By the River Piedra . . .

After posting my review of Paulo Coelho’s Brida, I sent an email to Paulo saying that I:

A few days later, I received this very nice and thoughtful reply:

This nice note made me feel a slight twinge of guilt, which can be a useful emotion if it leads to action.

The guilt?  Here was one Coelho book I read about thirteen years ago that I was impressed with.  I did not have one negative thought about the book that I could remember, and I had imprinted it into my mind as my favorite Coelho book.  But I had not ever bothered to write a review of it.

Did I not write a review because I had nothing critical to say?  Frankly, if I did have such a thought, I have forgotten it now.

So what action did I take in response to my twinge of guilt? I dug up the book and re-read it, just to be able to write a review of it.

So here is my review of By the River Piedra I sat Down and Wept by Paulo Coelho, translated by Alan R. Clarke (HarperSanFransciso, 1996).

[This story is set in a time of cold and snow, hence the background choice.]

This book made enough of an impression on me, long ago, to cause me to visit the River Piedra and the falls and monastery that are so effectively described in this book.  

My wife and I visited there on our anniversary, in 2004. Naturally I exercised my camera, and made photo pages of the small valley where the river falls, and my all-time favorite photo among all the ones I have taken and posted is one of the ones depicting the main falls on the Piedra river, the falls that play a role toward the very end of Coelho’s book.

I ended up making this serene and beautiful place the setting for the final scenes in my own historical- fiction-with-magic novel, which I put on this web site for anyone to read who wants to.  I actually wrote the story before visiting the River Piedra and its monastery.  I based its final setting purely on Coelho’s description!

Our visit confirmed my choice.  For once I found that reality surpassed fiction.  The place had a gripping beauty, a palpable peaceful spirit emanated from  stone, greenery and water.  This is a place that can put new life into the spiritually dead.  

But back to the Coelho book.  I liked it because its main character, a woman named Pilar, was pulled out of an old life and inserted into a new life.  Love is what pulled her from the one life to the other.  Divine love?  Or romantic love?  Yes.

As in any good romance, there are serious perils that seem to conspire to deny her what the reader no doubt sees as the desired outcome, but . . .  one needs to read the book to check whether or not that outcome is really what is in her spiritual best interest.

I liked the fact that Pilar was a student at the University of Zaragoza, I also used that university in the start of my own web-novel (linked to above).  No reason, except that from Coelho I knew there to be a university there, and it was not very far from the falls on the Piedra.

But was it simply the setting of the book that haunted me?  No, it was also the love story in the book, a love story that teaches what Coelho holds to be spiritual truths as it entertains, and yanks your emotions this way and that, as any good book should.

So, now that I re-read this book almost thirteen years later, what did I think this time?  

I immediately saw the parallel that I remember seeing in late 1996.  A parallel with what I had just gone through myself in 1995, the year before I met Coelho's By the River Piedra. A loving person had pulled me out of a closed way of living life, just the type of life that Pilar was also being pulled out of.

Don’t mistake me.  Both Pilar and I were living very normal, even accomplished lives.  She was well on her way to entering the legal profession, and I was a scientist, still am.  A big difference was that she was single.  Not me.  Nevertheless it was love and words and exercises in the spiritual realm that pulled both of us from a place we had been, to a new and quite different (internal) place or way of being.  

In my case you could perhaps not observe a difference, but I knew there had been a radical restructuring of how I perceived the world and my self.  I began this web site at that time, to celebrate having gone from “Introvert” to Extrovert” in my personality profile on a standardized test over that one-year period!  I was a new person.

So at every turn of Pilar’s unfolding into her new life I internally applauded and hoped she would not backslide.  As the person pulling her into a new life seemed on be on the verge of disappearing, I actually thought that would have been a good ending, because it was so in my case: once infected by and living in a state of love, or Love, the person that pulled and cajoled me into that state left my life, for all intents and purposes.  This only temporarily slowed and affected my transition.  

That personal experience is why, I believe, I could so readily identify with the transformation of Rumi after Shems disappeared: he was despondent for some time, extremely sad, but then he began to realize that the love/Love his mentor had introduced him to was still in him, still all around him, and in a very profound way was him!  

It is also why that fleeting smile from Beatrice, as she and Dante parted for the very last time, was enough to carry Dante into the Divine Presence, where even he was so overcome as to be at a loss for words!  

And it is why I could so identify with the attempted final parting between Francis of Assisi and Clare, which released a love so intense that flowers instantly bloomed, in mid-winter!

So, what happens to Pilar at the very end?  Exactly what Coelho imagined.  Not exactly what these other three tales from history and fantasy reminded me of, but still, there were mighty changes wrought in the two main characters, through the transforming power of love.

Was this a novel that upheld my sense of the usefulness of the Courtly Love ideal of very strong, overpowering  love, without physical consummation, driving spiritual change in the participants?  For a while yes.  In the end?  Not exactly, but this is where these disruptive forces came in that have you guessing at what will finally come to pass.  

If you want to stop guessing, read the book.  

As is usually the case, there are a few ideas and pages in the book that stood out, for me.  One idea was that the God of love is no respecter of persons or religions.  The book centers on a charismatic Catholic movement only because the lead person, the man who helps Pilar to change, is most familiar with Catholicism.  In fact he explains that he has come across people who were obviously touched by the God and Goddess, and filled with divine love as a consequence, in every religion, during his world travels.  Having learned this he returned to his own place and religion to develop the gifts that the divine would have him develop.

Pages 78 and 79 describe the difficult but rewarding process of letting go of fear, fear of the new, the unfamiliar, the unknown, and learning to live by and in a state of love.  It has this gem:

I also liked this on page 117, where Pilar is interpreting her new-found ability to speak in tongues and feels the spirit of love within and all around her:

On several tens of pages in the 140s to 160s there is a recounting of two ideas that appealed to me. The first seems to invoke, without naming it, the idea of the ‘collective unconscious’ by Carl Jung.  The celebration of the Immaculate Conception is an illustration of a collective surge of interest from all over the world causing action to be taken in the Vatican to celebrate the Virgin as the Queen of Heaven, which Jung ascribed to the collective unconscious demanding that the feminine in Godhood be given recognition.  

The second idea is the universal persecution of visionaries, some of whom are now considered saints. This idea is related to these visions often claiming an experience of the feminine aspect of God.  This has often led to suffering and violent death.  On page 157 it is suggested that the young man who has become Pilar’s love-interest may be facing the same fate: there are stones in the hands of some of those to whom he tries to teach the good news of the Feminine Face of God: the Mother Goddess at the side of the Father.  

This reminded me of the debacle within the Mormon faith not long ago where several women were excommunicated for suggesting, in writing, that it was appropriate to pray to Mother, since it is an accepted Mormon doctrine that there is a Mother as well as a Father in heaven.  Not so, said the male priestly hierarchy, and out on their ears they went while still full of faith and devotion to their religion.  Patriarchy is never benign when it feels threatened

So, is By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept still my favorite Coelho book?  

Yes.

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