Thank you, President Bush

I wrote the letter below on March 9, 2003, ten days before the invasion of Iraq. It is the most widely read text I have written, having been published in the leading newspapers across the world and all over the Internet: close to 500 million people have read it.

The war is now entering its 6th year, and over 4,000 American soldiers have lost their lives, together with an indefinite number of Iraqis. According to the CNN (March 24, 2008), “estimates of the Iraqi death toll range from about 80,000 to the hundreds of thousands, with another 2 million forced to leave the country and 2.5 million displaced within Iraq, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees”.

Many of the people I mention have already left the scene, yet the war goes on. At the moment, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Below are some extracts from the letter:

Thank you, great leader George W. Bush.

Thank you for showing everyone what a danger Saddam Hussein represents. Many of us might have forgotten that he used chemical weapons against his own people, against the Kurds and against the Iranians. Hussein is a bloodthirsty dictator, today seen as one of the world’s clearest expressions of evil.

But that is not the only reason I have for thanking you. During the first two months of 2003, you showed the world a great many important things. So, recalling a poem I learned as a child, I would like to express my gratitude.

Thank you for revealing to the world the enormous gulf that exists between the decisions made by those in power and the wishes of the people. Thank you for making it clear that neither José Maria Aznar nor Tony Blair really care or show the slightest respect for the votes they received. Aznar is capable of ignoring the fact that 90% of Spaniards are against the war and Blair is unmoved by the largest public demonstration to take place in England in the last thirty years.

Thank you for insisting that Tony Blair should appear before Parliament with a fabricated dossier written by a student ten years ago, and present this as ‘damning evidence collected by the British Secret Service’.

Thank you too, because, after all your efforts to promote war, the normally divided Arab nations were for the first time unanimous in condemning any invasion, at a meeting held in Cairo.

Thank you also for your rhetoric stating that ‘the UN now has a chance to demonstrate its relevance’, which made even the most reluctant countries take a stance against any attacks.

Thank you for trying to divide a Europe that is struggling for unification; this was a warning that will not go unheeded.

Thank you for having achieved something that very few have so far managed to do in this century: bringing millions of people together on all continents to fight for the same idea, even though that idea is opposed to yours.

Thank you, because without you we would not have realized our own ability to mobilize. It may serve no purpose this time, but it will be useful later on. Now that there seems no way of silencing the drums of war, I would like to borrow the words of an ancient European king to an invader: ‘May your morning be a beautiful one, with the sun shining on your soldiers’ armor, for in the afternoon I will defeat you.’

So, enjoy your morning and whatever glory it may yet bring you.

Thank you for not listening to us and not taking us seriously, but understand that we hear you and will not forget your words.

Thank you, great leader George W. Bush.

Thank you very much.

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Mysticism Sufi

Nasrudin’s turban

Nasrudin appeared at court wearing a magnificent turban and asking for money for charity.

‘You come here asking for money, yet you are wearing an extremely expensive turban on your head. How much did that extraordinary thing cost?’ asked the sultan.

‘Five hundred gold coins,’ replied the wise Sufi.

The minister muttered: ‘That’s impossible. No turban could cost such a fortune.’

Nasrudin insisted:

‘I did not come here only to beg, I also came to do business. I paid all that money for the turban because I knew that, in all the world, only a sultan would be capable of buying it for six hundred gold coins, so that I could give the surplus to the poor.’

The sultan was flattered and paid what Nasrudin asked. On the way out, the wise man said to the minister:

‘You may know the value of a turban, but I know how far a man’s vanity can take him.’

Just like marriage

Nadia spent the whole autumn sowing and preparing his garden. In the spring, the flowers opened, and Nadia noticed a few dandelions that he had not planted.

Nadia pulled them up. But the seeds had already spread, and others grew. He tried to find a poison that would kill only dandelions. An expert told him that any poison would end up killing all the other flowers too. In despair, Nadia sought help from a gardener.

‘It’s just like marriage,’ said the gardener. ‘Along with the good things, there are always a few inconveniences.’

‘What should I do, then?

‘Nothing. They may not be the flowers you intended to have, but they are still part of the garden.’

Accepting compassion

‘How can we purify the world?’ asked a disciple.

Ibn al-Husayn replied:

‘There was once a sheik in Damascus called Abu Musa al-Qumasi. Everyone respected him because of his wisdom, but no one knew for certain that he was a good man.

One evening, the house where the sheik and his wife lived collapsed, apparently because of some fault in the construction. The neighbours began desperately digging amongst the rubble. At one point, they managed to find the sheik’s wife.

She said: “Don’t bother about me. Save my husband first, he was sitting more or less over there.”

The neighbours shifted the rubble in the place she had indicated and found the sheik. He said: “Don’t worry about me. Save my wife first, she was lying more or less over there.”

When people act as that couple did, they are purifying the whole world.

On the importance of “no”

“Hitler may have lost the war on the battle field, but he ended up winning something,” says M. Halter. “Because in the 20th century, men created the concentration camp, resuscitated torture, and taught their fellow men that it is possible to close one’s eyes to the misfortunes of others.”

Perhaps he is right: there are abandoned children, massacred civilians, innocent people in jail, lonely old people, drunkards in the gutter, crazy men wielding power.

But then perhaps he is quite wrong: the Warriors of Light exist, and they never accept what is unacceptable.

The most important words in any language are small words. “Yes,” for example. Love. God. These are words that are easy to utter, and they fill in empty spaces in our world.

However, there is one word – also a small one – that we find difficult to say: “No”.

And we see ourselves as generous, understanding, and polite.  Because “no” is considered to be cursed, egoistic, not at all spiritual.

We have to be careful here. There are moments when we say “yes” to others and in fact are saying “no” to ourselves.

All the great men and women in the world have been people who, rather than say “yes”, said a very big NO to everything that did not fit their ideal of bounty and growth.

Warriors of Light recognize one another just by looking. They are in the world, they are part of the world, and they were sent to the world without provisions or sandals.  Often they are cowards.  They do not always act properly.

Warriors of Light suffer for trivial things, worry about petty matters, and feel incapable of growing.  Occasionally Warriors of Light feel they are unfit for any blessing or miracle.

Warriors of Light frequently ask what they are doing here.  Many times they feel that their life has no meaning.

That is why they are Warriors of Light.  Because they make mistakes.  Because they ask.  Because they continue to look for a meaning.  But above all because they have the capacity to say “no” when they are faced with things they cannot accept.

We may often be called intolerant, but it is important to open up and fight against everything and all circumstances if we see injustice or cruelty.  No-one can admit that, after all is said and done, Hitler set a pattern that can be repeated because people are incapable of protesting.  And to reinforce this fight, let us not forget the words of John Bunyan, author of the classic “Pilgrim’s Progress”:

“For all that I have suffered, I do not regret the problems that I have faced – because they are what brought me to where I wanted to arrive.  Now that I am close to death, all that I have is this sword, and I hand it over to whoever wants to follow their pilgrimage.

“I carry with me all the marks and scars of the combats – they are the witnesses of what I have lived through, and the rewards for what I have conquered.  It is these cherished marks and scars that will open for me the gates of Heaven.

“There was a time when I was always hearing stories of bravery.  There was a time when I lived only because I needed to live.  But now I live because I am a warrior, and because one day I want to be in the company of Him in whose name I have fought so hard.”

So scars are necessary when we fight against Absolute Evil, or when we have to say “no” to all those who, sometimes with the best of intentions, try to impede our journey towards dreams.

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The accommodating point

In one of my books (The Zahir), I try to understand why people are so afraid of changing. When I was right in the middle of writing the text, I came across an odd interview with a woman who had just written a book on – guess what? – love.

The journalist asks whether the only way a human being can become happy is to find their beloved. The woman says no:

“Love changes, and nobody understands that. The idea that love leads to happiness is a modern invention, dating from the late 17th century. From that time on, people have learned to believe that love should last for ever and that marriage is the best way to exercise love. In the past there was not so much optimism about the longevity of passion.

