Wednesday, 20 July 2016


In the village of Monségur

Monségur, Languedoc, France in June 2016

You could call him the Magus of Monségur. He always carries a staff with him and wears a wide-brimmed felt hat. He has a solidity of presence, a compact energy and deep brown eyes which when they look at you give you the sense of looking into expanding ripples on water surface just after a stone has been thrown in.

We follow him into his living-room which is lined on all sides with books – on history, anthropology, mythology, poetry, the esoteric and occult, shamanism, art,
Rennes-le-Chateau, the Cathars, whole sections devoted to books by Lovecraft, Poe, William Blake, Otto Rahn, and many others. The log fire is burning, fills the room with the sweet smell of wood smoke. He goes into the kitchen area to make us coffee and we arrange ourselves on various deep armchairs and gaze around us at the pictures on the walls, some of them painted by his mother he tells us, an artist and anthropologist in South Africa, but who returned to live in Ireland. He shows us one of her paintings that isn't on the wall – a beautiful detailed depiction of 'Goblin Market'.

He has pledged himself he says to protect the pog – the mountain – with the ruins where the Cathar castle of Monségur once stood, on the top. As is the tendency of new religions, to replace the sacred sites of the former religion, the Goddess of Monségur was present before the time of the Cathars (1100-1200s), he says. And as well as the pog itself, the surrounding mountains are full of old legends and folk-tales.

In the kitchen, as we make coffees for six people (Nescafé Espresso – recommended) he tells me that the castle is still seen as a heretical place, rather than being included and sheltered under the protective umbrella of the Catholic church, as a sacred place. And did you know he says, and he looks at me as he talks, as he looks at everyone – not glancing which might suggest he was furtive or indifferent, not staring as if you were an object or a minion, but a look held long enough that makes you feel included, a fellow-traveller on the path. Did you know that every year the villagers in Monségur had to perform a ritual penance for having offered sanctuary to the heretical Cathars? They had to drag a cross to the site where the last Cathars were burned.  Otherwise they would suffer a papal anathema. And that this practice lasted up until the 1920s?
I had not known.

Later, he takes us up a path where there's a good view of the surrounding mountainsides and deep valleys and points out what he says is called 'montagne de la Frau'. I wondered, he said, why it was called the mountain of the lady, until I realised that it came from an old Occitan word, which translates into French as 'frayeur', in other words, the mountain of fear. He didn't elaborate on why it was given this name, though hinted at various folk tales from which the name derives. 

Over lunch, he drops it quietly into the conversation that once people have been living here for a while, they begin to have very interesting dreams. 'And they start to say things like – I could really do with some chain mail or – I need to find a sword' – and he smiles. 'It could be something in the morphic field.' (Rupert Sheldrake's work on morphic resonance includes his theory on how memory can be inherited).

Formerly living in South Africa where he was an anthropologist and film maker (he still is, you can see a clip from his latest film The Otherworld/L'autre Monde here) he has lived in 
Monségur for over ten years and gives guided tours of the area. He also talks of the current plans by the commune to make improvements to the area around the pog and its ruined castle. To create a visitor centre, to fence off the hillside and, possibly, to have the castle floodlit, which he says would be detrimental to wildlife. (Since then the Mairie has responded and made a clear statement that there are no plans to fence off any areas or restrict access or have it floodlit, to the relief of all those who were concerned.) 

The castle of Monségur

After another excellent lunch, climbing up the steep path to the pog of
Monségur crowned by its castle ruins, we witness a turning point in the weather. The fine rain has stopped, the mist is clearing, leaving just a shelf of clouds high up in the sky, and filmy wreaths of mist around the mountain tops. The higher we climb, getting ever closer to these clouds, they begin to break up and sunlight pours through like flattened gold coins on the surrounding plains and mountains.

 This marks the end of the days of rain and cloud, the end of the moody reign of damp and veiled vision, of separation from the sun. The clouds thin out and disappear, the late afternoon and evening shine with reflected light. Warmth and sunlight return to the south.




Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Sacred Places in the Rain

Although the recent political events have occupied a lot of my thoughts recently, I've decided that, at least for now, I'm not going to comment about them here. I've written about them elsewhere but I'd like to keep this as a place where I write about things I enjoy, travel, writing and good books!

Languedoc, June 2016


one of Alet's city gates

The next day it rained. I wonder if there is something about rain that shrivels the memory, covers it with a wet rag so one is confined to a compressed vision, a shrunken horizon. Little can be seen outside the car windows except the wet green of passing trees and shrubs, and the hypnotic movement of the windscreen wipers. And when I think back to visits to various places in the rain, there is a sense of being in a small place, attention fixed on detail, usually of interiors. So it can be just the kind of day to visit inside places, which was what we did.

First of all, the church of Saint Polycarpe in the village of the same name.
The monastery and church of St Polycarpe was founded several centuries ago. You can read a detailed history in French here, and see various photographs, all taken in fine weather!

The monks built a wonderful aqueduct, and you can see that its arches are in two distinct styles, both romanesque and gothic.


The church dominates the tiny village. Like many French churches it has a bullet-proof look of walled fortress doubling as refuge and sanctuary.

But it is quite different once you step inside. It seems smaller, much more intimate and the walls are a pinkish colour. This and the simplicity of the interior – there's just a few frescos on the ceiling, and three small stained glass windows – give it an attractive and restful feel. 


And even its jewel at the far end, under the altar, could easily be overlooked if you didn't know what to look for. And in the dim light, they are hard to discern.
These are relics of Saints Polycarpe and Benoit, although the monstrance – relic holder and ceremonial object – which is studded with gems and held by silver angels at each end, was rather disappointingly empty.

In the porch, before going into the church itself, a spiral wooden stairway snakes up into the bell tower.

I climb up and there's a small square gap in the wall, which is where I took this photo, looking down on the church. 

After another fabulous
déjeuner, this time at Limoux, we visit the nearby Orthodox Monastery of Cantauque.

Monastery courtyard

The monk who shows us round explains that because there is no French Orthodox Church they had to choose which orthodox church to be under and decided to be under the Romanian Orthodox church because he said, they had many links with that country. They had previously been based in the Holy Land near Jerusalem but when their monastery there closed in 2002, they moved here. They have seven monks, most of them French, but there is also one Romanian and one Albanian. They try, he said, to be self-sufficient, and on the surrounding land they grow crops and have a flock of sheep.

This capital carving (below, on the right) depicts the legend of Saint Martin's cloak. Don't you just love those stories which become the best-known information about saints? Saint Martin, on horseback, on seeing a beggar in rags, apparently cut his cloak in two, and handed half of it to the beggar.

This wikipedia link also gives the derivation, which I did not know, of two familiar words. Apparently the priests who cared for Saint Martin's cloak in its reliquary were called cappellani from which we get the French chapelains and the English chaplain. And the small churches originally built as places to house the relic were called 'capella' from which we get the word chapel.

It wasn't raining any longer as we drove home through the damp and misty air. Leaves on trees and bushes were glistening with hanging drops of moisture. But the peaceful atmosphere of the monastery stayed with us.