With the increasing interest in walking the Road to Santiago, stimulated by articles, associations and advertisements for joining a tour, it is valuable to read Paulo Coelho’s international bestseller, The Pilgrimage, and discover what this walk meant to the popular Brazilian novelist.
Coelho commences by putting the recent popularity of the Road to Santiago into its historical and religious context, setting it alongside the other major Christian pilgrimages (to Jerusalem and Rome) and comparing it to the Muslim tradition that requires members of Islam to make the Hajj to Mecca. There is something that bolsters one’s faith and offers an experience of ‘the communion of the saints’ when people walk the same road. In his confessional style Coelho admits, “The pilgrimage along the Road to Santiago was going to help me find myself.” (p15) The book offers a journal of the soul, recording with honesty the author’s anxiety about leaving his business concerns, his apprehension when commencing the journey from France, the unforgettable sensations of his first night and many other occasions when he wept for joy and wonder.
For most of the way Coelho is accompanied by a guide who often utters words that are simple yet profound. Early after their initial meeting Petrus describes why travel can be so transformational:
“When you travel, you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don’t even understand the language the people speak. So you are like a child just out of the womb. You begin to be more accessible to others because they may be able to help you in difficult situations. And you accept any small favor from the gods with great delight, as if it were an episode you would remember for the rest of your life. At the same time, since all things are new, you see only the beauty in them, and you feel happy to be alive. That’s why a religious pilgrimage has always been one of the most objective ways of achieving insight.” (p38)
Along the way the guide teaches Coelho the RAM exercises to do with promoting Rigor, Adoration and Mercy. The Seed Exercise, The Speed Exercise, The Water Exercise and the Blue Sphere Exercise are some of a large number of exercises that are described by the guide and the author gives a separate page insert on which is written the instructions for the reader. Implicit in this is the conviction that a pilgrimage is for ordinary people and the lessons one can learn on El Camino de Santiago are to be practiced anywhere and at any time in the pilgrimage of life. As Petrus says: “Everything that you have learned up to now makes sense only if is applied in real life. Don’t forget that I described the Road to Santiago to you as the road of the common person.” (p172)
While different religious groups practice and teach different things on the Road to Santiago, the order into which Coelho is ‘ordained’ into (the Order of RAM) and its spirituality is mysteriously esoteric and eclectic, as it includes secret meetings, saying passwords, discovering a monk who is a sorcerer and fighting a dog that personifies the devil. There are some deep insights and important lessons that Coelho conveys but they are distorted somewhat by the unusual brand of religiosity in which they are packaged.
The Pilgrimage includes a map of the major routes from France, across the Pyrenees and the towns on the way to Santiago de Compostela. There are many descriptions of a day’s journey and the sights that Coelho sees but one does not always get an idea of what it was like to walk, the heat, the cultural difficulties and the Spanish atmosphere. Perhaps this is intentional as the journey of the soul with his traveling companion is the most important journey that Coelho is making.
Coelho underscores the benefits of such a journey including the chance to forget about work, the lesson about how to face one’s fears, the importance of dreaming and the gaining of new perspectives. At the end of the book Coelho says, “I had changed a lot since I had begun to walk the strange Road to Santiago.” (p249)
Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage (London: HarperCollins Publishing, 2005, first published 1987). This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 35.00.
Image: Front Cover of The Pilgrimage.