“Romeo and Juliet isn’t a happy story, it’s a tragedy. In the last few decades, expectation has grown a lot regarding marriage being the path towards personal accomplishment. Disappointment and dissatisfaction have also grown at the same time.”

According to the magical practices of the witchdoctors in the North of Mexico, there is always an event in our lives that is responsible for our having stopped making progress. A trauma, a particularly bitter defeat, disappointment in love, even a victory that we fail to quite understand, ends up making us act cowardly and incapable of moving ahead. The witchdoctor, trying to connect with the occult powers, first of all needs to get rid of this “accommodating point”. To do so, he has to review our life and discover where this point lies.

When I was young, I was always fighting, always hitting the others, because I was the oldest in the gang. One day my cousin gave me a beating. That convinced me that I would never again manage to win a fight, and I began to avoid any physical confrontation, even though this meant that I was often taken for a coward, and let myself be humiliated in front of girlfriends and companions. Until one day, when I was 22, I ended up unwillingly getting into a fight in a nightclub in Rio de Janeiro. I got beaten up, but the “accommodating point” went away. Nowadays I no longer fight, not out of cowardice but rather because it’s a terrible way of expressing oneself.

For two years I tried to learn to play the guitar: I made a lot of progress in the beginning, until I reached the point where I could advance no further. Because I discovered that others learned faster than I did, I felt mediocre and decided that instead of feeling ashamed I was no longer interested in playing the guitar. The same happened with snooker, football, cycling: I learned enough to do everything fairly well, but then reached a point where I could go no further.


Because, according to the story that we were told, at a certain moment in our lives “we reach our limit”. There are no more changes to be made. We won’t grow any more. Both professionally and in love, we have reached the ideal point, and it’s best to leave things as they are. But the truth is that we can always go further. Love more, live more, risk more.

Immobility is never the best solution. Because everything around us changes (including love) and we must accompany that rhythm.

I have been married to the same person for 28 years, but I have changed “wives” (and she has changed “husbands”) several times during our relationship. If we wanted to keep on as we were in 1979, I don’t think we would have come so far.

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Learning from flowers

Why go on fighting

Reader Gerson Luiz tells the story of a rose that longed for the company of the bees, but none would come to her.

Even so, the flower was still capable of dreaming. When she felt all alone, she would imagine a garden filled with bees that came to kiss her. And so she managed to resist until the next day, when she opened her petals again.

“Aren’t you tired?” someone must have asked her.

“No. I have to go on fighting,” answered the flower.


“Because if I don’t open up, I wither.”

Learning to see

Buddha gathered his disciples and showed them a lotus flower.

“I want you to tell me something about what I hold in my hand.”

The first gave a whole treaty on the importance of flowers. The second composed a lovely poem about its petals. The third invented a parable using the flower as an example.

Now it was Mahakashyap’s turn. He came up to Buddha, smelt the flower, and caressed his face with one of the petals.

“This is a lotus flower,” said Mahakashyap. “Simple, like everything that comes from God. And beautiful, like everything that comes from God.”

“You were the only one who saw what I hold in my hand,” was Buddha’s comment.

In search of a wise man

For days the couple traveled almost without speaking. Finally they arrived in the middle of the forest, and found the wise man.

“My companion said almost nothing to me during the whole journey,” said the young man.

“A love without silence is a love without depth,” answered the wise man.

“But she didn’t even say that she loved me!”

“Some people always claim that. And we end up wondering if their words are true.”

The three of them sat down on a rock. The wise man pointed to the field of flowers all around them.

“Nature isn’t always repeating that God loves us. But we realize that through His flowers.”

In the flower shop

The woman was strolling through a shopping mall when she noticed a poster announcing a new flower shop. When she went in, she got a shock; she saw no vases, no arrangements, and it was God in person who stood behind the counter.

“You can ask for whatever you want,” said God.

“I want to be happy. I want peace, money, the capacity to be understood. I want to go to heaven when I die. And I want all this to be granted to my friends too.”

God opened a few pots that were on the shelf behind him, removed some grains from inside, and handed them to the woman.

“Here you have the seeds,” He said. “Begin to plant them, because here we don’t sell the fruits.”

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The moving monument

I have visited many monuments in this world that try to immortalize the cities that erect them in prominent places.  Imposing men whose names have already been forgotten but who still pose mounted on their beautiful horses.  Women who hold crowns or swords to the sky, symbols of victories that no longer even appear in school books.  Solitary, nameless children engraved in stone, their innocence for ever lost during the hours and days they were obliged to pose for some sculptor that history has also forgotten.

And when all is said and done, with very rare exceptions (Rio de Janeiro is one of them with its statue of Christ the Redeemer), it is not the statues that mark the city, but the least expected things.  When Eiffel built a steel tower for an exposition, he could not have dreamed that this would end up being the symbol of Paris, despite the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and the impressive gardens.  An apple represents New York.  A not much visited bridge is the symbol of San Francisco.  A bridge over the Tagus is also on the postcards of Lisbon.  Barcelona, a city full of unresolved things, has an unfinished cathedral (The Holy Family) as its most emblematic monument.  In Moscow, a square surrounded by buildings and a name that no longer represents the present (Red Square, in memory of communism) is the main reference.  And so on and so forth.

Perhaps thinking about this, a city decided to create a monument that would never remain the same, one that could disappear every night and re-appear the next morning and would change at each and every moment of the day, depending on the strength of the wind and the rays of the sun.  Legend has it that a child had the idea just as he was … taking a pee.  When he finished his business, he told his father that the place where they lived would be protected from invaders if it had a sculpture capable of vanishing before they drew near.  His father went to talk to the town councilors, who, even though they had adopted Protestantism as the official religion and considered everything that escaped logic as superstition, decided to follow the advice.

Another story tells us that, because a river pouring into a lake produced a very strong current, a hydroelectric dam was built there, but when the workers returned home and closed the valves, the pressure was very strong and the turbines eventually burst.  Until an engineer had the idea of putting a fountain on the spot where the excess water could escape.

With the passing of time, engineering solved the problem and the fountain became unnecessary.  But perhaps reminded of the legend of the little boy, the inhabitants decided to keep it.  The city already had many fountains, and this one would be in the middle of a lake, so what could be done to make it visible?

And that is how the moving monument came to be.  Powerful pumps were installed, and today a very strong jet of water spouts 500 liters per second vertically at 200 km per hour.  They say, and I have confirmed it, that it can even be seen from a plane flying at 10,000 meters.  It has no special name, just “Water Fountain”, the symbol of the city of Geneva (where there is no lack of statues of men on horses, heroic women and solitary children).

Once I asked Denise, a Swiss scientist, what she thought of the Water Fountain.

“Our body is almost completely made of water through which electric discharges pass to convey information.  One such piece of information is called Love, and this can interfere in the entire organism.  Love changes all the time.  I think that the symbol of Geneva is the most beautiful monument to Love yet conceived by any artist.”

I don’t know how the little boy in the legend would feel about it, but I think that Denise is absolutely right.

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The Warrior of Light and the new year

Knowing how to wait

The Warrior of Light needs time to himself. And he uses this time to rest and contemplate and contact the Soul of the World. He manages to meditate even in the middle of a combat.

On some occasions the warrior sits down, relaxes and lets everything that is happening around him go on happening. He looks around him as if he were a spectator, does not try to grow or diminish, just commits himself unresistingly to the movement of life.

Little by little everything that seemed so complicated becomes simple. And the warrior becomes happy.

Discovering the objective

When we want something, the whole Universe conspires in our favor. The Warrior of Light knows this.

That is why he takes great care with his thoughts. Hiding under a bunch of good intentions are desires that no-one dares confess to themselves: vengeance, self-destruction, guilt, fear of victory, macabre happiness at the tragedy of others.

The Universe does not judge: it conspires in favor of what we want. That is why the warrior is brave enough to look at the shadows of his soul and tries to illuminate them with the light of pardon.

The Warrior of Light is the master of his thoughts.

