The Camino has been the backdrop for many books and films inluding The Way with Martin Sheen, the movie that first sparked my interest in walking Camino Frances. However, it wasn’t until after I had made my decision that I learned that one of my favorite authors had made this same pilgrimage before writing his very first novel. Paulo Coelho, known for his mysticism and training in the arts of”black magic,” is credited for the romanticism and resurgence of what he calls “The Strange Road to Santiago” described in historic detail in the novel, The Pilgrimage, released in 1987.
The Pilgrimage is considered the companion text to The Alchemist, Coelho’s second novel and most popular international best seller. While The Alchemist is a fictional account of a young man’s journey in search of his fortune, The Pilgrimage is a reflection of Coelho’s own search for a mystical sword as part of his initiation into an ancient order of RAM (Rigor, Adoration, Mercy). The story begins as Coelho is just about to be awarded this new sword when instead, his master regales him, saying:
“Take away your hand; it has deceived you. The road of the Tradition is not for the chosen few. It is everyone’s road. And the power you think you have is worthless, because it is a power that is shared by all…But just as I feared, at the supreme moment you stumbled and fell. Because of your avidity, you will now have to seek again for your sword. And because of your pride, you will have to seek it among simple people (3).”
Coelho is sent on the Camino Frances with his guide, Petrus, a successful, middle-aged Italian man. Petrus was once in Coelho’s shoes, having made his own journey of discovery on the Camino in return for agreeing to guide to another when the time came. With the aid of Petrus’ insight, Coelho sets out to “find his own path” by learning about “the simplicity of life” and how the “extraordinary things… are found in the ordinary and simple ways of everyday people.” Petrus teaches him a set of practices that “are so simple that people like [Coelho… and me], who are used to making life too complicated, ascribe little value to them (p 27).”
Throughout their walk on “The Strange Road,” Petrus utilizes examples from the events and people they encounter to instruct Coelho on the topic of Wisdom:
“The true path to wisdom can be identified by three things…First, it must involve agape (all-consuming love, i.e. Enthusiasm); second, it has to have practical application in your life (otherwise, wisdom becomes a useless thing and deteriorates); and finally, it has to be a path that can be followed by anyone. Like the road you are walking now, the Road to Santiago (27-28).”
The Pilgrimage is full of thought provoking ideas relating to the journeys we all take to become who we were destined to be, fulfilling our oldest dreams once forgotten. And while I would like to discuss each and every line of Coelho’s work that has made an impact on me, today, I’ll leave you with this; what I think is a brilliant summation of the power and impact of travel:
“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 understand the language the people speak. So you are like a child just out of the womb. You begin to attach much more importance to the things around you because your survival depends upon them. 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 (35).”