By the River Piedra I Sat Down & Wept

by Paulo Coelho

After the close bonds of childhood, Pilar and her good friend have gone their separate ways, though they occasionally stay in touch by mail. Now Pilar devotes her life to her studies as a university student, while her friend follows the path of religion and spirituality. He comes to Madrid for a conference and invites her to attend. She makes the three-hour journey, unsure of what she will find and unaware of what waits in the future. Their reunion quickly becomes entangled when he divulges that he loves her. Pilar resists, guarding her independence, her heart, and the life they helped her to build. Over the next few days, a long holiday, they journey together to his next speaking engagement. They linger in a small mountain town just across the border into France. As Pilar struggles to embrace the unknown risks of loving her friend, she also finds that with abandonment, leaving behind her life built on the expectations of others, comes connection, presence, and joy. As she realizes that she can and does love her friend, she also realizes his ability to impact the world through his spiritual gifts. When he leaves his chosen path to be by her side, she must decide whether or not to accept and forgive his own act of abandoning his calling.

“By the River Piedra I Sat Down & Wept” by Paulo Coelho addresses many themes in Catholicism. Most prominently, the novel addresses the absence of divine female figures in the Catholic tradition and reclaims the feminine strength of God, particularly as embodied in the Virgin Mary. This impact is shown both in the teachings of Pilar’s friend (and his companions) that emphasize the power of femininity, as well as in the growing group of followers that feel revitalized, vindicated, and empowered through this perspective. The book also delves into the topic of love, resisting love, and the strength and courage necessary to abandon resistance and lead a life of authenticity. As Pilar overcomes her own barriers to loving her friend, she is pleased to discover that she becomes more and more the person she wants to be. Although she feels more pain when embracing this reality, she also feels more joy. The character development seen in Pilar over the course of the book demonstrates the teachings of her friend, connecting theory and practice in the example of her relationship with her childhood friend.

I basically love every book written by Paulo Coelho, but I felt quite disconnected from this one. Not coming from a Catholic background, much of the tradition and spiritual teachings addressed in the book were unfamiliar and inaccessible. There were parts that I could relate to strongly (particularly the scenes in the mountain village), and I made sure to hold onto those to maintain my interest as I read the book. This book is fine as it is – all of Coelho’s books are worth reading – but it would probably be most relevant for those who have a vested interest in Catholicism.


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