Understanding routine

There are moments when the warrior’s path goes through periods of routine. Then he applies a lesson given by Nachman of Bratzlav:

“If you can’t manage to concentrate, or if you are bothered about your day, you should repeat just one simple word, because that does the soul good. Don’t say anything else, just repeat that word no end of times without stopping. It will eventually lose its meaning, and then take on new significance. God will open the doors and you will end up using that simple word to express all that you wanted.”

When the warrior is forced to perform the same task over and over again, he uses this tactic and turns his work into prayer.

Celebrating the year that is ending

The warrior has lived each and every day of the year that has gone by, and even though he has lost some great battles, he has survived and here he is. This is a victory. This victory has cost many difficult moments, nights of doubts, endless days of waiting. Since ancient times, celebrating a triumph has been part of the ritual of life itself.

Commemorating is a rite of passage.

His companions look at the happiness of the Warrior of Light and think to themselves: “why does he do this? He could be beaten in his next combat. He may provoke the enemy’s fury.”

But the warrior knows the reason for his gesture. He gains strength from the best present that victory can offer: confidence.

The warrior celebrates the year that has come to an end so he can be stronger for tomorrow’s battles.

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A Christmas Tale

A medieval legend tells us that in the country we know today as Austria the Burkhard family – a man, a woman and a child – used to amuse people at Christmas parties by reciting poetry, singing ancient troubadour ballads, and juggling. Of course, there was never any money left over to buy presents, but the man always told his son:

“Do you know why Santa Claus’s bag never gets empty, although there are so many children in the world? Because it may be full of toys, but sometimes there are more important things to be delivered, what we call “invisible gifts”. In a broken home, he tries to bring harmony and peace on the holiest night in Christianity. Where love is lacking, he deposits a seed of faith in children’s hearts. Where the future seems black and uncertain, he brings hope. In our case, the day after Father Christmas comes to visit us, we are happy to be still alive and doing our work, which is to make people happy. Never forget that.”

Time passed, the boy grew up, and one day the family passed in front of the impressive Melk Abbey, which had just been built.

“Father, do you remember many years ago you told me the story of Santa Claus and his invisible gifts? I think that I received one of those gifts once: the vocation to become a priest. Would you mind if now I took my first step towards what I have always dreamed of?”

Although they really needed their son’s company, the family understood and respected the boy’s wish. They knocked at the door of the monastery and were given a loving, generous welcome by the monks, who accepted the young Buckhard as a novice.

Christmas Eve came around. And precisely on that day, a special miracle happened in Melk: Our Lady, carrying the baby Jesus in her arms, decided to descend to Earth to visit the monastery.

All the priests lined up and each of them stood proudly before the Virgin trying to pay homage to the Madonna and her Son. One of them displayed the beautiful paintings that decorated the place, another showed a copy of a Bible that had taken a hundred years to be written and illustrated, while a third recited the names of all the saints.

At the very end of the line, young Buckhard anxiously waited his turn. His parents were simple people, and all that they had taught him was to toss balls up in the air and do some juggling.

When it came his turn, the other priests wanted to put an end to all the homage that had been paid, since the ex-juggler had nothing important to add and might even mar the image of the abbey.

Nevertheless, deep in his heart he also felt a great need to give something of himself to Jesus and the Virgin. Feeling very ashamed before the reproachful gaze of his brothers, he took some oranges from his pocket and began to toss them in the air and catch them in his hands, creating a beautiful circle in the air just as he used to do when he and his family traveled to all the fairs in the region.

At that instant, the baby Jesus, lying in Our Lady’s lap, began to clap his hands with joy. And it was to young Buckhard that the Virgin held out her arms to let him hold the smiling child for a few moments.

The legend ends by saying that on account of this miracle, every two hundred years a new Buckhard knocks on the door of Melk Abbey, is welcomed in, and for the whole time he remains there he warms the hearts of all who meet him.

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Convention of those wounded in love

General provisions: 

A – Whereas the saying “all is fair in love and war” is absolutely correct;

B – Whereas for war we have the Geneva Convention, approved on 22 August 1864, which provides for those wounded in the battle field, but until now no convention has been signed concerning those wounded in love, who are far greater in number;

It is hereby decreed that:

Article 1 – All lovers, of any sex, are alerted that love, besides being a blessing, is also something extremely dangerous, unpredictable and capable of causing serious damage.  Consequently, anyone planning to love should be aware that they are exposing their body and soul to various types of wounds, and that they shall not be able to blame their partner at any moment, since the risk is the same for both.

Article 2 – Once struck by a stray arrow fired from Cupid’s bow, they should immediately ask the archer to shoot the same arrow in the opposite direction, so as not to be afflicted by the wound known as “unrequited love”.  Should Cupid refuse to perform such a gesture, the Convention now being promulgated demands that the wounded partner remove the arrow from his/her heart and throw it in the garbage.  In order to guarantee this, those concerned should avoid telephone calls, messages over the Internet, sending flowers that are always returned, or each and every means of seduction, since these may yield results in the short run but always end up wrong after a while.  The Convention decrees that the wounded person should immediately seek the company of other people and try to control the obsessive thought: “this person is worth fighting for”.

Article 3 – If the wound is caused by third parties, in other words if the loved one has become interested in someone not in the script previously drafted, vengeance is expressly forbidden.  In this case, it is allowed to use tears until the eyes dry up, to punch walls or pillows, to insult the ex-partner in conversations with friends, to allege his/her complete lack of taste, but without offending their honor.  The Convention determines that the rule contained in Article 2 be applied: seek the company of other persons, preferably in places different from those frequented by the other party.

Article 4 – In the case of light wounds, herein classified as small treacheries, fulminating passions that are short-lived, passing sexual disinterest, the medicine called Pardon should be applied generously and quickly.  Once this medicine has been applied, one should never reconsider one’s decision, not even once, and the theme must be completely forgotten and never used as an argument in a fight or in a moment of hatred.

Article 5 – In all definitive wounds, also known as “breaking up”, the only medicine capable of having an effect is called Time.  It is no use seeking consolation from fortune-tellers (who always say that the lost lover will return), romantic books (which always have a happy ending), soap-operas on the television or other such things.  One should suffer intensely, completely avoiding drugs, tranquilizers and praying to saints.  Alcohol is only tolerated if kept to a maximum of two glasses of wine a day. 

Final determination : Those wounded in love, unlike those wounded in armed conflict, are neither victims nor torturers.  They chose something that is part of life, and so they have to accept both the agony and the ecstasy of their choice.

And those who have never been wounded in love will never be able to say: “I have lived”.  Because they haven’t.

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The day I turned 60

In a recent interview I said that turning 60 is the same as turning 35 or 47: a birthday cake, blowing out candles, and so on. But it’s not quite the same, and I would like to share with my readers how I decided to commemorate that date.

I normally celebrate my birthday on the 19th of March, the feast day of my patron saint, Joseph. One day in February this year, I was reading my blog, looking at my readers’ souls, and was seized by an impulse: why not invite 10 people to my birthday? I wrote the message and said that the first ten to write me would be welcome. It so happens that on the next day the first ten answers came from the most varied places on the planet: Brazil, Japan, England, Venezuela, Qatar and so on. The party would be at Puente La Reina, on the Way to Santiago – in other words, far from airports or normal means of transportation. On the other hand, I wasn’t certain that the readers had quite understood the message: I was inviting them to my party, but wasn’t paying for their travel expenses.

I sent an e-mail explaining the situation. All ten said they had understood perfectly well. I felt an immense responsibility, but kept my word, and I think that they all had a good time and enjoyed a very special evening – at least I know that I did! They all still communicate with one another.

Time passed, and soon it was the eve of my birthday. My plan was to do what I always do, and that’s what happened. At 23:15 on the 23rd of August I went to Lourdes so that at exactly 00:05 of the 24th, the moment I was born, I could be at the grotto of Our Lady to thank her for my life up to that moment and ask her to protect me from that moment on. It was a very powerful experience, but while I was driving back to St. Martin (where I have a small mill to spend the summer) I felt extremely lonely. I said so to my wife. “But you’re the one who chose it to be so!” she replied. Yes, I had indeed made that choice, but now I began to feel bothered. We were both alone in this immense planet.

