Paulo Coelho first came to my attention when a friend let me borrow her copy of “The Alchemist.”  It was not what I expected it to be.  It was much more.  I’ve read a lot of books about following your path, listening to your dreams and redefining your goals. Not many of them were better than a retelling of JosephCampbell‘s Hero’s Myth mixed with a dash of New Age self help chatter.  They came across didactic.  They never touched my soul.  Then I read “The Alchemist.”  It had heart.  I never felt that it was trying to instruct me on how to live, I simply followed the young man in the story and learned from his example.  “The Alchemist” gave me a new system of thinking because it gave me symbols that I could use to apply to my life.  It did this by paring down language to its most evocative.  It told a simple story in a vibrant way.

Imagine my delight when another friend lent me a second book by Coelho, “The Witch of Portabello”.  The inside book jacket sleeve says: “How can find the courage to always be true to ourselves–even if we are unsure of who we are?”  The book explores that question by telling the story of an amazing woman named Athena through the many people who knew (and did not know) her.  Each chapter has different characters narrating the story, leaving the reader to piece the narrative together.  It tends to keep one on their toes and creates a vivid portrait of Athena.

Athena channels a higher beimg  named Hagia Sophia,  who is simply another aspect of herself, during monthly group meetings.  In these time of divine transcendance, she teaches many moral imperatives such as:

“You are what you believe yourself to be.”

“Don’t be like those people who believe in ‘positive thinking’ and tell themselves that they’re loved and strong and capable.  You don’t need to do that, because you know it already.  And when you doubt it…just laugh.  Laugh at your worries and insecurities.  View your anxieties with humor.  It will be difficult at first, but you’ll gradually get used to it.” (152)

This is no New Age parable.  This is real counsel, completely applicable to anyone’s life.  It takes the ephemeral and makes it tangible.  The topic of breaking off the chains of self doubt is visisted many times throughout Athena’s story.  She is not willing to live another’s idea of her destiny. 

“We all have a duty to love and to allow love to manifest in the way it thinks best.  We cannot and must not be frightened when the powers of darkness want to make themselves heard, thos same powers that introduced the word sin merely to control our hearts and minds.”

Athena uses the story of Jesus as propenent of unconditional love and quotes many instances from the Bible when he uses compassion instead of guilt or shame to help his followers.

“What is sin?  It is a sin to prevent Love from showing itself.  And the Mother is Love.  We are entering a new world in which we can choose to follow our own steps, not those that society forces us to take.  If necessary, we will confront the forces of darkness again…But but no one will silence our voice or our heart.”  (229)

Love is often the subject of her talks. 

“The man before me suffers for something he believes he has never received–my love.  But the man beyond your self understands that all pain, anxiety, and feelings of abandonement are unnecessary and childish.  I love you.  Not in the way that your human side wants, but in the way that the divine spark wants.  We inhabit the same tent, which was placed on our oath by her.  There we understand we are not the slaves of our feelings, but their masters.  We serve and are served, we open the doors of our rooms and we embrace.  Perhaps we kiss too, because everything that happens very intensely on earth will have its counterpart on the invisible plain.  And you know that I’m not trying to provoke you, that I’m not toying with your feelings when I say that.'”

Her follower, Philemon asks:

“‘What is love then?'”

And she responds:

“‘The soul, blood, and body of the Great Mother.  I love you as exiled souls love each other when they meet in the middle of the desert.  There will never be anything physical between us, but no passion is in vain, no love is ever wasted.  If the Mother awoke that love in your heart, she awoke it in mine too, although your heart perhaps feels it more readily.  The energy of love can never be lost–it is more powerful than anything and shows itself in many ways.'”      (256)

It is definitely worth your while to pick up “The Alchemist” or “The Witch of Portobello” and glean from the stories their divine human wisdom.  The world is richer for having Paulo Coelho in it!