My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Pilgrimage (1987) by Paulo Coelho was first published under the title O diario de um Mago (or “The Diary of a Magus”), and the current title is a far better fit for Paulo’s journey along the Road to Santiago in 1986, which also led, a year later, to the inspiring story The Alchemist, which has enchanted the world ever since.
If you have read The Alchemist, you begin to see the story of the shepherd boy unfold in the pages and journey of Paulo’s The Pilgrimage and his search for his sword and to fully understand “agape.”
In the section titled “Conquest” the reader can begin to see the makings of the shepherd Santiago, the protagonist in The Alchemist:
“I studied the view that surrounded us: a few peasant houses, the tower of the castle, the undulating fields ready for sowing. To my right appeared a shepherd, guiding his flock past the walls of the castle, bound for home. The sky was red, and the dust raised by the animals blurred the view, making it look like a dream or a magic vision. The shepherd waved to us, and we waved back…”
“A sound from the streets of the abandoned city caught the animal’s attention. I looked in the direction of the sound and saw a shepherd returning from the fields with his flock. I remembered that I had seen this scene before, in the ruins of an old castle” (p 165, 200).
In 2011, Paulo writes of his journey across Spain to Compostela (the Latin name originally being Campus Stellae, “Field of the Star” [p 280]):
“It’s hard to believe that twenty-five years have passed since I made my first (and only) pilgrimage on foot to Santiago de Compostela. It was a decisive moment, when I stopped dithering and resolved to devote myself to one thing I had dreamed of doing: writing. It’s even harder to believe that The Pilgrimage, published for the first time in 1987 by a small publisher in Rio, is still one of my most sold and most widely translated books around the world. And so, in this commemorative edition, I would like to go back a little in time and observe myself” (p vii).
Most people I meet dream of doing one thing and doing one thing very well. These same people, however, delay the day when the choice must be made: sacrifice everything for the dream or sacrifice the dream for everyone else. Like Paulo, I too have had to make such a choice, resolving and devoting myself to the one thing I dream of doing: writing.
The decision, a first step, is not as rewarding as the daily activity over the years that build into memories and works from doing what you love: your Personal Legend (as Paulo explains in The Alchemist).
Before we step onto the Road to Santiago with Paulo, he offers some special advice about our Personal Legends:
“We are all chosen, if, instead of wondering, What am I doing here? we decide to do something that fills our hearts with enthusiasm.
“It’s that enthusiasm that connects us to the Holy Spirit, not the hundreds and thousands of readings of the classic texts. It’s wanting to believe that life is a miracle that enables other miracles to happen, not the so-called ‘secret rituals’ or ‘initiatory orders’. In short, it’s a man’s decision to fulfill his destiny that really makes him a man—not the theories that he concocts about the mystery of existence” (p vii-ix).
For the past 15 years I wake up and constantly make the decision to fulfill my destiny, and I have often felt the same to Paulo, that this decision and my actions through each moment to be a writer (past, present, future) makes me a man, and to do otherwise would suck the life out of me and discard my soul onto the heap of so many others who have abandoned themselves and their dreams.
As Paulo decides to leave his job and salary in Brazil and make the trip to Spain and his destiny, he opens a door for us and reveals his little secret—this man, who in 1986, the world knew nothing about:
“I need to change, follow the direction of my dream, a dream that seems to me childish, ridiculous and impossible, and which I’ve never had the courage to realize: to become the writer I have secretly always wanted to be” (x).
So we begin the journey with Paulo, who at the time of his pilgrimage and the start of his dreams was almost 40 years-old.
At the time of Paulo’s journey the Road to Santiago was not as popular as it is today, but no less as important as it was then. In the year he made the pilgrimage, “only 400 people had traveled” the Road and in 2005, “according to non-official statistics, 400 people passed every day in front of the bar” where Paulo sat with his guide Petrus for coffee (p x).
“Just as the Muslin tradition requires that all members of the faith, at least once in their life, make the same pilgrimage that Muhammad made from Mecca to Medina, so Christians in the first millennium considered three routes to be sacred. Each of them offered a series of blessings and indulgences to those who traveled its length” (p 12).
As Petrus and Paulo start their trip they encounter an interesting character on this highly religious route.
“Petrus smiled and said that we should move along. I picked up my things, and we began to walk in silence. From Petrus’s smile I knew that he was thinking the same thing I was.
