In The Pilgrimage, Brazilian author Paulo Coelho describes his adventures along the Road to Santiago, also known in English as the Way of St. James in honor of the route’s Christian origins and ongoing significance. Coelho claims to have set off on his long journey from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, in the French foothills of the Pyrenees, to Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain, to find his sword, a magical instrument that is the chief symbol of his eclectic spirituality and power. The details of Coelho’s pilgrimage mix Christian and esoteric mysticism. In his travel stories, the line between magic realism and objective description is blurred.
The Pilgrimage held strong attraction for me because I thought it would give me guidance by example for finding my life’s purpose. Throughout my adult life, I have obsessively sought this purpose. From time to time I’ve seemed to sense wisps of my purpose—and sometimes thought I had finally discovered it, only to become uncertain again. I continue to yearn for a grand sense of focus to illuminate and direct the rest of my life so that I will no longer spend my days stumbling over regrets, lost years, and the illusive hope of serving others if only I knew how. I was also attracted to Coelho’s work because I imagined that its vision expands the boundaries of the material world and would open up my own vision and understanding of the universe. Finally I came to The Pilgrimage anticipating a travel narrative about places and experiences that would fascinate me.
The book disappointed me in part because the secret that the author eventually learns seems profoundly obvious. To receive his sword, Coelho must learn its meaning, and finally he recognizes this truth:
All of my efforts had been bent on reward; I had not understood that when we want something, we have to have a clear purpose in mind for the thing that we want. The only reason for seeking a reward is to know what to do with that reward. And this was the secret of my sword. (248-49)
I cannot understand having the fascination with spirituality and mysticism that Coelho had before and during his journey and yet not initially placing a sense of purpose and meaning at the center of the quest.
Other aspects of the book bothered me, as well, particularly the fact that in the world of The Pilgrimage, “fighting the good fight” can include literal aggression, even war, in addition to a determined and intense quest for a goal of importance. The presence of “devils,” including a possessed dog and a messenger who has the potential to be useful, also jars: I see evil as the absence of love—of the agape honored in the book—rather than as a tangible, possessing force. Finally, while Coelho learns from his guide, Petrus, that “there are no chosen individuals” and that “[e]veryone is chosen” (Author’s Note 268), the everyday life of the people whose countryside, villages, and cities the author and Petrus pass through has a distant, dreamlike quality, rather than being the focus and chief source of insight for the pilgrims.
In spite of my reservations about the book, I recommend reading The Pilgrimage for the impetus it gives for considering or reconsidering the question of how we find meaning in life. Certainly each human being has unique gifts and opportunities to contribute to the world and to find satisfaction. Some have a calling that is clear from childhood. Life experiences bring others to their purpose and path. At the same time, for millions, subjugation to those without agape who choose war, strive for power, or place greed above kindness has stolen the opportunities for wide-ranging life choices. And the lives of these millions call out to the rest of us to shed complaisance and to include their plight and needs in our caring and choices for the way forward.
I have concluded that the chief lesson for my own journey through life is the inverse of Paulo Coelho’s eventual insight on the Road to Santiago. Gradually I’m coming to accept that mine is not and never will be a life with a grand, overarching purpose. Instead, like countless others, I am simply called on to value and respect the journey itself. My responsibility is to learn and to serve to the best of my ability as each day offers.
Coelho, Paulo. The Pilgrimage, translated by Alan R. Clarke. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.