I turned on my mobile phone. It rang immediately – it was Monica, my agent and friend. When I arrived home there were other messages waiting for me. I went to bed happy, and the next day I saw that there was absolutely no reason for me to feel the oppression of the night before. Flowers and presents began to arrive at the house. Communities of people over the Internet had done some extraordinary things using images and texts of mine. In most cases, this had all been arranged by people I had never seen in my life – one exception being Márcia Nascimento, who did some magical work and it gives me pleasure to say that I am a writer with a fan-club – and she is world president!

At that moment I understood two very important things. The first is that no matter how famous you may be, you will always have the feeling that you are alone. The other is that no matter how unknown you may be, you will always be surrounded by friends, even if you have never seen their faces. Even when I was unknown, there was always a hand held out to me when I needed it.

So I let Kahlil Gibran – with his unique mastery – describe this sentiment (which I have adapted because of the size of the column):

“Your friend is the field where you sow with love and harvest with gratitude. He is your home, he is your table”.

“Even when he is silent, two hearts continue to talk”.

“When you have to leave him, don’t suffer, for you will see the importance of the friendship all the better because of this absence, just as a mountain climber sees the landscape around him better when he is far from the plains”.

“May you be able to share with your friend all that is good”.

“Let him know and share not only your moments of joy but also your moments of sorrow”.

“And know that a friend is not by your side to help you kill the time, but rather to help you enjoy life in all its fullness”.

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Everything moves

Everything moves.  And everything moves to a rhythm.  And everything that moves produces a sound; that is happening here and all over the world at this very moment.  Our ancestors noticed the same thing when they tried to escape from the cold in their caves: things moved and made noise.

The first human beings perhaps looked on this with awe, and then with devotion: they understood that this was the way that a Superior Being communicated with them.  They began to imitate the noises and movements around them, hoping to communicate with this Being: and dancing and music were born.

When we dance, we are free.

To put it better, our spirit can travel through the universe, while our body follows a rhythm that is not part of the routine.  In this way, we can laugh at our sufferings large or small, and deliver ourselves to a new experience without any fear.  While prayer and meditation take us to the sacred through silence and inner pondering, in dance we celebrate with others a kind of collective trance.

They can write whatever they want about dancing, but it is no use:  you have to dance to find out what they are talking about.  Dance to the point of exhaustion, like mountain-climbers scaling some sacred peak.  Dance until, out of breath, our organism can receive oxygen in a way that it is not used to, and this ends up making us lose our identity, our relation with space and time.

Of course we can dance alone, if that helps us to get over our shyness.  But whenever possible, it is better to dance in a group, because one stimulates the other and this ends up creating a magic space where all are connected in the same energy.

To dance, it is not necessary to learn in some school; just let our body teach us – because we have danced since the darkest times, and we never forget that.  When I was an adolescent I envied the great “ballerinos” among the kids on the block, and pretended I had other things to do at parties – like having a conversation.  But in fact I was terrified of looking ridiculous, and because of that I would not risk a single step.  Until one day a girl called Marcia called out to me in front of everybody:

“Come on!”

I said I did not like to dance, but she insisted.  Everyone in the group was looking, and because I was in love (love is capable of so many things!), I could refuse no further.  I was ridiculous, I did not know how to follow the steps, but Marcia did not stop; she went on dancing as if I were a Rudolf Nureyev.

“Forget the others and pay attention to the bass,”  she whispered in my ear.  “Try to follow its rhythm.”

At that moment I understood that we do not always have to learn the most important things; they are already part of our nature.  In youth, dancing is a fundamental rite of passage: for the very first time we feel a state of grace, a deep ecstasy, even if for the less tuned-in it is all just a bunch of boys and girls enjoying themselves at a party.

When we become adults, and when we grow old, we need to go on dancing.  The rhythm changes, but music is part of life, and dancing is the consequence of letting this rhythm come inside us.

I still dance whenever I can.  With dancing, the spiritual world and the real world manage to co-exist without any conflicts.  As somebody once said, the classic ballerinas are always on tiptoe because they are at the same time touching the earth and reaching the sky.

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Fragments of a non-existing diary

A Peruvian priest’s sermon

In my book “The Alchemist”, the young shepherd Santiago meets an old man in the town square. He is searching for a treasure, but does not know how to reach it. The old man starts up a conversation with him:
“How many sheep have you got?”
“Enough,” answers Santiago.
“Then we have a problem. I can’t help if you think you have enough sheep.”

Based on this extract, the Peruvian priest Clemente Sobrado wrote an interesting piece, which I transcribe below:

One of the biggest problems that we drag around with us all our life is to want to believe we have “enough sheep”. We are surrounded by certainties, and nobody wants someone showing up to propose something new. If we could only suspect that we don’t have everything, and that we aren’t all that we could be!
Maybe we are all faced with a very serious problem, namely that although we have the opportunity to help one another, the truth is that few people let themselves be helped.
Why is that? Because they think they have “enough sheep”. They already know everything, they are always right, they feel comfortable in their lives.
Almost all of us are like that: we have many things but few aspirations. We have many ideas already sorted out, and we don’t want to give them up. Our life scheme is already organized and we don’t need someone trying to make changes.
We’ve done enough praying, practiced charity, read the lives of the saints, gone to Mass, taken communion. A friend of mine once said: “I don’t know why I come to visit you, father. I am already a good Christian.”
On that day I could not help answering:
“Then don’t come to visit me, because there are a lot of people waiting to see me and they are all full of doubts. But one thing you ought to know: You aren’t bad enough to be bad, nor good enough to be good, nor holy enough to work miracles.
“You are just a Christian satisfied with what you have achieved. And all those who are satisfied have in fact renounced the ideal of always improving. Let’s talk about this some other time, all right?”
Ever since then, whenever we speak on the telephone he starts by saying: “this person who is calling hasn’t yet grown up as much as he could”.
Lord, give us always a dissatisfied heart.
Give us a heart where the questions that we never want to ask can be voiced.
Deliver us from our conformism.
Make us able to enjoy what we have, but let us understand that this is not everything.
Let us appreciate that we are good people.
But above all, make us always ask ourselves how we can become better people.
Because if we ask, then it is quite possible that You will come and show us horizons that we couldn’t see before.

Hakone, Japan

I finally manage to get my editor, Masao Masuda, to invite me to a traditional tea ceremony. We go to a mountain near Hakone, enter a small room, and his sister, dressed in the ritual kimono, serves us tea.
That is all. However, everything is done with such seriousness and protocol that a daily practice is changed into a moment of communion with the Universe.
The tea master, Okakusa Kasuko, explains what happens: “The ceremony is the adoration of the beautiful. All efforts are concentrated on the endeavor to attain Perfection through the imperfect gestures of daily life. All its beauty consists of respecting the simple things we do, because they can lead us to God.”

Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro

Strolling along the promenade, I hear a young woman saying to another in a very convincing voice: “I’ve programmed my life in the following way …”
That made me wonder: does she take into account things that happen just when we are not expecting them? Has she considered that maybe God has a different plan, a far more interesting one? Has she thought seriously about the hypothesis that, by including other people in her program, she might be interfering in different ideas and projects?
I am not sure whether the sentence I overheard was born of inexperience or total delirium.

Melbourne, Australia

I step out on to the stage with the usual apprehension. A local writer, introduces me and starts asking me questions. Before I can conclude my reasoning, he interrupts me and asks another question. When I answer, he says something like “that answer wasn’t very clear.” Five minutes later, I feel a certain restlessness in the audience. I remember Confucius, and do the only thing possible:
“Do you like what I write?” I ask.
“That doesn’t matter,” he answers. “I’m doing the interviewing, not you.”
“But it does matter. You don’t let me finish a sentence. Confucius said: ‘whenever possible, be clear.’ Let’s follow that advice and make things quite clear: do you like what I write?”
“No, I don’t. I have read only two books, and I hated them.”
“OK, so now we can continue.”
The camps were now defined. The audience relaxes, the environment fills with electricity, the interview turns into a true debate, and everyone – including the writer – is satisfied with the result.

