The Answer is in the Journey
(A Book Review of The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho)
Part adventure story, part guide to self-mastery, The Pilgrimage is a compelling tale that delivers a powerful brew of insight and magic.
The story opens on the night of January 2, 1986, on a mountain off Brazil, where Paulo is to be ordained as master of the Order of RAM, about to receive his new sword — used in performing various “miraculous operations” and a seal in his initiation to the secret society of the Tradition. However, a single erroneous act undoes all of what he went through and his Master deems him unworthy — for now — to receive it. Instead, he was given a task to seek it by taking a pilgrimage on a medieval route known as the “strange road to Santiago,” to travel among common people.
Paulo’s experience is no different from the ones we’ve already gone through. When victory is within reach, it fells apart, or sometimes withhold, and most often taken away right before our very eyes. Problems — especially those we think are too much to handle — have that way of paralyzing us; that by ignoring it we believe we could will it away and just evaporate. But we’re only making things worse. It’s no wonder Paulo took months to make a decision. Paulo’s case is made more frustrating because when it seems he have it all, when he thought he’s through with it, he finds himself back at square one. Only when we realize that it’s the fear of failing rearing its ugly head in our view did we move on, heed its call, take stock of our situation, and take action.
In the beginning of the journey we see Paulo confused and doubtful of his sincerity to take the trek across Spain. Yet on the way to meet his guide along the Road, captivated by the majestic beauty of the Pyrenees, he realized the significance of what he was about to undertake. What is certain was the excitement of reliving an old custom most people had forgotten. And in a way the reader anticipates what’s going to happen next — will Paulo succeed or not? It was a feeling he can’t identify at first yet revitalizing in way, it impelled him on.
Meeting and getting to know the enigmatic Petrus was like coming to terms with Carlo Castañeda’s Don Juan — a man learned in the ways of life that to be in his presence is both an enlightening and humbling experience. Petrus was obligated by the Tradition to guide someone who didn’t achieve his sword along the Road to Santiago in able to pay his dues to the order. He taught Paulo the RAM practices and exercises; practices that almost anyone can discover for themselves only if they are willing to seek them out. Following the exercises, Petrus says, will help people achieve absolutely anything they desire.
For all his knowledge, what makes Petrus endearing is he never imposed himself on Paulo. Throughout the journey he made no effort to appear wiser or holier than Paulo. Petrus is just another pilgrim on the Road. Aside from being an effective guide, he is all at once a coach and instructor. Truth to tell, he sometimes gives Paulo absurd orders that Paulo needs to comply. But it goes without saying that through this, Petrus manages to deliver powerful lessons across with lasting impact.
Throughout The Pilgrimage we see Paulo’s transformation from a man who’s taken pride of his learning, how he rose from the ranks of the Tradition, to how he embraced the common ways of ordinary folks — by living and experiencing agape or the love that consumes. The journey taught him things he already knew but have a hard time accepting. However, the path to change, so it goes, is never a walk in the park. The Road is always beset with trials and obstacles that constantly test our strength and inner character. By applying the lessons learned in real life. “Wisdom has only value only if it is helps us to overcome obstacles.” For Paulo the ultimate test is to vanquish the demon Legion, his personal enemy along the Road in the form of a black dog. With these encounters we learn that battling our enemy is also an act of love, for he was placed in our lives for a purpose: to develop and sharpen us. And this purpose has to be met. If ever we are defeated then that’s all to it—we lose! But in losing there is a lesson learned and an experience gained. Fleeing is never an option for we only let the enemy declare its own victory. In winning a battle — most importantly in this battle we participate in called life — we must never allow the enemy to choose how the battle will be waged.
Near the end of the book, where Paulo was only a few days hike to reaching Compostela, was for me the saddening and poignant moment in the book. Petrus must now leave Paulo on his own search for his sword, its secret still uncovered and that they would not be able to see each other again for a long time. As much as I hate it, it’s really the end of the line for Petrus, a character I grew fond of. I really liked him and what he stood for — he is the man I aspire to be. I imagine, on a pilgrimage such as this one, if ever I would get lost in a forest, Petrus would be the perfect and able companion to be with; he would surely have a handy yet profound explanation why the incident occurred, then we’ll share a few laughs.
Thinking this over came just out of nowhere a sheer sudden force of realization that took hold of me: this was not Petrus’s journey; it was, after all, Paulo’s. Yes, leaving Paulo behind on the final stretch of the journey will make him vulnerable once again. However, this gesture from Petrus attests strongly to his role of being a guide and instructor to the last. Petrus, prudent as he is, don’t always know the answer to some of life’s difficult and often asked questions. What he knows for sure is that every man has his own way of learning. If he would always be present by Paulo’s side all through the journey, then Paulo would just rely on him. Leaving Paulo was his way for him to be more resourceful, confident and, ultimately in letting him trust his own instinct and judgment. More importantly, to let Paulo find his sword on his own and discover its secret by applying the lessons learned along the “Strange Road to Santiago.”
There comes a point in our lives that there’s that book that comes along when we needed its words of inspiration the most. In my opinion, The Pilgrimage and The Alchemist are such books. I was astonished to found out that the day when events in the book begun and the day I started reading the book happen to fall on the same date. Taking this as a favorable omen, I have had this certain feeling that there’s no other proper moment to read this book but in this time of the year that provides a sense of hope and excitement about things to come, where new challenges and experiences are possible. This for me proves true that we arrive at the right place at the right time.
If you’re into fast-paced stories that grip you in suspense, then this book is not for you; I think what I’m about to recommend might bore you to death. Or if you want a book that has a grace of its own, illuminating and enlightening, then this stuff is for you. Coelho’s prose has that lyrical beauty all its own. Simplistic yet with profound intensity. What you’re about to discover is not that Earth shattering — half of it you might already know. Yet if you felt you’ve gone astray then cracking open this book is a refreshing way to start, to get you on track once again on the path you could’ve taken yet lack the courage to tread on.
Reading The Pilgrimage was a meditative, insightful and cathartic reading experience for me. It teaches us the notion that life is a journey that we should undertake as an adventure — to learn from it every waking moment as we might never know that the answer we seek is in the journey itself, making us aware of our own follies. If you consider The Alchemist a gem then The Pilgrimage is the unpolished one — what I found is Coelho’s raw wisdom, an introduction to his humanist philosophy where his eventual work rest. The Pilgrimage will make you believe that at every bend on the road a magic is waiting to unfold and that miracles are an everyday occurrence. What the book made me realize is that I’m not a Petrus, I’m still a Paulo barely starting the journey, seeking the sword and its secret I know I’ll achieve — someday. When? I don’t know. The road goes on and on . . .
Published by HarperCollins Publisher
(Mass-Market International Edition, November 2006)
Read in January 2-26, 2010