“A Pilgrimage to Eternity” by Timothy Egan: Book Review

In A Pilgrimage to Eternity, author and journalist Timothy Egan takes us with him on a pilgrimage through history, geography, and his own inner landscape as he travels the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrim route that stretches from the cathedral city of Canterbury, England, south through France, Switzerland, and Italy, to culminate in Rome.

Carrying the Contradictions

by Margaret D. McGee

Book cover of A Pilgrimage to Eternity

It is an age of connection, it is an age of isolation. We’re linked to people, information, and wisdom from around the world via ports we carry in our pockets, and we find ourselves among a sea of lost souls, floating free in the chaos of the post-modern world. In the fire hose of news cycles, there comes a great longing for reality, a longing to know by direct experience what’s palpably true. A dramatic loss of religious faith in the northern and western world marches side-by-side with a return to ancient religious practices, including pilgrimage. Every year, thousands of secular souls who may never attend a Sunday service or recite a creed devote weeks or months of their lives in personal, feet-on-the-ground pilgrimage. They travel far from home and walk unfamiliar paths along age-old routes, following in the footsteps of generations who walked before them, to arrive at a holy place.

In A Pilgrimage to Eternity, author and journalist Timothy Egan takes us with him on a pilgrimage through history, geography, and his own inner landscape as he travels the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrim route that stretches from the cathedral city of Canterbury, England, south through France, Switzerland, and Italy, to culminate in Rome. Less well known than the Camino de Santiago in Spain, the Via Francigena bisects historic Europe while passing through sites of some of the bloodiest and cruelest religious strife the world has ever seen.

In sharing his journey with us, Egan turns out to be about the best pilgrimage guide you could hope for, melding deep research, clear reporting, and good writing in a gripping travelogue through inner and outer transformation. He doesn’t draw back from the contradictions inherent in any religious quest; the arc of this book hangs on the cross of the church’s culpability, then and now. Clear-eyed and aware that the holy ground he walks on is soaked in the blood of centuries of religious war, Egan’s personal and family history with the Catholic church also travels along on every step: a brother’s brush with a sexually abusive priest, another priest’s indifference to his mother’s welfare as anything other than a vessel for more Catholic babies, and his own almost comical memories of nightmarish parochial schooling, from the “pugilistic penguins slapping me around in third grade at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin” (98) to Father Schwemin, a terrifying figure who cares less about the sanctity of the confessional than he does about which schoolboy flattened his tulips playing kickball.

Carrying the contradictions, Egan walks long roads toward Rome. He means to travel the entire 1,200-mile route in touch with the ground—on foot for much of it, on wheels (bike, bus, car, train) for sections that don’t offer accommodation in walkable chunks. He stops at holy sites, seeks out relics and signs, and researches miracles, all while grappling with what he really thinks about it all. He describes himself as “a skeptic by profession, an Irish Catholic by baptism, culture, and upbringing—lapsed but listening, like half of all Americans of my family’s faith.” (7) His reasons for going on pilgrimage will sound familiar to many: a desire to stand where events in history actually took place, to visit crumbling abbeys and cathedrals before they disappear into modern indifference, to offer a prayer at a holy site for a loved one who is deathly ill. And to face his own lapsed state, saying, “It’s time to force the issue, to decide what I believe or admit what I don’t.” (7) 

Well-versed in the arrogance and hypocrisy of popes and bishops, Egan resonates to recent expressions of humility from church leaders: the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby confessing he doesn’t have all the answers about God, Pope Francis famously remarking, in response to a question about gay people in the church, “Who am I to judge?” In Calais, Egan sees how Muslim refugees, desperate to cross to England, hounded by citizens and officials alike, are fed and protected by Secours Catholique, some of the few people left in France who actually profess Christianity, and who also practice what they preach. He makes the case that the rise of Christianity in Europe followed two simultaneous lines: a bloody one welded to power and domination, and a quieter story of the gospel—good news for all—spread by word of mouth alongside the fostering of literacy and civilization in the rise of monastic life. (That is, before the monasteries also fell victim to the lure of power and wealth). The contradictions beg the question: Is it possible to own the brokenness of one storyline and still embrace the message of another?

Egan’s son Casey joins him midway through the pilgrimage for about six days of walking and talking together. Later, his daughter Sophie meets him in the mountains of Italy, where—despite her warnings to stop and attend to himself—he seriously injures the toes of both feet on the downward slope after they crest the Alps. They end up in a rental car until he can heal enough to walk again. Egan’s children are both secular, affectionate with their dad and at the same time perhaps a bit puzzled by his religious quest. Their voices from outside the faith add a refreshing counterpoint to Egan’s musings. On the last leg of the trip heading into Rome, he’s joined by his wife Joni as they travel together through landscapes familiar from earlier days when the family lived in Italy. 

I won’t try to summarize where Egan’s pilgrimage takes him at the end, except to say that he achieves some—but not all—of his goals, and that along the way his inner landscape shifts to cast new light on what matters most to him. His book brought me to new awareness of the contradictions that underpin my own faith, and it made me want to start out on a long walk myself.  

This review originally appeared in the Englewood Review of Books.

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