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Spiritual Message Survives Religious Persecution in 'Wondrous' Novel

THE TREASURE OF MONTSEGUR: A Novel; By Sophy Burnham; Harper San Francisco: 276 pp., $23.95

June 08, 2002|ZACHARY KARABELL

Cathars. Albigensians. Heresy. The Inquisition. These words tap into some murky collective memory of a forgotten time of great violence.

Until a few years ago, the story of the Cathars had been all but forgotten, save for a few academics who excavated and preserved their legacy and for the inhabitants of the Languedoc region of France, where the echo has lingered for centuries.

The people of the area tell folk tales of that time, in the 13th century, when the "Pure Ones"-- the good Christians, the Cathars--filled the region until they were hunted down and slaughtered by rival factions and officers of the Holy Inquisition.

In "The Treasure of Montsegur," Sophy Burnham crafts a beautiful, wondrous novel out of the persecutions the Cathars faced for their beliefs. Borrowing from Manicheism, the Cathars viewed the material world as essentially evil. They abjured meat, practiced celibacy and claimed that Jesus, though divine, did not die on the cross but was spirited to southern France, where he lived with his wife, Mary Magdalene, and their children. They preached God's love, believed in reincarnation, ordained women and seemed to have been remarkably nonjudgmental about sin.

In a series of wars waged against them in the 13th century--some provoked by the church, others by rival feudal lords; some motivated by theology, others by sheer rapacity--the Cathars were besieged in their fortresses, tortured by inquisitors and annihilated. The protagonist of Burnham's novel is the lone survivor of the massacre of the Cathars of the fortress-town of Montsegur. The story is told partly in flashback and opens with the middle-aged Jeanne living as a beggar, haunted by memories of the death of her loved ones. The Cathars were divided into the perfecti (much like Catholic monks and nuns who sacrifice married life) and laypeople like Jeanne, who married and had affairs, raised children, and fought against the Catholic clergy and those nobles allied with them.

Though taught by the perfecti, Jeanne was never one of them, and her life was peppered with loveless marriages, one torrid affair and underground work for "The Cause." The novel dances back and forth between her present and past, moving gently but ominously forward to the culmination of her life, when Montsegur was captured, and later to what she faced at the hands of the inquisitors. Though the story itself is tragic, we are left not with a sense of futility, but with the pain of beauty and love and their all-too-frequent destruction.

After the massacre, Jeanne the beggar is taken in by a kind peasant named Jerome, who teases out her story and that of the "treasure of Montsegur." He is drawn to her and enraged by the moral dilemma she poses. He was "a simple farmer. What did he know of politics? Or ethics, right and wrong? Or wars of the religious?"

Unsure of what he should do, he inadvertently becomes her undoing, not because he betrays her secret, but because his neighbors accuse her of being a witch after she assists in a birth that leads to the mother's death.

Arrested and tortured, Jeanne finds through that suffering the redemption that had eluded her. In prison, she finally embraces the message of love that she had heard since she was a child. "I understood that there is no evil. No Satan.... Only Love. And what seems bad appears so only as a result of ignorance. What seems good carries no more weight than the bad, for in the eyes of God, there is only Yes! I AM!"

This is the message of mystics from time immemorial, that God is everything and everywhere, all names and nameless, and that only human limitations keep us from recognizing that.

Burnham weaves nimbly between real and surreal, between magic and mundane. She plays with the question of whether the "treasure" is the gold of the Cathars or the Cathars themselves, but in the end, the answer is clear: The material treasure can be lost or squandered, but the spiritual message survives through the centuries, overwhelmed and abused, but never extinguished.

*

Zachary Karabell is a contributing writer to Book Review.

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