Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Evil, ordinary and not: The dark side of pilgrimage

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, Coelho made the pilgrimage to Santiago. Yes, he harvested the gifts above, but he encountered demons, some of them creatures of his own projection, some not. Integrating his account with my own, I want to create a taxonomy of the dark side's inhabitants.

First, there's ordinary: you notice what rents space in your head. You have to: it obscures the beauty of the landscape you're actually walking through; it crowds out companions; it distracts. Eventually, walking makes ordinary evil just one more piece of unnecessary baggage.

Pilgrims leave all extra weight behind, including this. To symbolize the unburdening, they pick up a stone at the beginning of the day, unloading it along the way. As we hiked the Camino, Lisa and I often crested a hill -- only to find ourselves in a valley of such stones, large, small, and stacked like some ancient hieroglyph. This is the best revenge for ordinary rubble: turning it into art.

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 took him up the face of a waterfall, calling out physical and spiritual strengths he didn't know he had.

I fear abandonment. When one trek didn't offer the bonding I'd anticipated, I walked for several days in a funk. I scoured bus and train schedules in every major village we passed through, looking for escape. Then, I reset my compass, engaging where I could and making tiny forays into the villages and countryside on my own. I discovered a different kind of bonding that had been there all along. Expecting something else, I'd simply overlooked it. And I now have an intimate acquaintance of a very particular part of the Pyrenees.

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 argued that evil is a presence, an active force. I side with Christian neo-Platonist philosopher and theologian Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), who believed evil was the absence of the good. A recovering Manichaean, Augustine vehemently rejected a world in which forces of good and evil raged against one another. He denied that evil had any shred of being. Perhaps he protested too much....

But we agreed that Augustine captured 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." For this reason evil enthralls, ensorcells, engulfs; it 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. Here love is a political act, and it embraces everything from kindness in the midst of uncharity to the bold decision to on the part of French villagers to hide Jewish families during the Holocaust ("Lest Innocent Blood be Shed," by Philip Hallie).

In her book "The Human Condition," Hannah Arendt identifies the work of love in the public square: the practices of forgiveness and promise-making. Promises hedge against unpredictability, ensuring that we will be tomorrow who we say we are today. Forgiveness shields against irreversibility, calling halt to the juggernaut of vengeance. 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.)


  1. Your blog's reflections are most interesting! I love the questions you are asking and then honestly giving your answers! Is love stronger than evil? Yes, sometimes...

  2. Err on the side of love - what a powerful statement!