As I prepare to walk the Camino de Santiago with my daughter, I am reading a few of the better selling books about this 1000-year-old pilgrimage route to the cathedral town of Compostela in northwest Spain. One of the first that pops up on Amazon is by Paulo Coelho, the much-published, much-translated Brazilian author whose most popular title, The Alchemist, is a New Agey book-club favorite in the United States.
Coelho's book about the Camino, The Pilgrimage (1988), is about as New Agey, or gnostic, as it gets. It concerns a Brazilian man (Coelho? how autobiographical is this book? how fictional?) who is an adept in something called The Tradition, involving a sacred word or anagram, RAM. Losing his sword in an initiation ritual, he is informed that, to recover the sword, he must walk "the Strange Road to Santiago." The master gives the narrator's wife the sword and tells her where in Spain to hide it. Then, left to his own spiritual devices and imagination, the narrator heads to the start of the Camino in St. Jean Pied-de-Port in southwestern France in search of his sword.
His journey involves a gypsy, a spiritual guide named Petrus (Peter the Apostle?), a messenger (a sort of guardian angel), and a dog demon that he must conquer or outwit. Along the way, Petrus teaches him a series of spiritual exercises, mostly attempts at creative visualization, like the "Blue Sphere Exercise." Do the Blue Sphere Exercise, Petrus tells the narrator, and "soon agape will live again within you." Love is so simple, the book says, all it takes is a bit of creative visualization. Who needs moral teaching? Meanwhile, Petrus quotes randomly from Scripture, especially from Saint Paul, whom he terms "the major occult interpreter of Christ's message."
It is odd, being on the brink of a Christian pilgrimage that millions, including Francis of Assisi, have taken since the start of the last millennium and to read that, without the esoteric knowledge of a guide like Petrus, I am but a poor boob without a sword, and no match for the spiritual mysteries of the Camino de Santiago.
Several times Coelho refers to the books of Carlos Castaneda about the teachings of the Mexican sorcerer Don Juan (which books, admittedly, I read with great interest 40 years ago). The Pilgrimage reads like a yaqui gloss on Christianity — or would if Coelho were kind enough to explain what the heck The Tradition is. Evidently it is some pre-Christian gnosis, the teaching behind all teachings, which every esoteric or gnostic teacher from Castaneda to Gurdjieff has claimed to have a handle on.
What The Pilgrimage shows me is how suggestible and needy we have become. With our religious tethers cut, we are all in pursuit of the inner gods of our own understanding, willing to follow whatever wild-eyed guide we find in our path. Whether such a search will lead any of us to the God behind all other gods — better than simply following Christ in his Church would do — is a question I will leave for the likes of Coelho and Petrus.
For myself, I will walk the Camino de Santiago with my rosary held close to my heart, and I will attend Mass on Sundays. So late in life, those simple exercises satisfy me. If I see a blue light along the way, I'll post about it.