16 December 2011

Maktub: A glimmer in the dark

At the risk of my blog turning into a book review, which is not at all what it is, I give you my second review of a book I recently read. Maktub by Paulo Coelho, a world famous Brazilian author, who by some strange twist of fate found himself on my reading list this week. The only way I can give you a taste of the beauty of his tome is by quoting, quite generously from it and interspersing with my own musings:

The text is adapted from a poem by John Muir: “I want to free my soul so that it can enjoy all of the gifts that the spirits own. When this is possible, I will not try to know the craters of the moon, nor track the rays of the sun to their source. I will not try to understand the beauty of a star, nor the artificial desolation of a human being. “When I learn how to free my soul, I will follow the dawn, and to return with it through time. When I learn how to free my soul, I will plunge into the magnetic currents that drain into an ocean where all waters meet to form the Soul of the World. “When I learn how to free my soul, I will try to read the splendid page of Creation from the beginning.”

Beautiful words no? They fill one with hope and inspiration but how do you get from admiring them to actually wanting so much to live them that they became your life anthem? There are times when one lives them I suppose, brief moments of illuminated joy; but so often our lives are overtaken by the ordinariness of the day. Swept up into the life that we see with our eyes and not the ones our hearts sometimes catch brief glimpses of. ‘Maktub’ is a beautiful book, it is not a novel in the normal sense of the word, it is just a book filled with wise sayings and teachings, bits and snatches of wisdom. Some of them leave you feeling high, some of them question the fundamental assumptions one makes about life. How about this one?

Humanity has committed some of its worst crimes in the name of the truth. Men and women have been burned at the stake. The entire culture of some civilizations has been destroyed. Those who committed the sin of eating meat were kept at a distance. Those who sought a different path were ostracized. One person, in the name of truth, was crucified. But -before He died -He left us a great definition of the Truth. It is not what provides us with certitudes. It is not what makes us better than others. It is not what we keep within the prison of our preconceived ideas. The Truth is what makes us free. “Know the Truth, and the truth will make thee free,” He said.

I love that part; “It is not what provides us with certitudes. It is not what makes us better than others”. Tell that to the Pentecostal pastor as he looks down his nose at the Catholics. Tell that to the Catholic Father as he pronounces damnation on the Muslims. Tell that to the Muslims as they call the Hindu an infidel. Our world is filled with so much pain, why is it that people seem so dead set on increasing it? On adding to it in the name of truth. Of standing on their side of the river and declaring that the world looks the way it does to them to everyone on the planet, instead of trying to swim to the other side and discovering what vistas await them. I have so many Muslim and Hindi friends, and their faith is one filled with beauty and discipline, that passage spoke to me as a ‘Christian’. Only my closest friends will understand why I put the term in quotes: I carry no more pride in that label, and Maktub talks once more of pride:

“A hermit fasted for an entire year, eating only once a week. After this sacrifice, he asked that God reveal to him the true meaning of a certain passage in the Bible. No response was heard. “What a waste of time,” the hermit said to himself. “I gave up so much, and God didn't even answer! Better to leave these parts and find a monk who knows the meaning of the verse.” At that moment, an angel appeared. “The twelve months of fasting served only to make you believe that you were better than others, and God does not answer a vain person,” the angel said. “But when you were humble, and sought help from others, God sent me.” And the angel explained what he wanted to know.

But some of the other sayings are practical, they deal with the ordinariness of life, the lessons that we meet in the everyday course of our sojourn on this side of death, take this one about counting your blessings:
We are often incapable of understanding the blessings we have received… There is a story about a pelican who -during a hard winter -sacrificed herself by providing her own flesh to her children. When she finally died of weakness, one of the nestlings said to another: 'Finally! I was getting tired of eating the same old thing every day. '”

I am a prime example of that one, I always seek more, even when I have so much. My imagination at times is a blessing, but also a curse because I tend to imagine perfection and inevitably get disappointed when I hold life up to my images and it fails to compare. ‘Maktub’ speaks of the supernatural as well as the ordinary, he attempts to look into the heart of Eve as she ate the forbidden fruit and even Peter and Judas at the last supper:

At the Last Supper, Jesus accused -with the same gravity and using the same phrase -two of his apostles. Both had committed the crimes foreseen by Jesus. Judas Iscariot recovered his senses and condemned himself. Peter also recovered his senses, after denying three times everything he had believed in. But at the decisive moment, Peter understood the true meaning of Jesus' message. He asked forgiveness and went on, humiliated. He could have chosen suicide, but instead he faced the other apostles and must have said: “Okay, speak of my error for as long as the human race exists. But let me correct it.” Peter understood that Love forgives. Judas understood nothing.

Life is not simple. When it is described by the pen, written in the texts of the history books, it seems simple but it never is. The great heroes must have hardly felt as heroes, they were men. The great decisions that changed the course of human history were not that, they were just decisions. It is only afterwards, when the sands of time have cleared away the hubris of living that everything seems clear. There is power in the word, but that is also its great danger.

Of all the powerful arms of destruction that man has been able to invent, the most terrible -and most cowardly -is the word. Fists and firearms at least leave some blood remaining. Bombs destroy houses and streets. Poisons can be detected. The master says: “The word can destroy without leaving a clue. Children are conditioned for years by their parents, men are impiously criticized, women are systematically massacred by the words of their husbands. The faithful are kept far away from religion by those who regard themselves as the interpreters of the voice of God. Verify whether you are making use of this weapon. See whether others are using this weapon on you. And prevent either of those from continuing.”

I leave you with a quote that had me laughing out loud at 2am. Life is never as simple as it seems.

There is an old Peruvian legend that tells of a city where everyone was happy. Its inhabitants did as they pleased, and got along well with each other. Except for the mayor, who was sad because he had nothing to govern. The jail was empty, the court was never used, and the notary office produced nothing, because a man's word was worth more than the paper it was written on. One day, the mayor called in some workmen from a distant place to build an enclosure at the center of the village's main square. For a week, the sound of hammers and saws could be heard. At the end of the week, the mayor invited everyone in the village to the inauguration. With great solemnity, the fence boards were removed and there could be seen... a gallows. The people asked each other what the gallows was doing there. In fear, they began to use the court to resolve anything that before had been settled by mutual agreement. They went to the notary office to register documents that recorded what before had simply been a man's word. And they began to pay attention to what the mayor said, fearing the law. The legend says that the gallows never was used. But its presence changed everything.

Click here to download a copy of Maktub and give me your comments on it.
(Paulo Coelho is a proud supporter of P2P sharing, seriously I am not making this up, check out his Wikipedia page)

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