by Paulo Coelho
17. I was in London, supposedly reading up for my International Baccalaureate Extended Essay on the symbolic nature of the gypsy in Victorian Literature while staying at my brother's East End flat. Without a book to read, hours passed boringly as I waited for my brother to get out of bed, so we could explore the wondrous streets of London. One evening at a dinner party in Kensington, I met up with my friends from high school who were touring Europe. When I told them of my predicament, one of them took out a little book which she said was amazing and that it was life-changing and that it was easy to read while gallivanting, being of simple language. That book was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
The Alchemist is the world's most translated book according tot he Guinness Book of Records (after the Bible I assume). It's the simple story of Santiago, who listens to his dreams and follows them all the way to Egypt where he meets a King and an alchemist who tells him,"When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."
The Alchemist was exactly the right book at exactly the right time for me. The summer before the last year of school, I was worrying about taking the right course at the right university to get the right job. In the end, I decided to do what I loved. Before The Alchemist, I had no idea that God communicates with us through our deepest desires. I would later come to understand better what this really means through the teachings of St. Ignatius who translates the language of the heart in a more systematic and practical manner. But it was The Alchemist that made me receptive to the Ignatian language in the first place.
The problem with Coelho is that he simplifies things too much and does not really show the complexity that life will pitch at you. It is often very difficult to discover what our hearts and dreams are truly saying. In my experience, where the heart begins and the head and loins end is very difficult to work out. I have had friends who read The Alchemist and confused the words of their heart with shallower desires and followed tragic, self-destructive paths. For us to know our hearts better, we need guidance, and that is what a church community offers. Discerning our future is never between us and some ideal of God we imagine, but must be rooted and informed by the community through which God acts and speaks. The Alchemist can work as a great launch pad, but the real wonders of the universe come after the initial burst of propulsion, when we are guided through our journeys by the stars and planet we come across. Dreams are like the star charts that give us an idea where we are, but even these need to be corrected when we find that they do not correspond to what is really out there. The real stars are the experiences of love that bring us true light in the seemingly endless darkness.
Read it if: you are young, or need to get in touch with the part of you that gives you life.