In the plane between Melbourne and Los Angeles

This extract from the on-board magazine is attributed to Loren Eisley:
“The journey is difficult, long, sometimes impossible. Even so, I know few people who have let these difficulties stop them. We enter the world without knowing for sure what happened in the past, what consequences this has brought us, and what the future may have in store for us.
“We shall try to travel as far as we can. But looking at the landscape around us, we realize that it won’t be possible to know and learn everything.
“So what remains is for us to remember all about our journey so that we can tell stories. To our children and grandchildren, we can tell the marvels that we have seen and the dangers that we have faced. They too will be born and will die, they too will tell their stories to their descendants, and still the caravan won’t have reached its destination.”

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The good fight

“I have fought a good fight, I have kept the faith,” says Paul in one of his Epistles. And it seems appropriate to remember the theme now that a new year is stretching out before us.
Men can never stop dreaming. Dreams are the food of the soul, just as food is to the body. In our existence we often see our dreams come undone, yet it is necessary to go on dreaming, otherwise our soul dies and Agape does not penetrate it. Agape is universal love, the love which is greater and more important than “liking” someone. In his famous sermon on dreams, Martin Luther King reminds us of the fact that Jesus asked us to love our enemies, not to like them. This greater love is what drives us to go on fighting in spite of everything, to keep faith and joy, and to fight the Good Fight.
The Good Fight is the one we wage because our heart asks for it. In heroic times, when the apostles went out into the world to preach the Gospel, or in the days of the knights errant, things were easier: there was a lot of territory to travel, and a lot of things to do. Nowadays, however, the world has changed and the Good Fight has been moved from the battle fields to within us.
The Good Fight is the one we wage on behalf of our dreams. When they explode in us with all their might – in our youth – we have a great deal of courage, but we still have not learned to fight. After much effort we eventually learn to fight, and then we no longer have the same courage to fight. This makes us turn against ourselves and we start fighting and becoming our own worst enemy. We say that our dreams were childish, difficult to make come true, or the fruit of our ignorance of the realities of life. We kill our dreams because we are afraid of fighting the Good Fight.
The first symptom that we are killing our dreams is lack of time. The busiest people I have known in my life had time for everything. Those who did nothing were always tired and could hardly cope with the little work they had to do, always complaining that the day was too short. In fact, they were afraid of fighting the Good Fight.
The second symptom of the death of our dreams are our certainties. Because we do not want to see life as a great adventure to be lived, we begin to feel that we are wise, fair and correct in what little we ask of our existence. We look beyond the walls of our day-to-day life and hear the noise of spears clashing, feel the smell of sweat and gun-powder, see the great defeats and the faces of warriors thirsty for victory. But we never perceive the joy, the immense joy in the heart of those who are fighting, because for them it does not matter who wins or loses, what matters only is to fight the Good Fight.
Finally, the third symptom of the death of our dreams is peace. Life becomes a Sunday afternoon, not asking too much of us and not asking more than what we want to give. So we feel that we are “mature”, leave aside the “fantasies of childhood” and guarantee our personal and professional success. We are surprised when someone our age says they still want this or that out of life. But deep in our heart we know that what has happened is that we gave up fighting for our dreams, fighting the Good Fight.
When we give up our dreams and find peace, we enjoy a period of tranquility. But our dead dreams begin to rot inside us and infest the whole atmosphere we live in. We start acting cruel towards those around us, and eventually begin to direct this cruelty towards ourselves. Sickness and psychoses appear. What we wanted to avoid in fighting – disappointment and defeat – becomes the only legacy of our cowardice. And one fine day the dead and rotten dreams make the air difficult to breathe and then we want to die, we want death to free us from our certainties, from our worries, and from that terrible Sunday-afternoon peace.
So, to avoid all that, let’s face 2007 with the reverence of mystery and the joy of adventure.

Learning from the simple things

In the Bragavad-Gita, Arjuna the warrior asks the Enlightened Lord:
“Who are you?”
Instead of answering “I am this,” Krishna## begins to talk of the small and big things in the world – and to say that he is there. Arjuna begins to see the face of God in everything around him.
However, although we are created in the image and likeness of the Almighty, we spend all our life trying to lock ourselves inside a bloc of coherency, certainty and opinions. We do not understand that we are in the flowers, in the mountains, in the things that we see on our way to work every day. We rarely think that we came from a mystery – birth – and are heading towards another mystery – death.
If we reflect on this, if we realize that the Divine presence and universal wisdom are in everything that surrounds us, we shall perform each action with more freedom. What follows are some stories on the matter:

The philosopher and the boatman

Sufi tradition tells the story of a philosopher who was crossing a river in a boat. During the crossing, he tried to display his wisdom to the boatman.
“Do you know what great contribution Schopenhauer left to humanity?”
“No,” replied the boatman. “But I know God, the river, and the simple wisdom of my people.”
“Well, just know that you have lost half of your life!”
In the middle of the river the boat hit a rock and sank. The boatman was swimming towards one of the banks when he saw the philosopher drowning.
“I don’t know how to swim!” he shouted in despair. “I told you that you had lost half your life by not knowing Schopenhauer, and now I am losing my whole life for not knowing something so simple!”

Meanwhile, Schopenhauer…

The German philosopher Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was walking along a street in Dresden, seeking answers to the questions that troubled him. All of a sudden he saw a garden and decided to spend some hours contemplating the flowers.
One of the neighbors noticed the man’s strange behavior and went to look for a policeman. Some minutes later, a policeman approached him.
“Who are you?” asked the policeman in a rough voice.
Schopenhauer looked at the man from head to toe.
“That is what I want to find out while I look at the flowers. If you can answer that question, I shall be forever grateful.”


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Changing sound into color

“Let’s stop for a bit. I can’t stand this orange color!”
Where is the orange color? We are at the Trastevere in Rome, and all that I can see are the bars, the people in the streets in this early frozen spring, all this to the sound of church bells ringing. It’s almost night-time on a cloudy day, so we can’t even blame the sun for the optical illusion.
I am strolling with an actress I have known for some time, but we have never had the chance to have a proper conversation. I stop as she requested, but only out of politeness, since this well-balanced professional woman must be crazier than I thought.
We go into a restaurant to have dinner. We order risotto with truffles, and a good wine. We chat about life, and once again she comes out with an absurd comment:
“This food is rectangular!”
She noticed the alarmed expression on my face. Rectangular food?
“You must think I’m crazy; I’m not. At a certain moment in my life I thought that I was color-blind, that I got colors all mixed up. I went to the doctor and discovered that I have a common neurological disorder.”
When I got back home I immediately started to research on the computer and was surprised to find out something that I had never heard of before in my life: synesthesia. A condition in which the stimulus of a certain sense provokes perception in another. Those who suffer from this type of disorder confuse sounds with smells, sights with taste, colors with touch (not necessarily in that logical order).
Some scientific studies claim that the vision of auras in human beings was born there; I disagree with these studies, for I believe that all of us really have an astral body that can be seen when we alter perception. But what fascinated me most in my research was to find out that what we perceive through our five senses is not an absolute truth. Synesthetic people have a notion of the world completely different from ours, though this does not prevent them from leading a relatively normal life. My actress friend works on Italian TV every day, and says that she eventually became used to it.
Delving a bit deeper into the matter, I discovered a study in the British journal Cognitive Neuropsychology. A team of researchers from University College in London, headed by Dr. Jamie Ward, went even further: some synesthetics can perceive colors in emotion-laden words such as “love” or “son”. The vast majority of them end up associating someone’s name with a certain tonality. Ward describes the case of a girl identified as G.W., who simply by hearing certain names had her field of vision entirely covered by a certain color associated with that word.
I learn from an art magazine that the halos that we see around the heads of saints may have been created by some synesthetic painter in days of old, then repeated by others without anyone wondering about the reason for that circle of light. The 1965 winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics once said in an interview: “when I write equations on the blackboard, I note the numbers and the letters in different colors”. One article explains that Feynman belongs to a group of persons for whom the number two can be yellow, the word car may taste like strawberry jam, and a certain musical note may evoke the image of a circle.
Ward says that synesthesia is by no means a disease: “quite unlike psychiatric disorders, synesthetic people have none of their basic functions compromised, but they do have a positive symptom which most other human beings lack”. The big problem lies in school-age children, who cannot understand why they feel things differently from others.
To my great surprise, some studies point out that one on every 300 people is synesthetic (although most say that the ratio is one in every 2,000).
The next day I called my friend and asked what sensation she always associated with me. “Gentle” was her answer.
Well, synesthesia can’t always be logical!

