened to have gone blind during their ministry together.]
There were similar ideas and sentiments scattered throughout this masterfully told, cruel, heartbreaking, but historically plausible fictional story. But in this particular instance several of my pet themes came together: love, time, and this physical reality in which we experience both love and time.
What struck me first was that the revelation of love is here placed into the hearts and mouths of ‘heretics’ undergoing severe and deadly persecution, one that –in lesser beings– would provoke anger, not love. Since Cathars were in a particular state of thrall to the Gospel of John, their focus on love is understandable. Oldenbourg in her preface says that there are no extant writings or sermons by Cathars, any writings found were systematically destroyed as part of the effort to wipe them off the face of the earth, so she had to make all this up. But if there is anyone who really understood the Cathars, it was Oldenbourg. She made this time and place in history her life’s work. So her impressions of Cathar belief and behavior are credible.
[AN ASIDE: I was quite pleased that she in several places related the troubadours, traveling minstrels who sang of love, human and divine, to the Cathars, I have made the same connection myself as have others also. I was doubly pleased that Oldenbourg confronted the homosexuality charges the Catholics hurtled against them as absurd and false. There were, no doubt, homosexuals among their numbers, that isn’t the point. The point is that the Catholic rumor machine said the were called ‘buggers’ because their holy men were so afraid of having sex with a woman, which would be doing what they thought the devil was tempting them to do to procreate and trap more souls into bodies, that men turned to each other for sexual release. In fact they were called Bogomils, not buggers except with malice, because the roots of their heresy were somewhere in that Eastern European sect.]
What is astonishing to me is that at the very same time that those facing imminent death were receiving revelations of love (according to Oldenbourg’s well-researched imagination, to be sure), Catholic mystics were saying the very same things. Both were in thrall to the saying in the Gospel of John (the Cathar’s favorite) that “God is love.” This same teaching, for that matter, just a few generations previous to this, was the foundation for the teachings of Rumi and his co-mystics in Islam’s celebrated and profound Sufi tradition.
What we have here, in my opinion, is yet another insight from another human being (Zoé Oldenbourg, in this instance) that supports what I am beginning to think of as the set of beliefs that I will keep for the foreseeable future (which may well be the rest of my life given my age):
• All religion is man made (I would say human-made, but for most current religions they were made by the male of the species).
• That does not mean they have no basis or value.
• All religions, at their very deepest level, reflect a core spiritual reality that lies within every human being.
• That core is an awareness of God, Love, and is built into the very fiber of who we are (Jung’s god-archetype comes to mind, he said it was incontrovertibly there, but refused to speculate on its origin or nature).
• All religions build edifices on top of that core spiritual reality: doctrines, scriptures, hierarchies of authority, rituals, and rules.
• Many religions, in order to have power over their adherents, claim exclusive knowledge, and promise eternal rewards that only they can deliver.
• Religious discord, and even wars, are an outcome of this claim to special knowledge and exclusivity: if mine is the true religion founded by the true God, then yours is a falsehood from a false God that denies people salvation through wrong belief and actions, and does not deserve to exist.
In my mind, Oldenbourg gave Gentian’s husband Bérenger his own revelation at his very end telling him exactly this. Here is a man who fought bravely and brutally and with his own hands dispatched well over a hundred anti-Cathar crusaders to their untimely death. He is just about to meet his own death by fire. As he is being manhandled and tied up on the pyre, with his wife being prepared to soon be similarly tied up beside him, his thought turns to the executioner who is treating him roughly, and he thinks (pp. 375-376):
A man is a beautiful creature—a living man, a man who will see tomorrow’s sun rise; he himself cannot tell how beautiful he is. A man, whatever kind of man he is— And to think I made a profession of killing men!
Of course by the time he came to see this inherent beauty in each of us, no matter who we are or how we look, it was too late, he had killed and now was being killed. Just before actually expiring, his soul turns to love (pp. 377-378):
Mercy, Lord, on all the burned ones of this world. Mercy on all who have loved beyond this world. On all who have loved. On all who had some true thing to love.
