From "the world's greatest tour guide," a deeply-researched, captivating journey through the rich history of Christianity and the winding paths of the French and Italian countryside that will feed mind, body, and soul (New York Times). "What a wondrous work! This beautifully written and totally clear-eyed account of his pilgrimage will have you wondering whether we should all embark on such a journey, either of the body, the soul or, as in Egan's case, both." --Cokie Roberts "Egan draws us in, making us feel frozen in the snow-covered Alps, joyful in valleys of trees with low-hanging fruit, skeptical of the relics of embalmed saints and hopeful for the healing of his encrusted toes, so worn and weathered from their walk."--The Washington Post Moved by his mother's death and his Irish Catholic family's complicated history with the church, Timothy Egan decided to follow in the footsteps of centuries of seekers to force a reckoning with his own beliefs. He embarked on a thousand-mile pilgrimage through the theological cradle of Christianity to explore the religion in the world that it created. Egan sets out along the Via Francigena, once the major medieval trail leading the devout to Rome, and travels overland via the alpine peaks and small mountain towns of France, Switzerland and Italy, accompanied by a quirky cast of fellow pilgrims and by some of the towering figures of the faith--Joan of Arc, Henry VIII, Martin Luther. The goal: walking to St. Peter's Square, in hopes of meeting the galvanizing pope who is struggling to hold together the church through the worst crisis in half a millennium. A thrilling journey, a family story, and a revealing history, A Pilgrimage to Eternity looks for our future in its search for God.
Although well known author Timothy Egan had grown up in the Catholic church, as he matured, he lost his faith.
This was partly due to the questioning that most young adults do as they mature and head off to college. In Egan’s case, it was also due to a local priest preying on young boys, including Egan’s brother and his friends. His brother’s best friend committed suicide due to the ongoing abuse.
But the cycle of life turns, and as Egan’s own children grew up and left, Egan once more began to seek out spiritual questions.
And so Egan set off walking on a pilgrimage along the Via Francigena from Canterbury, England to Rome. Mostly he walked alone although his grown children accompamied him a week at a time and his Jewish wife walked with him on the last lap into Rome.
He walked across France, Switzerland and Italy. He saw ancient beginnings of Christianity, relics of medieval saints as well as sites known for their hatred: gathering places for Muslim hating Crusaders as well as the atrocities of World War II.
Along the way he found his faith: “But what clinched it for me was something the young Lutheran minister in Geneva, Andy Willis, said about the message of Easter from Jesus, something that echoes Jewish sentiment on what happens after death: ‘Nothing can keep my love in a grave.’ “319
His own beautiful prose is the best summary: “The Via Francigena is a trail of ideas, and it helps to walk with eyes open – otherwise you miss the bread crumbs of epiphany along the way. There’s no Testimonium for the memories I’m loaded down with here at the pathway’s end, but my passport is full. I will not soon forget dawn at the mountain monastery at Great Saint Bernard, still turning over the words of Father John of Flavigny. I will remember French children singing in a square where Christians were once hectored into going to war. And I will go to my grave to find a place within my fortress of reason for the living face of a long-dead saint in the crypt at Montefiascone. I will not look at a thunderstorm in the same way after watching the many moods of the sky over the Marne. Nor will I belittle a given day, no matter how boring or wasted. I will never hike without blister medication or take another shortcut. These are aspirations, mind you, so I expect to come up short. Beyond that is a conviction, this pilgrim’s progress: There is no way. The way is made by walking. I first heard that in Calais, words attributed to a homeless man, the patron saint of wanderers. I didn’t understand it until Rome.” 327-328
The Via Francigena is the common name of an ancient road and pilgrimage route running from the cathedral city of Canturbury to Rome and Apulia, where there were ports of embarkation for the Holy Land. The route passes through England, France, Switzerland and Italy. In medieval times it was used by those wishing to visit the Holy See and the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul. It traces the course taken by Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury, when he walked from Canterbury to Rome in A.D. 990 to receive his ecclesiastical vestments. The detailed journal that he kept, describing his 79-stage trip back to England, became the basis for the Via Francigena. The Via Francigena, like the better known Camino de Santiago, is well marked, if arduous. Egan set out to follow the route on foot, by train, or by car, as long as he stayed on the ground. [One doesn’t even have to travel across the English Channel by boat these days since the Chunnel provides a route for cars.]
Like many other good travel authors, Egan mixes in a lot of history with the description of his travels. His historical snippets (always directly related to the current locus of his journey) and his musings about his own personal history and the state of the Catholic Church are interesting and thought-provoking.
Egan’s parents were believing Catholics, raising their family in the 1950s and 1960s when the Church’s attitude toward married couples seemed to be limited to their value as baby-making machines. After the birth of her seventh child, Egan’s mother suffered complications endangering her life. Her physician recommended a hysterectomy, but both her parish priest and bishop told her that the Church forbade the operation. After much soul searching, as Egan puts it, “she chose life” and had the operation, but was plagued with remorse. This was a severe, but not atypical, situation Catholic families faced because of the Church’s unyielding position on all forms of contraception. Egan, like many Catholics today, rejects Church teaching on this subject.
Egan takes the Catholic Church to task for its imperfections, such as its attitudes toward women, but he also lauds the good it has accomplished. As he travels from England to Rome, he contrasts the venality of Pope Innocent III with the incorruptibility of St. Francis of Assisi. He also muses on the crusades and recounts the trial of Galileo, the Protestant Reformation, the European wars of religion, the plight of the French Huguenots, the intolerance of the Calvinists of Geneva, the insistence by the Church of the authenticity of both miracles and holy relics, and various atrocities committed by both Catholics and Protestants in the name of their particular sect. His consideration of the Church’s recent scandals are particularly poignant since Egan’s brother was a victim of sexual predation by a parish priest.
At the completion of the book, Egan’s attitude toward the Church remains ambivalent. Despite what he calls the “weight of dark history,” he has been encouraged by the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis in 2013. He sees the Pope as deemphasizing a morbid concern with sexuality and returning to the basic teachings of Jesus and the early Christians. He concludes with a paragraph as opaque as a zen koan:
“The Via Francigena is a trail of ideas, and it helps to walk with eyes open — otherwise you miss the bread crumbs of epiphany along the way. There’s no Testimonium for the memories I’m loaded down with here at the pathway’s end, but my passport is full. [Testimonium is the name given to the certificate you can receive when you complete your pilgrimage to Rome along the Via Francigena.] . . . Beyond that is a conviction, this pilgrim’s progress: There is no way. The way is made by walking. I first heard that in Calais, words attributed to a homeless man, the patron saint of wanderers. I didn’t understand it until Rome.”
Evaluation: The corpus of the book was well worth reading. Egan's historical sketches are enlightening and his travel anecdotes are often amusing, as this exchange that took place when he arrived to take a room at the Abbey of St. Paul in Wisques. The abbot asked, “How are things in America?” Egan answered: “Troubled.”
“Why is that?”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“I’ll show you to your room,” the abbot says, satisfied.”
I’m not sure what Egan discovered in terms of religion. What he ended up with, as I understood it, is perhaps a good description of many people's accommodation to religion: ambivalence and ambiguity, but feeling better about life by embracing it anyway.