“We had met with the devil” (p 25).
This devil will not be the last Paulo faces on his journey of self-discovery and mastery over his senses while he searches for his lost sword. But like all people at some point in their lives when they are faced with a task they hope to achieve, Paulo is filled with doubt.
“I looked up at the sky, the Milky Way spread across it, reflecting the immensity of the Road we would have to travel. This immensity made me very anxious; it created a terrible fear that I would not be able to succeed—that I was too small for this task” (p 34-35).
But who hasn’t felt this way? Who hasn’t let doubt enter close like one does a friend in troublesome times?
It is with such honesty and sincerity that Paulo, as man and writer, pulls us deeper into his spiritual battles along this ancient road of pilgrims, then and now. And as the days pass, Paulo contemplates topics like God, devils, angels, destiny, sin:
“The word peccadillo, which means a ‘small sin,’ comes from pecus, which means ‘defective foot,’ a foot that is incapable of walking a road. The way to correct the peccadillo is always to walk forward, adapting oneself to new situations and receiving in return all of the thousands of blessings that life generously offers those who seek them” (p 38).
On we journey with our sins and defective parts through small, quaint villages, past archaic churches, and over and down timeless mountain paths when Paulo gets a glimpse into the world around him:
“I looked at the small village there in front of me and began to create a story about it; the delight in finding people and lodging after the cold wind of the Pyrenees. At one point, I sensed that there was in the village a strong, mysterious, and all-knowing presence. My imagination peopled the plain with knights and battles. I could see their swords shining in the sun and hear the cries of war. The village was no longer just a place where I could warm my soul with wine and my body with a blanket; it was a historic monument, the work of heroic people who had left everything behind to become a part of that solitary place. The world was there around me, and I realized that seldom had I paid attention to it” (p 46-47).
There’s a beautiful world all around us every moment. A world filled with stories that we may know or not know, that may continue to live in the minds of locals or have long been forgotten. At one place an old man tells Paulo of a princess who had walked the Road to Santiago and on her return stopped and gave her life for her love. A place, as the old man says, love was murdered (p 56).
“Petrus had lit one of his horrible rolled cigarettes but despite his air of indifference, I could see that he was listening carefully to the old man’s story.
“‘Her brother, Duke Guillermo, was sent by their father to bring her home. But Felicia refused to go. In desperation, the duke fatally stabbed her there in that small church that you can see in the distance; she had built it with her own hands in order to care for the poor and offer praise to God.
“‘When he came to his senses and realized what he had done, the duke went to Rome to ask the pope’s forgiveness. As penitence, the pope ordered him to walk to Compostela. Then a curious thing happened: on his way back, when he arrived here, he had the same impulse as his sister, and he stayed on, living in that little church that his sister had built, caring for the poor until the last days of his long life” (p 56).
As Paulo tries to make sense of this story and the meaning of the Road, Petrus offers some guiding advice of who the Road and its secrets are actually meant for:
“Petrus on the other hand, argued that the guiding concept along the Road to Santiago was its simplicity. That the Road was one along which any person could walk, that its significance could be understood by even the least sophisticated person, and that, in fact, only such a road as that could lead to God. So Petrus thought my relationship to God was based too much on concept, on intellect, and on reasoning; I felt that his was too simplistic and intuitive” (p 57).
Soon after Paulo and Petrus debate the meaning of God and how love could ever come to be murdered:
Petrus enters into a diatribe, one of many more interesting ones throughout the book:
“‘God was manifest in the caves and in the thunderstorms of prehistory. After people began to see God’s hand in the caves and thunderstorms, they began to see him in the animals and in special places in the forest. During certain difficult times, God existed only in the catacombs of the great cities. But through all of time, he never ceased to live in the human heart in the form of love…
“‘When Father Jordi cited that quotation from Jesus, saying that wherever your treasure is, there also would your heart be, he was referring to the importance of love and good works. Wherever it is that you want to see the face of God, there you will see it. And if you don’t want to see it, that doesn’t matter, so long as you are performing good works. When Felicia of Aquitaine built her small church and began to help the poor, she forgot about the God of the Vatican. She became God’s manifestation by becoming wiser and by living a simpler life—in other words, through love. It is in that respect that the old man was absolutely right in saying that love had been murdered…
“I explained that in my country the law of return said that people’s deformities and diseases were punishments for mistakes committed in previous incarnations.