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Conversations with children

What is treason?

Walking down the street, the prophet asked: “aren’t we all children of the same Eternal Father?”
The multitude agreed. And the prophet went on: “and if that is so, why do we betray our brother?”
A boy who was watching asked his father: “what does betray mean?”
“It means to trick your companion in order to gain a certain advantage.”
“And why do we betray our companion?” insisted the boy.
“Because in the past somebody began all that. Ever since then, nobody knows how to stop the wheel. We are always betraying or being betrayed.”
“Then I won’t betray anyone,” said the boy.
And so he did. He grew up and suffered a lot during his life, but kept his promise.
His children suffered less and endured fewer hardships.
His grandchildren did not suffer at all.

On jealousy

When she was eleven years old, Anita went to her mother to complain. “I can’t manage to have friends. They all stay away from me because I’m so jealous.”
Her mother was taking care of newly-born chickens, and Anita held up one of them, which immediately tried to escape. The more the girl squeezed it in her hands, the more the chicken struggled.
Her mother said: “try holding it gently.”
Anita obeyed her. She opened her hands and the chicken stopped struggling. She began to stroke it and the chicken cuddled up between her fingers.
“Human beings are like that too,” said her mother. “If you want to hold onto them by any means, they escape. But if you are kind to them, they will remain for ever by your side.”

The three things

Chen Ziqin asked Confucius’s son: “does your father teach you something that we don’t know?”
The other answered: “No. Once, when I was alone, he asked if I read poetry. I said no, and he told me to read some, because poetry opens the soul to the path of divine inspiration.
“On another occasion he asked whether I practiced the rituals of adoration of God. I said no, and he told me to do so, because the act of adoring would make me understand myself. But he never kept an eye on me to see if I was obeying him.”
When Chen Ziqin left, he said to himself:
“I asked one question and was given three answers. I learned something about poetry. I learned something about the rituals of adoration. And I learned that an honest man never spies on the honesty of others.”

In search of rain

After four years of drought in the little village, the parish priest gathered everybody to make a pilgrimage to the mountain; there they would join in communal prayer to ask for rain.
In the middle of the group the priest noticed a boy all wrapped up in warm clothes and covered by a raincoat.
“Are you crazy?” he asked. “It hasn’t rained in this region for five years and you’ll die of the heat climbing the mountain!”
“I’ve got a cold, father. If we are going to pray to God for rain, can you imagine the climb back down? The downpour is going to be so heavy that it’s better to be prepared.”
At that very moment a loud roar was heard in the sky and the first drops began to fall. The faith of a boy was enough to work a miracle that thousands of men were praying for.

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The tree and its fruits

The tree and its fruits

A warrior remembers the past. He knows man’s Spiritual Quest, knows that this has accounted for some of the best pages in History.

And also some of its worst chapters; massacres, sacrifices, obscurantism. The Quest has been used for private ends and its ideals have served as a shield for terrible scheming.

The warrior has already heard comments of the type: “how am I to know if this is the right path?” He has seen many people give up the Quest because they did not know how to answer that question.

The warrior, however, has no doubts; he follows an infallible formula. “By its fruits you shall know the tree,” said Jesus.

He follows this rule, and it never fails.

The fruits of those who refuse to listen

A prophet arrived at a large city in Persia and crowds gathered around him every morning. But time passed and his presence was no longer a novelty.

“We already know all that you had to teach us,” they said, going to look for a new prophet to show them the way.

Even without anyone to listen to him, the prophet continued to go to the square to deliver his sermon.

“Why do you insist on continuing here?” asked a boy. “Don’t you see you’re talking to yourself?”

“Those who have the courage to say what they feel in their soul are in touch with God. I try to listen to Him when I am talking.

“The fact that now and again I have an audience does not change a thing.”

The fruits of those who refuse to receive

During a dinner at the Sceta monastery, the oldest priest rose to serve the others water. He moved from table to table with considerable effort, but none of the priests accepted.

“We are unworthy of the service of this saint,” they thought.

When the old man reached Abbot Little John’s table, he was asked to fill his glass to the very brim. The other monks looked on in horror. At the end of dinner, they surrounded Little John:

“How can you deem yourself worthy of accepting that water? Didn’t you notice the sacrifice he was making to serve you?”

“How can I stop good from manifesting itself? You who take yourselves for saints did not have the humility to receive, and deprived the poor man of the joy of giving.”

The fruits of the human heart

Sufi tradition tells the story of a king who looked for good painters to decorate his palace. Two teams – one Greek and one Chinese – appeared with their best artists, trying to obtain some work that would earn them thousands of gold pieces.

As a test, the king asked each of them to decorate a wall of one of the rooms. To prevent one group from seeing the work of the other, he chose opposite walls and hung a curtain in the middle.

The Chinese painted their wall with the utmost care, whereas the Greeks spent the whole time polishing the surface of the other wall over and over again. Finally the day arrived when the king decided to remove the curtain and compare the results.

On one side he saw the beautiful Chinese painting. On the other wall, which had been polished until it turned into a mirror, the king also saw the beautiful Chinese painting – but with his own image in the middle.

“This is the better,” said the king. And the Greeks won the contract, because they knew how to deal with the fruits hidden in the human heart.

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Twenty years later

Next week we commemorate Santiago de Compostela day (25th July).  Last year, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my first Santiago Walk, I made the pilgrimage again, by car, in the company of my wife.

I remember one afternoon sitting in a garden in Leon, looking at the river flowing by.

Beside me, Christina – my wife – is reading a book.  Spring is beginning in Europe, so now we can put away our thick winter clothes.  We have been traveling by car all these days, passing through certain places that have marked our lives (Christina traveled the Road to Santiago in 1990).  Though not in any hurry, we have covered 500 kilometers in less than a week.

Mineral water.  Coffee.

People talking, people walking.

People also having their coffee and mineral water.

Then I go back twenty years in time, to one afternoon in July or August 1986, a coffee, a mineral water, people talking and walking – except this time the scenario is the plain that stretches out beyond Castrojeriz.  My birthday draws near; I left Saint Jean Pied-de-Port some time ago and have covered just over half the journey to Santiago de Compostela.

Walking speed: 20 kilometers a day.

I look ahead, the monotonous landscape, the guide also having his coffee in a bar that seems to have appeared out of nowhere.  I look behind; the same monotonous landscape, the only difference being that the dust on the ground bears the marks of the soles of my shoes – but that is temporary, and the wind will sweep them away before night falls. 

Everything seems unreal to me.

What am I doing here?  This question goes on pursuing me, although several weeks have already gone by.

I am looking for a sword.  I am performing a ritual of RAM, a small order within the Catholic Church without any secrets or mysteries besides trying to understand the symbolic language of the world.  I am thinking that I have been fooled, that the spiritual quest is just something with no sense or logic and that I would be better off in Brazil, caring about what I always cared about.

I am doubting my own sincerity in this quest, because it is hard work looking for a God who never shows Himself, praying at specific times, traveling strange roads, being disciplined, accepting orders that seem absurd.

