Finding faith in yourself while traveling

A novel is a revelation of someone’s soul, and your ability to truly capture its meaning is linked to where you are in your life. 

Paulo's Coelho's The Pilgrimage & My Spanish Symbol of Faith. Book review and personal story.

I’ve mentioned Paulo Coelho– and I will never stop doing so because he’s everything– as he is one of the most famous authors for chronicling his journeys through the world, most notably Spain. Months ago, craving some serious inspiration and travel stories, I picked up Coelho’s The Pilgrimage. His novels, simple reads ripe with the acute wisdom, are always the perfect companion to fall asleep to or wake up and have your morning coffee with.

The book chronicles his experiences on el Camino de Santiago (Road of Santiago), a hiker’s trail that begins in France and ends in Northern Spain. It is synonymous with finding one’s self. Think Reese Witherspoon in Wild but with years of history embedded into a culture. The people not only respect the pilgrims making the journey, they literally take care of them.

It has long been a debate in our household, and we’ve convinced ourselves and effectively un-convinced ourselves we’ll do it several times.

The problem I encountered when I began reading was foreign to me… I could not stand Coelho. I hated myself for feeling it but as the story began, I witnessed my hero showing a side of himself that was childish and at some points obnoxious. Unprepared to dislike my idol, I had to put it down.

Usually, I LOVE this man. It truly felt like a betrayal to see him differently. While Coelho borders on the religious more than I care, at his core he believes in a universal guiding hand. The spiritual forces he continuously chronicles while traveling almost always resonate with me. After my last trip to Spain, which brought upon moments where emotions poured out of me I didn’t think existed… I was ready to reopen The Pilgrimage and give it a second chance.

The biggest feat of any of Coelho’s novels is his spirituality… it’s also my biggest pet peeve about him. It is the tiniest of thorns in my side when his Catholicism inevitably makes its way into the storyline. While I was raised Catholic, I have chosen to steer away from religion. In his novels, Coelho references running into angels, which lead him exactly where he needs to be… usually, a Catholic church. Typically, I extract the bigger meaning and skim the overly religious parts. Perhaps, I should have read more carefully as it was in experiencing an angel of our very own that I was finally prepared to reread this book. And our angel led us to, you guessed it, a Catholic church.

The friendly stranger went out of his way to show us to our destination. It was our first time in Calpe and we were lost. Upon talking to us and deciding he approved, he insisted we follow him to the church. It was the center of the city, again typical of Spain, and he happened to know the priest. He explained we were with him and led us inside. Here, he bid us adieu and wished us peace, love and happiness on the rest of our journey.

At first, I looked around awkwardly trying to figure out an exit plan, but it seemed rather inhospitable to leave after he went through the trouble to make sure we experienced it. So, I walked around the pews remembering my younger days of uncomfortable uniforms, religion class and weekly mass on Fridays. I went over to the candles and concentrated on the flames. Here, now, I could feel something. A deep emotion, younger images of my grandmother and her unwavering faith in God, an indescribable sentiment that we needed to be here and that all in life was going as it should. I paid our penance, lit two candles and left in a daze.

I had been ready to drink beer, work on a good buzz and explore some shops, but now I was in a deep thoughtful place of self expression. I couldn’t un-feel it and it was heavy.

I felt gratitude for my life and for that kind stranger who all but thrusted this feeling upon us. It was now, weeks after the incident and with Coelho’s book in my hands, that I realized it. I recognized the feeling as faith. And the first faith I ever experienced, with the intense unquestioning oomph that only a child can, was in a Catholic church.

I never knew its absence until I felt its familiar capacity. The power is undeniable, and if I ever felt that strongly I swear I’d be unstoppable. A theory Coelho suggests at the end of The Pilgrimage, where he comes to the realization (in Spain at a church, of course) that we all have the capacity to be mini gods if we only have faith in ourselves and act in accordance with that belief. Our potential is far greater than we could imagine, if only we’d just let ourselves have it. If only we’d let go of our fears and have faith.

As I read those final pages and he was churning out all that he’d learned, in true Coelho fashion, it struck a chord. That’s when I understood what he was saying. My trip, which was rife with symbols of el camino, had gifted me a similar realization.

I was finally in a place where I could embrace what Coelho’s soul was trying to say. All the quirky details I didn’t want anything to do with were now the familiar pains of someone in need of the road and time to themselves.

We have a saying my partner and I, albondigas. The word itself means meatballs, but in Spanish it sounds very close to algún día (someday).

 I know I’ll have to read The Pilgrimage over again, perhaps once I have travelled on my own road. Albondigas.