Lest I leave people with the impression that pilgrimage yields pleasure, fitness, and spiritual insight, let me speak to its dark side. There's danger along the way, sometimes even demons -- and I'm not talking about blisters or sunburn or running out of water.
Let me enlist the help of Paulo Coelho and his luminous account of walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, "The Pilgrimage" (1987). In 1986, as part of his initiation into a mystical fraternity, RAM (Coelho made the pilgrimage to San Tiago. Yes, he harvested the gifts above, but he encountered demons, some of whom were creatures of his own projection, some not. Integrating his account with my own, I want to create a taxonomy of these encounters with the dark side.
First, there's an ordinary face of evil: you notice what rents space in your head. You have to: it supplants the landscape you're actually walking through; it crowds out the scenery; it distracts your attention. Eventually, walking makes it just one more piece of unnecessary baggage.
Pilgrims leave extra weight behind. They'll pick up a stone at the beginning of the day, with the intent of unloading it somewhere along the way. Along the Camino, Lisa and I often crested a hill -- only to find ourselves in a valley of such stones, large and small, piled on top of each other like ancient towers. The rubble of excess baggage.
Another dimension of evil manifests as simply the projection of the pilgrim's deepest fears. Whatever it is, however subtle or not, pilgrims encounter along the way what they most fear. Coelho confesses his fear of water. Accordingly, part of his path take him up the face of a waterfall, calling out physical and spiritual strengths he didn't know he had.
I fear abandonment. Accordingly, one trek didn't offer the bonding I'd anticipated. For several days, I walked in a funk, checking bus and train schedules in every major village we passed through. Then, I reset my compass, engaging where I could and making tiny forays into the villages and countryside on my own. I discovered inner resources I hadn't been aware of -- and now have an intimate acquaintance of a very particular terrain between France and Spain.
Finally, there's a dimension of evil that I'll simply call the abyss. I don't want to linger too long here, lest I fall in. It came to Coelho as a large black dog, threatening his very life. He'd had premonitions of the encounter, which only added to the terror.
But is this last kind of evil a presence? I was talking yesterday with a philosopher friend, Vida Pavesich, who's studied and taught about evil. She believes there is a force of evil, a presence. I sided with Christian neo-Platonist philosopher and theologian Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), who believed was the absence of the good. A recovering Manichaean, Augustine vehemently rejected a world in which forces of good and evil were constantly at war. He denied that evil had any shred of being. Perhaps he protested too much....
But Augustine did capture a fundamental characteristic of evil: it's parasitic. It feeds off something else: life, love, joy, even competence. Think of the sound of water sluicing down a toilet; think of how draining it is to be around an "emotional vampire." Evil drains life out of everything within reach.
Another Christian writer, the apostle Paul, claimed that love is stronger than death. I hope he's right. But is love stronger than evil? I want to say yes. Even a shaky stand on the edge of the abyss, a kind gesture in the midst of uncharity, a bold decision to hide a Jewish family in a small village in France ("Lest Innocent Blood be Shed," by Philip Hallie). Yes: love is stronger than death, stronger even than evil.
Err on the side of love.
(The etching is William Blake's illustration of the book of Job: The Satan with Job and his wife.)