That’s it: I doubt my sincerity.  During all these days, Petrus has said that the road belongs to everyone, the common folk, which makes me very disappointed.  I thought that all this effort would ensure me a special place among the few chosen who approach the great archetypes of the universe.  I thought that I was finally going to discover that it was all true, all those stories about secret governments of wise men in Tibet, magic potions capable of provoking love where there is no attraction, and rituals where all of a sudden the gates of Paradise open up, was all true.

But what Petrus tells me is exactly the opposite: there are no chosen.  We are all chosen, if instead of wondering “what am I doing here?” we decide to do something that fills our hearts with enthusiasm.  Working with enthusiasm, love that transforms, the choice that leads us to God, that is where the gates of Paradise are to be found. 

And this enthusiasm connects us to the Holy Spirit, not the hundreds and thousands of readings of the classic texts.  It is wanting to believe that life is a miracle that enables miracles to happen, not the so-called “secret rituals” or “initiatory orders”.  In short, it is man’s decision to comply with his destiny that really makes him a man – not the theories that he develops around the mystery of existence.

And here I am.  A little beyond halfway on the road to Santiago de Compostela.  If everything is as simple as Petrus says, why all this useless adventure?
On that afternoon in León in the far-off year of 1986, I still do not know that in six or seven years’ time I will write a book on this experience of mine, which is already in my soul – the shepherd Santiago in quest of a treasure – that a woman called Veronika had prepared to swallow some pills and try to commit suicide, and that Pilar will stand on the banks of the river Piedra and write her diary in tears.

All I know is that I am on this absurd and monotonous walk.  There is no fax, no cellular phone, the shelters are few and far between, my guide seems irritated the whole time, and I have no way of knowing what is going on in Brazil.

All I know at this very moment is that I am tense, nervous, incapable of talking with Petrus because I have just realized that I can no longer go on doing what I have been doing – even if this means giving up a reasonable amount of money at the end of the month, a certain emotional stability, a job that I know well and some techniques that I master.  I need to change, follow in the direction of my dream, a dream that seems to me childish, ridiculous and impossible to make come true: to become the writer that I have secretly always wanted to be, but have never had the courage to admit.

Petrus finishes his coffee and mineral water, asks me to get the check and for us to start walking again, because there are still some kilometers to the next town.  People go on passing by and talking, looking out of the corner of their eye at these two middle-aged pilgrims, wondering about the strange people in this world who are always ready to try and relive a past that is already dead (*).  The temperature must be around 27o C because it is late afternoon and for the thousandth time I ask myself whether I have made the wrong decision.

Did I want to change?  I don’t think so, but after all, this road is changing me.  Did I want to know the mysteries?  I think so, but the road is teaching me that there are no mysteries, that – as Jesus Christ said – nothing is hidden that has not been revealed.  In other words, everything is happening in exactly the opposite way from what I expected.

We rose and started to walk in silence.  I am engrossed in my thoughts, in my insecurity, and I imagine Petrus must be thinking about his job in Milan.  He is here because somehow he was obliged by Tradition, but perhaps he hopes that the walk will soon come to an end so that he can get back to doing what he likes.

We walk for almost all of what remains of the afternoon without talking.  We are isolated in our forced companionship.  Santiago de Compostela lies ahead and I cannot imagine that this road leads me not only to this city, but also to many other cities in the world.  Neither I nor Petrus know that this afternoon on the plain of León I am also walking to Milan, his city, which I shall reach almost ten years from now, with a book called “The Alchemist”.  I am walking towards my destiny, dreamed of so many times and so many times denied.

In a few days I shall arrive at exactly the place where today, twenty years down the track, I write these lines.  I am walking in the direction of what I always wanted, and I have neither faith nor hope that my life will be changed.

Yet I push ahead.  In some distant future, in one of the bars which I shall pass by a few days from now, my wife is already sitting reading a book, and there am I, writing this text on a computer that in a few minutes will send it by Internet to the newspaper where it will be published. 

I am walking towards that future – on this August afternoon in 1986.
(*) in the year I made the pilgrimage, only 400 people had taken the Road to Santiago.  In 2005, according to non-official statistics, 400 people passed every day in front of the bar mentioned in the text.

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Deep in the heart

Some months ago I published here a column with the title “The basement secrets”, describing a retreat that ended in a magic dinner in the underground area of Melk Abbey in Austria. In that article I commented that on looking deep into the basement of my soul, all that I could find were my mistakes, and that I would try to organize them so that rather than frighten me, they would help me understand better those things that I should not repeat. Among other people, I was in the company of the Abbot, Dr. Burkhard Ellegast, OSB, whom I consider a spiritual master, although we do not have a language in common (I can’t even ask for a glass of water in German). To my surprise, Abbot Burkhard wrote a text about “The basement secrets”, and here I adapt some of his reflections.

“We often wonder: how come that happened to us? All of a sudden I saw myself surrounded by people who were willing to reflect on the meaning of life. What could I say to these people, if all that had happened in my life was to enter an abbey at an early age and later be put in charge of directing this same abbey for 26 years?”

“I think that people look at me as if I had an answer to everything. But all that I decided to do was speak a little about myself. To say that my faith is capable of keeping me alive and enthusiastic and to go ahead despite the moments of pessimism. Then I explained my motto: if I ever make a false step and get dragged down to the bottom, this will never be done in a quiet manner. Everyone will see and hear me shouting, kicking, and waving flags so that I can serve as an alert for those who will come later.

“Because of this motto, I know that I will hardly make others follow me in my errors, and so I manage to master my fear and risk sailing my boat into unknown waters. I know, of course, that if I begin to drown, despite all the noise that I will be making, I will still be able to raise my hand and beg: God, please come to my help! In all certainty I will be heard, and a new path will be opened”.

“In his article, Paulo Coelho comments that he was surprised to see that I introduced him using a text from his book “Eleven minutes” (Note – the book is all about sex and prostitution, no wonder I was surprised!). I read an extract from the diary of the main character, where she tells the story of a lovely bird who used to visit her. She admired it so much that one day she decided to keep it in a cage so that she could always have its singing and its beauty near her. As the days went by, she grew used to the new company and lost that wonderful feeling of waiting for that free soul to come visit her from time to time, without being obliged to do so. The bird in turn was unable to sing in captivity, and ended up dying. Only then did she understand that love needs freedom to express all its charm – although freedom implies risks.

“We tend to want to capture things because we usually see freedom as something that has no borders or responsibilities. And because of this we also end up trying to enslave all that we love – as if egoism were the only way to keep our world well balanced. Love does not limit, it broadens our horizons, we can see clearly what lies outside and we can see even more clearly the dark places in our heart.

“Although I do not speak English, I could understand everything that Coelho’s eyes and gestures said. I can still remember when he asked me, through one of the people present, what he should do now. I answered him: keep on looking.

“And even when you find, keep on looking, with enthusiasm and curiosity. In spite of the mistakes that will eventually be committed, love is stronger, it allows the bird to fly free, and each step will be not just a movement forward but will contain in itself a whole new path”.

The Sign

Once upon a time there was a wise man called Sidi Mehrez.  He was very annoyed with the place where he lived, a beautiful town on the Mediterranean Sea where men and women lived in depraved fashion, and money was the only value that mattered.  As Mehrez was also a saint and worked miracles, he decided to enfold Tunis in his long scarf and toss it into the ocean.

Buildings began to tumble, the ground rose up, the inhabitants started to panic on seeing that they were being hurled towards their death.  In despair, they decided to ask for help from a friend of Mehrez, called Sidi Ben Arous.  Ben Arous managed to convince the strict saint to interrupt the destruction, but ever since then the streets of Tunis have been rough and uneven.

I stroll through the bazaar of this African city, borne by the winds of this pilgrimage to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my first walk to Santiago in 1986.  I am accompanied by Adam Fathi and Samir Benali, two local writers; fifteen kilometers away stand the ruins of Carthage, which in the remote past was capable of challenging powerful Rome.  We discuss the epic of Hannibal, one of the city’s warriors: the Romans expected a sea battle (the two cities were separated only by a few hundred sea kilometers), but Hannibal braved the desert, crossed the straits of Gibraltar with an enormous army, marched through Spain and France, climbed the Alps with soldiers and elephants, and attacked the Empire from the North.  He defeated all the enemies in his path and then suddenly, without anyone knowing exactly why, he stopped before Rome and did not attack it at the opportune moment.  The result of this indecision was that Carthage was scored off the map by the Roman ships.

