by Andrew Phillip Smith
Reincarnation remains a topic that incites a wide variety of responses. For large parts of humanity reincarnation is a given. It is part of the fabric of many religions, from Hinduism and Buddhism to minority religions like those of the Alawites and Druze. In the west many seekers simply believe in reincarnation; others feel that they have experienced previous lives in a way that makes it a matter of fact rather than belief. There are also those, like me, who might admit reincarnation as a possibility but feel that to be convinced they would need either direct personal experience of past lives, or verifiable proof of someone else’s experiences.
It may surprise many people to discover that the medieval Cathars really did believe in reincarnation, and more specifically in the transmigration of souls from creature to creature, including animals as well as humans. One of the most charming stories surrounding this concerns a Cathar Perfect who remembered being a horse in a previous life. It is preserved in Inquisition records. ‘One day with his companion, he passed the very place where the horse had lost its shoe. Then the man, whose spirit had been in a horse, said to his companion: “When I was a horse, one night I lost my shoe between two stones, and I went on unshod the whole night” ‘.
This story is not an outlier. The Cathar understanding of reincarnation or transmigration is intimately connected with their myth of a fall from Heaven. Each spirit has fallen into the material world and is reincarnated constantly until it finds its way into a human who becomes a Cathar Perfect and, by following the Cathar path, is liberated at death and returns to the heavenly realm.
Not only did the medieval Cathars believe in reincarnation, but there are many modern people who believe or experience that they were Cathars in previous lifetimes. The granddaddy of modern Cathar reincarnation was Arthur Guirdham (1905-92), Senior Consultant Psychiatrist for the clinical area of Bath for over twenty years. Highly considered by his associates and friends, his legacy was not to be in the area of psychiatry but in a series of books that detailed the past life knowledge of a patient known only as Mrs Smith, who he met in the 1960s. Later another local woman known as Miss Mills also became involved. Eventually an entire group of people emerged who had reincarnated together with Guirdham into different eras.
Guirdham’s group reincarnation is commonly described as one of the most convincing cases. Yet does it survive closer scrutiny? In none of his books does Guirdham tell his story in a very methodical way. He is often very careful to state what is accurate in the past life memories and what isn’t, to reveal what facts were already known to him, and so on. But he can so rambling in his accounts that the reader is left none the wiser.
Mrs Smith, in her Cathar incarnation, was a Catholic named Puerilia. Guirdham was Roger de Grissolles, a Cathar. The two had been lovers in the thirteenth century. Puerilia was eventually condemned and burnt as a heretic herself. Mrs Smith’s memories of this past life were dramatic and seemingly accurate in strange details. She recalled, ‘I didn’t know when you were burnt to death you’d bleed. I thought the blood would all dry up in the terrible heat. But I was bleeding heavily. The blood was dripping and hissing in the flames. I wished I had enough blood to put the flames out. The worst part was my eyes. I hate the thought of going blind… I tried to close my eyelids but I couldn’t. They must have been burnt off, and now those flames were going to pluck my eyes out with their evil fingers.’
Events developed rapidly as the scope of the reincarnations expanded. Miss Mills’ friend Jocelyn S. subsequently died and communicated to the group from beyond the grave as Braïda de Montserver. The group reincarnation expanded to 19, nearly all of whom were friends or relatives of Miss Mills. It is an extraordinary story.
Objective evidence for previous lives can only be assessed by comparison with historical and archaeological information. The very nature of historical evidence itself muddies the waters. If a particular facet of history has been documented and published, anyone who subsequently claims to remember this from a previous life may actually have acquired the information from a book. And yet details that are not backed up by historical or archaeological evidence are of no help in determining authenticity.
There is therefore a very narrow band of evidence that could constitute objective evidence (though not even proof) for reincarnation. As the stories given to Guirdham by the two women became more complex there were suggestions of fraud or that published information was being used. Yet there is an early example of evidence that might satisfy the criteria.
Mrs Smith insisted that the Cathars she saw in her dreams wore dark green and dark blue robes. This was inconsistent with the published information on Catharism. French scholar Jean Duvernoy discovered in the Fournier Inquisition registers that during the time of the Inquisition some Perfect wore these dark colours rather than black. It seems that these colours were adopted as a compromise between the traditional black and the need to disguise their status. Duvernoy only published this information in 1965, and only in French. This tiny detail suggests authenticity.
Guirdham was a professional man of high standing. Although obviously intoxicated by the ‘far memories’ of Mrs Smith and Miss Mills he was careful in his comparison of their statements with historical data. Yet it seems Guirdham was never able to successfully meet any of the reincarnation circle aside from Mrs Smith, Miss Mills and Miss Mills’ very ill father. Miss Mills and then Guirdham eventually channelled teachings from disembodied Cathar spirits. How convincing are these when compared to what we know historically about the Cathars? Did Guirdham have the wool pulled over his eyes, or did he knowingly suspend disbelief? If he was mistaken about the veracity of these past life memories, did this really matter if the entire process proved to be spiritually enlivening for him? These are among the many contradictions I discovered when I investigated medieval and modern Cathar reincarnation in The Lost Teachings of the Cathars.
Andrew Phillip Smith
The Lost Teachings of the Cathars
£10.99, Available from Watkins Publishing
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