He is not quite at the same place as his mother-in-law, she saw, through her decades of suffering that all is love, love is all that is, love is all that endures. But Bérenger is getting very close when he sees that there is a cause for mercy for anyone who has ever loved any particle of truth (as he interpreted truth of course).
“Mercy on all who have loved beyond this world” is a troublesome thought. The Cathars, as well as the Catholics with whom they were at war (by choice of the Catholics), both looked forward to the next life for justice and setting aright all that was wrong in this life. Both were focused on that afterlife as the only reality. It was taught them by their religious tradition. Cathars believed the Devil made the world and trapped people in it (through sex), and the Lord came to release people from the pull of this world. Obedience could prevent a person returning again and again (up to 7 times) to this unholy sphere. The Cathar’s final rites guaranteed no rebirth, if between that rite and death no sin was committed. It set one free of the wheel of life in the flesh.
The Catholics made a big deal of the Cathars saying that the creator and God of this world was the Devil. But in practice some of the more honored among their clergy and leaders also punished their bodies as unholy vessels and abhorred sex, only tolerating it in the unwashed masses who would never be as holy as they were. Much as I love Francis of Asissi, I cannot forget how he punished himself just for being tempted to think of having a family as a normal man would. He threw himself naked in the snow until that thought was banished, and punished himself and his brothers severely for occasionally admitting human feelings and thoughts of this nature. Both faiths taught love for what was beyond this world more than for what was in this world. Both saw fleshly existence as a lesser existence: true and everlasting existence was the spiritual existence that came to the faithful after this life.
To me, they were not that different in their perceptions of this world, but they were extremely different in their scaffolding: in the personages they assigned to be the creator and hence God of this world. Francis of Asissi was in a smal minority in seeing the Divine in his fellow creaton and creatures. There were others, but they were not the run of the mill.
Although they did have a common loathing for the things of the flesh, they killed each other over the scaffolding and the labels (God vs. Devil) they placed on that scaffolding. Just as later Catholics would hunt Lutherans down for rejecting some specific panels in the scaffolding (the necessity of works and the sale of indulgences for sin), they both largely believed in the main structure represented by that scaffolding. Later yet, Lutherans and Catholics actually united to kill Radical Anabaptists in Germany who taught that infant baptism was a sin and of no worth, that one had to be old enough to understand and make the personal commitment that baptism implies. The Radical Anabaptists had a two pronged missionary attack: persuasion through preaching, and then the sword. More death-dealing over scaffolding, more total forgetting that beneath it all we are every one beautiful and embodiments of the same love from the same Source (whatever that Source may be, let's not label it, let's not fight over its name).
Note that in none of these examples was one group totally blameless and the other totally blameworthy. Even some of the crueler characters in Oldenbourg’s book were rightly painted with multiple facets. Many believed with their whole hearts in the fantastic magical world they felt to be part of. A world in which a part of great cosmic battle between God and Satan was being carried out. And they were privileged to have been entrusted with God’s power to aid the triumph of good over evil in this small corner of the cosmos. That is almost always the case in religious wars and conflicts: all sides feel they are in the right and God is with them, therefore the other side is wrong and inspired by the Devil.
No love lost in such polarized situations, humans on the opposing side are demonized, and killing them is made easier by knowing that many will be saved because this eternal-damnation-causing error machine has been removed from the face of the earth.
So it has been. So it is now. So it will likely be for a very long time to come.
But hope, like love, springs eternal.
Thank you, Zoé Oldenbourg, for making me think these thoughts, placing them onto the lips of a woman, and into the heart of a man, both facing death after lives of unbelievable hardship.
I hope that my next incarnation waits until this religious madness is over, and men and women live in harmony with full respect for each other, perceiving each other and other creatures too — no matter how ugly— as beautiful because they are as we are: embodiments of Love and worthy of our love.
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