We pass by a beautiful building: in 1754, one brother murdered another and their father decided to erect this palace to house a school that would keep alive the memory of his murdered son.  I comment that by doing so, the murdered son would also be remembered.

“That’s not quite true,” answers Samil.  “In our culture, the criminal shares the blame with all those who allowed him to commit the crime.  When a man is executed, the one who sold him the arm is also responsible before God.  The only way for the father to correct what he considered a fault was by changing the tragedy into something that can help others: instead of vengeance limited to punishment, the school has enabled instruction and wisdom to be transmitted for over two centuries.”

On one of the doors of the old wall hangs a lantern.  Fathi comments that I am a well-known writer, whereas he is still struggling for recognition:

“Here we have the origin of one of the most famous of Arab proverbs: “light only illuminates strangers.”

I reply that Jesus made the same comment: no-one is a prophet in his own country.  We always tend to lend value to what comes from afar, without ever recognizing all the beauty that is around us.

We go into an old palace that has been transformed into a cultural center.  My two friends begin to explain to me the story of the place, but my attention is completely distracted by the sound of a piano and I begin to follow it through the labyrinths of the building.  I end up in a room where a man and a woman, apparently oblivious to the world, are playing the “Turkish March” for four hands.  I remember that some years ago I saw something similar – a pianist in a shopping center, engrossed in his music, paying no attention at all to the people who passed by talking loud or with their radios turned on.

But here there are only the three of us and the two pianists.  I can see the expression on both their faces: joy, sheer and utter joy.  They are not there to impress an audience, but rather because they feel that this is the gift that God has given them to talk with their souls.  Likewise, the souls of Adam, Samil and Paulo also end up talking to one another, and we all feel closer to the meaning of life.

We listened in silence for an hour.  At the end we applauded, and when I returned to the hotel I thought for a while about that lantern.

Yes, it may be that it only shines on the stranger, but what difference does that make when we are possessed by this vast love for what we do?

Thank God the room is packed for my talk in this African country.  I am to be introduced by two local intellectuals; we have met before – one of them has a two-minute text, the other has written a quarter-hour thesis on my work.

The coordinator very carefully explains that it will be impossible to read the thesis, since the meeting is to last 50 minutes at most.  I imagine how hard the intellectual must have worked on his text, but I think that the coordinator is right: I am there to talk to my readers, who are the main reason for the meeting.

The lecture begins.  The introductions last five minutes at most, so now I have 45 minutes for an open dialogue.  I say that I am not there to explain anything and that it would be interesting to try to hold a dialogue.

The first question comes from a young woman: what are the signs that I speak so much about in my books?  I explain that this is an extremely personal language that we develop all through our life by making mistakes and getting things right, until we understand when God is guiding us.  Somebody else asks if it was a sign that brought me to this far-off country.  I answer yes, I have been on a 90-day journey to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my first pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

The conversation continues, the time passes quickly, and I have to bring the talk to an end.  From amid 600 people I choose a middle-aged man with a bushy moustache to ask the final question.

And the man says:

“I don’t want to ask any questions.  I just want to say a name.”

And he says the name of a small hermitage located in the middle of nowhere thousands of kilometers from where I find myself, where one day I placed a plaque giving thanks for a miracle.  And where I returned before this pilgrimage to ask the Virgin to protect my steps.

I no longer know how to continue the meeting.  The following words were written by Adam Fethi, one of the two writers who made up the table:

“And suddenly the Universe in that room seemed to have stopped moving.  So many things happened: I saw your tears.  And I saw the tears of your sweet wife when that anonymous reader said the name of a chapel lost somewhere in the world.

“You lost your voice.  Your smiling face grew serious.  Your eyes filled with timid tears that trembled on the edge of your eyelashes as if apologizing for being there without being invited.

“I was there too, feeling a knot in the throat and not knowing why.  I looked for my wife and my daughter in the audience, they are the ones I always look for when I feel on the brink of something I don’t understand.  They were there, but their eyes were fixed on you, silent like everyone else there, trying to lend you support with their eyes, as if eyes could support a man.

“So I tried to concentrate on Christina, asking for help, trying to understand what was going on, how to end that silence that seemed infinite.  And I saw that she too was crying, in silence, as if you were notes of the same symphony, as if your tears were joining the two of you despite the distance.

“And for long seconds there was no longer any room, no audience, nothing at all.  You and your wife had parted to a place where no-one could follow you; all that existed was the joy of living all this, which was told only in silence and emotion.

“Words are tears that have been written.  Tears are words that need pouring out.  Without them no joy can shine, no sadness can come to an end.  So, thank you for your tears.”

I should have told the young woman who asked the first question – about signs – that this was one of them, affirming that I found myself in the place where I should be, at the right moment, despite never properly understanding what took me there.

But I think that was not necessary: she must have realized.

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Meditation walking

arrive at Santiago de Compostela, this time by car, to celebrate my pilgrimage twenty years ago. When I was in Puente La Reina, I had the idea of holding afternoon book-signings without any elaborate preparations: just calling the next town where we were going to spend the night, ask them to put up a notice in the local bookstore, and be there at the appointed time.

It worked wonderfully in the small villages, but it did take a bit more organizing in big towns, like Santiago de Compostela itself. I enjoyed these unscheduled meetings; I found that labors of love are best performed in the spirit of improvisation.

Santiago is now in front of me, with the Atlantic Ocean a few dozen kilometers beyond. Nevertheless, I am determined to go ahead with my improvised book-signing afternoons, since my plan is to spend ninety days away from home.

And since I have no intention of crossing the ocean right now, should I take a right (Santander, the Basque Country) or a left (Guimarí£es, Portugal)?

Better let destiny make the choice: my wife and I enter a bar and ask a man who is drinking his coffee: right or left? He says with some conviction that we should go left – perhaps thinking we were referring to political parties.

I telephone my Portuguese editor. He does not ask me if I have gone crazy, does not complain about being informed at the last moment. Two hours later he calls me back to say that he has contacted the local radio stations in Guimarí£es and Fatima and that in 24 hours I can meet my readers in those cities.

Everything works out fine.

And in Fatima, like a sign, I receive a present from one of the people present at the book-signing – the writings of a Buddhist monk called Thich Nhat Hanh, with the title “The long road to joy”. From that moment on, before I continue on this 90-day journey across the world, every morning I read the wise words of Nhat Hanh, which I summarize below:

1] You have already arrived. So, feel pleasure at each step and do not worry about things that you still have to face. We have nothing before us, just a road to be traveled at each moment with joy. When we practice pilgrim meditation, we are always arriving, our home is the present moment, and nothing more.

2] For that reason, always smile while you walk, Even if you have to force it a bit and feel ridiculous. Get used to smiling and you will end up happy. Do not be afraid of displaying your contentment.

3] If you think that peace and joy always lie ahead, you will never manage to achieve them. Try to understand that they are both your traveling companions.

4] When you walk, you are massaging and honoring the earth. In the same way, the earth is trying to help you to balance your organism and mind. Understand this relationship and try to respect it – may your steps have the firmness of a lion, the elegance of a tiger and the dignity of an emperor.

5] Pay attention to what is going on around you. And concentrate on your breathing – this will help you to get rid of the problems and worries that try to accompany you on your journey.

6] When you walk, it is not just you that is moving, but all past and future generations. In the so-called “real” world, time is a measure, but in the true world nothing exists beyond the present moment. Be fully aware that everything that has happened and everything that will happen is in each step you take.

7] Enjoy yourself. Make pilgrim meditation a constant meeting with yourself, never a penance in search of reward. May flowers and fruit always grow in the places touched by your feet.