“‘Nonsense,’ said Petrus. ‘God is not vengeance, God is love. His only form of punishment is to make someone who interrupts a work of love continue it’” (p 58-59).
Our dreams are often interrupted by those closest to us. These loved ones and friends either do not believe in helping others achieve another’s sacred assignment (i.e., our Personal Legends) or who are too envious to help.
These kinds of people desire to create negativity and conflict rather than positivity and assistance.
But if we truly believe in ourselves, find ourselves worthy and expect to achieve our dreams, we must not lose faith and we must choose to listen to our hearts.
We must fight the good fight and believe.
“We must never stop dreaming,” writes Paulo, “Dreams provide nourishment for the soul, just as a meal does for the body. Many times in our lives we see our dreams shattered and our desires frustrated, but we have to continue dreaming. If we don’t, our soul dies, and agape cannot reach it…
“The good fight is the one we fight because our heart asks it of us. In the heroic ages—at the time of the knights in armor—this was easy. There were lands to conquer and much to do. Today, though, the world has changed a lot, and the good fight has shifted from the battlefields to the fields within ourselves.
“The good fight is the one that’s fought in the name of our dreams. When we’re young and our dreams first explode inside us with all of their force, we are very courageous, but we haven’t yet learned how to fight…
“We kill our dreams because we are afraid to fight the good fight” (p 61-62).
There are times we kill our dreams because those we love—or our closet companions or our dearest friends—ask it of us. Sometimes we kill our dreams for our husbands and wives, for our children, for our parents and teachers. And if we do so, we grow bitter and our hopes of living the life we always dreamed of slips into hatred and anger.
Our dreams should be realized and lived. Then our realized-legends will inspire others around us who will then inspire others and on and on until humanity can evolve as one species.
But giving up on our individual dreams can be easy.
“‘And, finally, the third symptom of the passing of our dreams is peace,” explains Petrus to Paulo. ‘Life becomes a Sunday afternoon; we ask nothing grand, and we cease to demand anything more than we are willing to give. In that state, we think of ourselves as being mature; we put aside the fantasies of youth, and we seek personal and professional achievement. We are surprised when people our age say that they still want this or that out of life. But really, deep in our hearts, we know that what happened is that we have renounced the battle for our dreams—we have refused to fight the good fight.’
“The tower of the church kept changing; now it appeared to be an angel with its wings spread. The more I blinked, the longer the figure remained. I wanted to speak to Petrus but I sensed that he hadn’t finished” (p 63).
Further down the Road, as Paulo continues to see angels and listens to Petrus’s words of wisdom, there is still “agape” to learn and devils to fight. One is named Legion.
“Everything began to blur, and I heard only very faintly the woman repeat to Petrus that we had to leave. I was in a state of euphoria, and I decided to speak the strange words that were coming to my mind.
“All I could see in the room was the dog. When I began to say those strange words, the dog started to growl. He understood what I was saying. I became more excited and continued to speak, louder and louder. The dog rose and bared his teeth. He was no longer the docile animal I had seen on arrival but something awful and threatening that could attack me at any moment. I knew that the words were protecting me, and I began to speak even louder, focusing all of my energies on the dog. I felt that I had a different power within me and that it could keep the animal from attacking me” (p 95-96).
What were these strange words exactly? What strange language was Paulo speaking to the demon-filled dog named Legion? Paulo’s guide, Petrus, has an answer.
“I had already heard some things about divine graces, but I asked Petrus to explain them to me.
“‘They are gifts from the Holy Ghost that manifest themselves in people. There are a number of different kinds: the gift of curing, the gift of miracles, the gift of prophecy, among others. You experienced the gift of tongues, which is what the apostles experienced at Pentecost.
“‘The gift of tongues is related to direct communication with the Holy Ghost. It is used in powerful oratory, in exorcisms—as was your case—and in wisdom” (p 102).
Paulo and Petrus leave the cursed house after Legion has fled but this demon-dog will return to hunt Paulo down for a final battle.
In the meantime, Paulo attends a wedding party and still has not learned the meaning and essence of love.
“‘Which kind of love are you talking about: eros, philos, or agape?’
“The man looked at him blankly. Petrus got up, filled his cup, and asked me to walk with him.
“‘There are three Greek words that mean love,’ he began. ‘Today, you are seeing a manifestation of eros, the feeling of love that exists between two people’… (p 114-115)
“‘What is philos?’
