Paulo Coelho

Stories & Reflections

Twenty years later

Author: Paulo Coelho

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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