The Alchemist: Real or Fool’s Gold?

When I read that Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist was the fifth most read book in the world during the past fifty years, I decided that I had to see what all the attention was about.

The book uses a simple fable to propound ideas about the meaning of life and the key to human happiness. Throughout the book, Christian characters and tropes suggest that the fable could fall into the Christian canon of literature.

Santiago, a shepherd boy of Andalusia, meets a fellow who calls himself Melchizedek, the king of Salem. The king instructs the boy in the ways of the world. It seems that Santiago needs to stop acting like one of his sheep (trusting the Shepherd and denying instincts) and to follow his deepest desire ( or his “bliss” as Joseph Campbell would call it in his mythology analyses.) If he does, he learns that God  blesses his Personal Legend, as Melchizedek labels one’s deepest desire.

Santiago announces that his deepest desire is to see the Pyramids and discover hidden treasure there. Melchizedek informs Santiago that to deny one’s Personal Legend would be to doom oneself to a life of misery. “Melchizedek says, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the Soul of the Universe. It’s your mission on earth.”  In fact, the Soul of the Universe is nourished by people’s happiness. It even works to make Personal Legends occur.

The fable relates Santiago’s pilgrimage to Egypt, the accomplishment of his Personal Legend, and the attainment of his deepest happiness. On this pilgrimage, Santiago meets an English alchemist who elaborates on the theory of Melchizedek:

  • “Where your heart is, there you will find your treasure.”
  • When you want something with all your heart, you are closest to the Soul of the World
  • Everything – mineral, vegetable, animal –  has a soul
  • We are all part of a larger Soul
  • The natural world is only a copy of Paradise
  • The fear of suffering keeps us from one’s deepest desire. One needs to know that the heart never suffers if it goes after its dreams
  • When you are loved, you can do anything.
  • When we strive to be better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.
  • Eventually you will discover that the Soul of God is actually your own Soul.

The pursuit of one’s Personal Legend is a form of alchemy; the struggle to attain one’s deepest desire leads to self-purification and oneness with  God.

Mr. Coelho’s fable has obvious appeals:

  • The idea that the universe is created and each individual has a meaningful part in it.
  • The idea that God loves us and wants us to be happy
  • The idea that painful struggle can lead to a treasure.

A Christian can affirm each of these ideas.

But a Christian knows that Way more successful than the one narrated by Mr. Coelho and  learned by Santiago.

The difference in paths  is apparent in the contrast between the advice Coelho’s Melchizedek gives Santiago and the advice Genesis’ Melchizedek gives Abram, the father of faith. Both Santiago and Abram are on journeys. Santiago is told to that he is responsible for identifying his Personal Legend and achieving it. Abram is told that he must follow and obey God. Santiago must depend on himself; Abram has the omnipotent, and omniscient God of the universe providing his direction and power.

Santiago must submerge everything to his personal desire; Abram must submit himself to God. Santiago must daily figure out what to do and how to do it; Abram lives daily under God’s authority. Santiago’s most cherished possession is his Personal Legend; Abram has sacrificed his personal desire to embrace the will of God.

God is merely a character in Santiago’s story; Abram is a small character in God’s great story. Santiago’s identity is in his desire; Abram’s identity is in his Lord.

The psalmist sings of Abram’s wisdom: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

Santiago learns the opposite- selfishness: Delight yourself in the desire of your heart, and you will find, and even become, God.

Saint Paul points out the dangers in Santiago’s false way:

My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. …It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness;  trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits;  the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on… If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.  But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments,  not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely….  Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good – crucified.

Letter to the Galatians (The Message)

Science has discredited alchemy as a science. Alchemy as a road map for living appears equally futile in the eyes of God:

The signposts of God are clear and point out the right road.  The life-maps of God are right, showing the way to joy. The directions of God are plain and easy on the eyes.  God’s reputation is twenty-four-carat gold, with a lifetime guarantee. The decisions of God are accurate down to the nth degree.  God’s Word is better than a diamond, better than a diamond set between emeralds. You’ll like it better than strawberries in spring, better than red, ripe strawberries.  There’s more: God’s Word warns us of danger and directs us to hidden treasure. 12 Otherwise how will we find our way? Or know when we play the fool?  – Psalm 19

 

 

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