“‘Philos is love in the form of friendship. It’s what I feel toward you and others. When the flame of eros stops burning, it is philos that keeps a couple together.’
“‘And agape?’ (p 118-119)
“‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels…and though I have the gift of prophecy…and have all faith so that I could remove mountains…and have not love, I am nothing.’
“Petrus was once again quoting from Saint Paul” (p 121).
(my shower curtain – and I failed to realize the connection until after I wrote this article)
“‘Agape is total love. It is the love that consumes the person who experiences it. Whoever knows and experiences agape learns that nothing else in the world is important—just love. This was the kind of love that Jesus felt for humanity, and it was so great that it shook the stars and changed the course of history. His solitary life enabled him to accomplish things that kings, armies, and empires could not…
“‘Agape is the love that consumes,’ he repeated, as if that were the phrase that best defined this strange kind of love. ‘Martin Luther King once said that when Christ spoke of loving one’s enemies, he was referring to agape. Because according to him, it was “impossible to like our enemies, those who were cruel to us, those who tried to make our day-to-day suffering even worse.” But agape is much more than liking. It is a feeling that suffuses, that fills every space in us, and turns our aggression to dust…
“‘You and I and most pilgrims who walk the Road to Santiago, learning the RAM practices*, experience agape in its other form: enthusiasm…
“‘For the ancients, enthusiasm meant trance, or ecstasy—a connection with God. Enthusiasm is agape directed at a particular idea or a specific thing. We have all experienced it. When we love and believe from the bottom of our heart, we feel ourselves to be stronger than anyone in the world, and we feel a serenity that is based on the certainty that nothing can shake our faith. This unusual strength allows us always to make the right decision at the right time, and when we achieve our goal, we are amazed at our own capabilities. Because when we are involved in the good fight, nothing else is important; enthusiasm carries us toward our goal…
“‘When Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven belonged to the children, he was referring to agape in the form of enthusiasm. Children were attracted to him, not because they understood his miracles, his wisdom, or his Pharisees and apostles. They went to him in joy, moved by enthusiasm…
“‘Human beings are the only ones in nature who are aware that they will die. For that reason and only for that reason, I have a profound respect for the human race, and I believe that its future is going to be much better than its present. Even knowing that their days are numbered and that everything will end when they least expect it, people make of their lives a battle that is worthy of a being with eternal life. What people regard as vanity—leaving great works, having children, acting in such a way as to prevent one’s name from being forgotten—I regard as the highest expression of human dignity…
“Agape is grander than our ordinary human concepts, and everyone thirsts for it” (p 126-128, 146, 190).
Paulo continues down the Road to Santiago with Petrus, his trusty guide, much like Don Quixote with his squire Sancho, battling monstrous windmills in the form of demon-dogs and enchanted waterfalls and learning about the human race and himself as he crosses Spain.
I would like to tell you that Paulo defeated Legion, climbed and conquered a waterfall nude, walked the entire Road and learned many more life lessons, and in the end found his treasure, the sword of his destiny. But you will just have to read The Pilgrimage for yourself.
But let us remember one thing, as we come to our end:
“And when I think about it,” writes Paulo in the end of his book, “I guess it is true that people always arrive at the right moment at the place where someone awaits them” (p 276).
So I hope when you arrive, wherever it may be, that someone special is also awaiting you, both your hearts filled with the three kinds of love: eros, philos, and agape.
Keep reading and smiling…
*RAM practices, practiced by Paulo during his journey along the Road to Santiago in 1986:
The Seed Exercise
The Speed Exercise
The Cruelty Exercise
The Messenger Exercise
The Water Exercise (The Arousal of Intuition)
The Blue Sphere Exercise
The Buried Alive Exercise
The RAM Breathing Exercise
The Shadows Exercise
The Listening Exercise
The Dance Exercise
Some Lessons for Pilgrims:
“You cannot judge the beauty of a particular path just by looking at the gate” (p 289).
“Try to travel alone or—if you are married—with your spouse.”
“You are not travelling in order to prove that you have a better life than other people—your aim is to find out how other people live, what they can teach you, how they deal with reality and with the extraordinary” (p 290).
“A city is like a capricious woman: she takes time to be seduced and to reveal herself completely” (p 291).
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of the Hemingway Society, Club Med, and the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America: A Look Back (2020); and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
You can follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 440,000+ followers