I think that one of the most beautiful regions in the world is Languedoc, a part of the Pyrenees in southwest France. I have been there several times and its valleys, mountains, vegetation and rivers always impress me. However, as human beings are quite unpredictable, it was precisely in this magnificent place that the first great European “heresy” arose, Catharism.
Many books have been written on the subject, yet it is possible to summarize the Cathar philosophy in one simple phrase; the Universe was created by the devil, all this apparent beauty is a diabolic work.
According to the encyclopedia, they were dualists who believed in the existence of two gods, one of good (God) and one of evil (Satan), who created the material world. Because of this, they took a vow of chastity and had no intention of procreating and presenting the devil with more followers. They called themselves “perfect” and were disposed to martyrdom to prove the importance of their belief. The symbolic end of the movement, which triggered off the first crusades recorded in history, took place on March 15, 1244 in the fortress of Montségur. After a long siege when they were offered the choice of converting to Catholicism or else die, approximately 250 “perfect” men, women and children climbed down the mountain singing of their intent to throw themselves into the flames of the bonfire specially made for the occasion.
For a long time I was interested in Catharism. In 1989 I met Brida O’Fern (who later on became a character in a book of mine), who had been a Cathar in an earlier incarnation. At the beginning of that same year I had met Mí´nica Antunes, who at that time was just my friend, now my friend and agent.
Since for spiritual reasons I needed to go on the Cathar walk (a trail linking together the castles/fortresses of the “perfect ones”) I invited her to take part in a stretch of the walk.
Mí´nica and I reached the foot of the Montségur Mountain one August afternoon. We had planned to climb it the following day, and after dinner we went to chat in the place where the bonfire had been lit almost 800 years before (an insignificant monument marks the spot). The weather was overcast, with clouds so low that we could not even see the ruins at the top of the gigantic rock. Just to provoke Mí´nica, I said that it might be interesting to make the climb that very night. She said no, and I was relieved, imagine if she had said yes!
At that moment a car drove up, the same make and color as mine. An Irishman stepped out and asked, as if we were from the region, from what point the rock could be climbed. I suggested that he make the climb the next morning with us, but he was determined to go up that very night, he wanted to see the sun rise from up there, claiming that perhaps he had been a Cathar in a past life.
“I wonder if you could lend me a lamp?” he asked.
And everything seems to fit; Brida, the obligation of going on the Cathar walk, the joke with Mí´nica a few minutes before, and now this fellow, with a car just like mine. It is a sign. I go to the hotel in the village where we are staying and borrow a lamp, the only one they have.
Mí´nica seems scared, but I say that we have to go ahead. Signs are signs, I say. The newcomer asks where the path is. I told him it did not matter and to just start going up the path.
And for some time, (I cannot remember how long) the three of us climbed a mountain that we did not know at night and with the fog that only allowed us to see a few yards ahead of us. Finally, we penetrated the clouds, the sky filled with stars, the moon was full, and standing before us was the gate of the fortress of Montségur.
We entered and contemplated the ruins. I looked at the beauty of the firmament, wondering how we got there without any accident, and then I think it is better not to ask any questions and just admire the miracle. The Cathars contemplated this very same sky, and believed that all these stars were the work of the devil. I shall never understand the Cathars, although I do respect the integrity with which they dedicated themselves to their faith.
I have returned to Montségur and climbed the mountain several other times, but have never again managed to find the path that we used that August night in 1989.