By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept

Paulo Coelho’s heart wrenching little book is one of the best books I’ve read this year, or maybe ever. I’m on the verge of gushing here. After I read this book I went on a Goodreads adding spree and discovered I want to read every single thing Coelho ever wrote. I’d dig through his house for his credit card slips, if need be. New favorite author. Poetic, spiritual, this book hugs your heart and soul. There is so much love in a deceivingly skinny package. It’s not just an immense and powerful love story, but an immense and powerful life story. It’s breathtaking in scope and spirit. It’s also highly quotable, almost to the point where I wanted to copy and paste every [other] page.

But ultimately there is no good reason for our suffering, for in every love lies the seed of our growth. The more we love, the closer we come to a spiritual experience. Those who are truly enlightened, those whose souls are illuminated by love, have been able to overcome all the inhibitions and preconceptions of their era. They have been joyful — because those who love conquer the world and have no fear of loss. True love is an act of total surrender.

By The River Piedra ReviewAnd that’s just in the introduction.

Coelho’s introduction is a good teaser of how important this book is, and not because of some scathing social critique or psychological depth, but because it describes the most consequential aspects of anyone’s life: love and faith.

But back to the story. Pilar is a woman going through the motions of her everyday life. She is studying to become a teacher, is looking forward to a conventional life with a husband and children, and is somewhat cynical and definitely controlling. She lives her life by a formula and follows it strictly, because to deviate is to invite chaos into your life, to uproot your carefully-structured, safe existence.

Enter her nameless childhood love. On a whim, Pilar decides to attend a religious lecture led by her first love, a man who has chosen to live his life as a religious leader. They have not seen each other for years, and have only communicated through intermittent correspondence. At his lecture, Pilar is floored by the strength of his rhetoric and the extent of his influence, especially among religious women. He says,

You have to take risks, he said. We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen. Every day, God gives us the sun–and also one moment in which we have the ability to change everything that makes us unhappy. Every day, we try to pretend that we haven’t perceived that moment, that it doesn’t exist–that today is the same as yesterday and will be the same as tomorrow. But if people really pay attention to their everyday lives, they will discover that magic moment. It may arrive in the instant when we are doing something mundane, like putting our front-door key in the lock; it may lie hidden in the quiet that follows the lunch hour or in the thousand and one things that all seem the same to us. But that moment exists–a moment when all the power of the stars becomes a part of us and enables us to perform miracles.

Forgive the lengthy block quote, but I felt it was necessary to convey the sheer beauty of this book and the truth it is able to impart in such a slim package: this book is less than 200 pages, after all.

After reconnecting with Him (her unnamed former love), Pilar learns that He has become a religious leader and believes in what he calls “the feminine face of God.” He believes that there is not only God the Father, but God the Mother, the feminine half of God who is present in all religions in the world and manifests herself in different ways. Pilar’s friend believes that the Catholic manifestation of the “Mother” is the Virgin Mary. He reveals himself to be a man with a rich spirituality and who wants to share his deep conviction with the world to create a religious revolution in which everyone will see the truth. His beliefs resound deeply with Pilar, who has “lost” God in her life and has become cynical.

Soon after they meet again, He professes to Pilar that he loves her, and always has. And now it’s time for Pilar to make a choice: can she love him enough to sacrifice her old life? Can he love her enough to sacrifice his future plans as a priest and missionary?

Joy is sometimes a blessing, but it is often a conquest. Our magic moment help us to change and sends us off in search of our dreams. Yes, we are going to suffer, we will have difficult times, and we will experience many disappointments — but all of this is transitory it leaves no permanent mark. And one day we will look back with pride and faith at the journey we have taken.

Pilar’s quest is transformative but challenging. She has to reject her former self–the self that told her she ought to do things a certain way and the one that was insecure and controlling–and embrace the very real possibility of pain and heartbreak. It’s not an easy process. Pilar has to trust her love and trust herself, and rediscover the faith she once had in God, a faith that has changed from male-centered to partially female, but also embodied in the existence of the man she loves.

This is a book of discovery–a discovery of how we can make every day beautiful and meaningful, and how to stay childlike, full of faith, grace, wonder, courage, hope, and love.

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Coelho, P. (1994) By The River Piedra I Sat Down And Wept. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

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