Medellin, Colombia: Searching for Pablo

Last month I was in Medellin, Colombia, a place that once held the unofficial title of the world’s most dangerous city. Its widespread infamy came courtesy of infamous drug cartels and Pablo Escobar, a man whose depth of violence and narcissism intersected to cause an entire nation to spiral into chaos and bloodshed.

These days, Medellin is a far cry from its dark days of the 80’s and 90’s when Escobar went to war with the government and nearly turned Colombia into a narco state. It is a city on the rise, known for its spring-like weather year round, gorgeous setting, state of the art metro system, and emerging middle class. Visitors have started to flock here in droves.

I spoke with several local people about Medellin’s former notoriety, including the son of a man who once worked for Escobar. He spoke of how, to many Colombians, Escobar was a like saint. Before turning into a militant drug lord, he was touted as a Robin Hood figure for the schools and homes he built for the poor. For many Colombians I talked to, his legacy was situated somewhere between Mother Teresa and Adolph Hitler—somewhere between the sacred and the desecrated. He was a man both lauded and feared.

There is an increasing amount of tourism focused around Medellin’s shadowy past, including the extremely popular “Pablos Escobar Tours” that guide participants to his grave, some of his former homes and various other sites of interest. I met several North Americans and Europeans who were enthralled with following the Escobar trail. They spoke eagerly about visiting his grave and his former hangouts, like they just had to see it, to touch and taste a piece of Pablo.  It was as if they were on a search for the radical image of Escobar the Fallen Saint, who could be an object of reverence and sanctification.

To revere someone or something is to give honor and praise to a person or place of spiritual significance. Pilgrimage has long been a means of journeying toward a destination that holds spiritual importance.Humans are born with a religious impulse. The desire to praise and seek the transcendent is wired into our biology. It is something we can’t escape. But this age of consumerism and a resulting collective sense of meaninglessness in the West, it seems that for many nothing is holy anymore. The secularization of society, though not inherently bad, has left very real consequences in our psyches and souls.

But this natural longing of the soul has to go somewhere, it doesn’t just disappear. Often, it becomes misplaced in our postmodern West where technology and the pursuit of progress has blighted out the subtler, softer yearnings of our personhood. The search for the sacred is easily perverted.
We are all, in one way or another, on a search for the transcendent, the divine, the holy. We are all on a search for the sacred. The search for Pablo represents this archetypal quest that has been misplaced.  This misconstrued attempt at pilgrimage labels his defunct mansions as sites of hallowed ground, to be revered and honored. To visit his grave and stand in the presence of his corpse is an attempt at encountering the holy. The sacred and the desecrated are easily confused.

To honor a mercilessly violent man who inflicted such egregious harm on a nation is simply the search for the sacred gone awry. The search for Pablo is the search of a pilgrim who, having lost touch with the innate desire to venerate the holy, encounters the desecrated and believes it to be the sacred.

But the soul is not easily fooled. The yearning is not filled when the desecrated takes the place of the sacred. In the moment of encounter with the false masquerading as the real, the soul is left empty and dry, its attempt at contact with the divine is shattered.

So the search continues. Eventually, if the journey isn’t halted prematurely, the sojourner learns what he or she really desires. And whatever that is, there is the choice to follow the yearning, to heed the depths and honor the true self. Eventually, there may come a moment of realization, when there is no need to search only on the outside anymore, not for Pablo, not for anyone or anything. The need to look only without ceases when we realize the divine One we have been searching for, often without knowing it, has been moving toward us the whole time, and indeed has already found us.

The Sacred has made its home inside of us which means we don’t need to look outside anymore to find an object of reverence. The divine presence is never an object, anyhow, as Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “God is always apprehended, experienced, and conceived as a Subject, never an object.”

The end of all our searching will be to return home to ourselves, and as TS Eliot said, know the place for the first time, to finally know that within us dwells the sacred that we have been searching for.
I’d love to hear more about your search for the sacred and where you have encountered the divine both within and without. Please comment below or send me a note. As always, thanks for reading 🙂

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