Across almost two millennia, the Catholic Church maintained a stranglehold over life in Europe. It was able to do this
because Christianity gave it an monopoly on the meaning of life: everything that was sacred, everything that mattered
was not to be found in this world, only in another. Man was impure, profane, trapped on a worthless earth with
everything beautiful locked beyond his reach, in heaven¹. Only the Church could act as an intermediary to that other
world, and only through it could people approach the meaning of their lives.
Mysticism was the first revolt against this monopoly: determined to experience for themselves a taste of the
otherworldly beauty, mystics did whatever it took---starvation, self-flagellation, all kinds of privation---to achieve a
moment of divine vision: to pay a visit to heaven, and return to tell of what blessedness awaited there. The Church
grudgingly accepted the first mystics, privately outraged that anyone would sidestep its primacy in all communication
with God, but believing rightly that the stories the mystics told would only reinforce the Church's claims that all
value and meaning rested in another world.
But one day, a new kind of mysticism appeared; those who practised it were generally known as the Brethren of the Free
Spirit. These were men and women who had gone through the mystical process, but returned with a different story: the
identification with God could be permanent, not just fleeting, they announced. Once they had had their
transforming experience, they felt no gulf between heaven and earth, between sacred and profane, between God and man.
The heretics of the Free Spirit taught that the original sin, the only sin, was this division of the world, which
created the illusion of damnation; for since god was holy and good, and had made all things, then all things truly were
wholly good, and all anyone had to do to be perfect was to make this discovery.
Thus these heretics became gods on earth: heaven was not something to strive towards, but a place they lived in; every
desire they might feel was absolutely holy and beautiful, and not only that---it was the same as a divine commandment,
more important than any law or custom, since all desires were created by God. In their revelation of the perfection of
the world and themselves, they even were able to go beyond God and place themselves at the centre of the world:
accepting the Church's authority and objective world had meant that if God had not invented them, they would not exist;
but now, accepting their own desires and perspectives as sovereign, and therefore asserting their own subjective
experiences of the world as the only authority, they were able to see that if they had not existed, then God
would not exist.
The book of Schwester Katrei, one of the sources that remains from these times, describes one woman's pursuit of
divinity through this kind of mysticism; at the end she announces to her confessor, in words that shook the medieval
world: "Sir, rejoice with me, for I have become God."
The Brethren of the Free Spirit were never a movement or an organised religious group. Their secrets were spread through
the world among people of all glasses, by humble wanderers who travelled from one land to the next seeking adventure.
These were vagabonds who refused to work not out of self-denial but because they proclaimed that they were too good for
work, as they suggested anyone else who could be who wanted to; accordingly, they declined to spend their lives selling
their beliefs, as so many traditional Christians (and Communists, and even anarchists) do, but rather concentrated on
living them---which proved, of course, to be far more infectious.
Of course the Catholic Church responded to this heresy by slaughtering the Brethren by the thousands. Anything less than
a campaign of all-out terror would have sealed its fate, as its authority was almost entirely undermined by this new
liberating theology. Despite the violence of this repression, however, the secrets of the Free Spirit were passed on
across vast measures of time and space; they travelled unseen and uncharted, through corridors hidden to history
(perhaps because they consisted of moments lived outside of history), to appear in social explosions and
near-revolutions hundreds of years and thousands of miles apart². On many occasions the power of the Church and the
nations that served it was almost broken by these seemingly spontaneous uprisings; they appear throughout official
history like a heartbeat in a sleeping body.
The heretics of the Free Spirit managed to reach a state of total self-confidence and empowerment that we anarchists and
feminists can only dream of today; that they managed to do this using the raw materials of Christianity, traditionally
such a confining and crippling religion, is truly amazing. I often think that if only we could cast away all our doubts
and inhibitions and really feel that what we are is beauty and perfection (must be, if such concepts are
to exist at all!), and what we want is nothing to fear or be ashamed of, we would become invincible and the world would
be ours forever more.
~Extract from Days of War, Nights of Love. Published by CrimethInc.
¹ Even today, Christianity teaches that whatever is worthy about you is God's, and whatever is imperfect about you is
your own failing---thus we have existence of our own only to the extent that we are flawed and shameful.
² See also: the Ranters, the Diggers, the Anabaptists, the Antinomians, etc.