Monday, December 10, 2012

The road as archetype

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

I have a special fascination for roads, especially country roads that painfully climb the mountain and disappear into the curve of the forest. Or the roads along which I walked in my student days in the Alps in southern Germany that are covered in multicolored leaves on gray autumn afternoons. And it's that roads are within us. We must ask the roads the reason for distances, why they're sometimes tortuous and make us tired or are difficult to navigate. They keep the secrets of the walkers' feet, the weight of their sorrow, the lightness of their joy at meeting a loved one.

The road is one of the most ancient archetypes of the human psyche. Man keeps the memory of the whole road followed throughout the 13.7 billion years of the evolution process. He keeps the memory especially of when our ancestors emerged -- the branch of vertebrates, the class of mammals, the order of primates, the hominid family, the genus Homo, the current sapiens/demens species.

Due to this immense memory, the human journey presents itself as complex and sometimes indecipherable. In each person's road, millions and millions of past experiences of roads traveled by countless generations, are at work. The task of each one is to extend this path and make their way in a form that enhances and deepens the path received, straightening what is crooked and bequeathing to future walkers a road enriched by their steps.

The road has been and remains an experiment in course that indicates the goal and simultaneously is the means by which the goal is reached. Without a path, we feel lost, inside and out. We are filled with darkness and confusion. Like humankind today, aimless and flying blind, with no compass and no stars for guidance through the dark nights.

Every human being is homo viator, a traveler on the road of life. As the indigenous Argentine singer poet Atahualpa Yupanqui says, "Man is the Earth, walking." We don't receive a completed existence. We have to build it. And for that we must make a way, starting from and going beyond the paths trodden by those who preceded us. Even so, our personal journey is never fully given. It has to be built with creativity and fearlessly. As the Spanish poet Antonio Machado says, "Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking."

Indeed, we are always on the road to ourselves. Basically, either we fulfill ourselves or we get lost. Therefore, there are fundamentally two paths, as the first psalm of the Bible says: the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, the path of the light or the path of darkness, the path of selfishness or the path of solidarity, the way of love or the way of indifference, the path of peace or the path of conflict. In a word: the way that leads to a good end or the way that leads to an abyss.

But pay attention: the real human condition is always the coexistence of the two paths, which often intersect. Within the right road, the wrong road is hidden too, and within the wrong road, the right one. Both cross our hearts. This is our drama that can turn into crisis and even into tragedy.

As it is difficult to completely separate the wheat from the chaff, the good road from the path of evil, we must basically choose one of them: the good one, although it's at the cost of renunciation or might even bring disadvantages, but at least it gives us peace of conscience and the sense that we're right. And there are those who choose the path of evil: it's easier, it doesn't impose any limits, anything goes as long as it benefits us. But it charges a price: the accusations of our conscience, the risks of punishment and even being eliminated.

Fundamental choice confers an ethical quality to the human journey. If we choose the path of goodness, small missteps or setbacks won't destroy the path and its direction. What really counts before the conscience and Him who judges everyone with righteousness, is this fundamental choice.

For this reason, the dominant trend in Christian moral theology is to replace the language of venial or mortal sin with one more suited to this unit of the human journey: fidelity or infidelity to the fundamental option. You don't have to isolate the actions and judge them without connection to the basic option. It's trying to capture the basic attitude and background plan that are translated into actions and unify the direction of life. If goodness is chosen constantly and faithfully, more or less kindness will be conferred in actions, despite the ups and downs that always occur but don't manage to destroy the path of good. This person lives in a state of grace. But there are also those who choose the path of evil. They will certainly pass through the severe clinic of God if they find pity for their wickedness.

There is no escape: we have to choose which road to build and how to go along it, knowing that "living is dangerous" (GuimarĂ£es Rosa). But we never do it alone. Multitudes walk with us, united in the same destiny, accompanied by Someone who is called "Emmanuel, God with us."

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