A PILGRIMAGE TO ETERNITY: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith. By Timothy Egan. Viking. 384 pages. $28.
Today, America is having a serious crisis searching for itself and trying to better understand its complicated upbringing. Inward reflection is certainly a good thing now and then to better understand ourselves and our own past, as Timothy Egan reveals in his new book “A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith.”
Egan, a Pulitzer-prize winner for his writing on race in America, says upfront that even though he was raised a Roman Catholic, he never had a prayer answered. Religion was an important part of his early life, but he had no real relationship with God. Even so, the ascension of Pope Francis, “the everyday man’s pope,” was an opening for this “spiritual straggler” to circle back to God.
Egan needed to exorcise the demons that were troubling him in his midlife. He struggled to understand why God allowed a trusted priest to abuse his brother many years ago, and why wonderfully good people like his mother had to experience painful suffering in their last days on Earth. So a self-described “lapsed but learning” Christian became inspired by the pope and his messages, such as “Don’t see life from afar.”
Egan decided to try to find himself and his faith on the 1,000-mile Via Francigena, from Canterbury, England, to Rome. One of many routes of Christian pilgrimage, the Via Francigena has been walked by the faithful since medieval times. It took Egan to small towns and villages throughout France, Switzerland and Italy, and along the way he met fascinating people and places of the past and the present.
Egan learned about historical figures like Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Napoleon Bonaparte and Benito Mussolini. He also discovered lesser known saints like Beniot Labre, the Vagabond of God, who spent his adult life on the streets healing the sick, and Aloysius Gonzaga, the patron saint of students and plague victims because he died at the young age of 20 while caring for the sick. Gonzaga (the original Zag of the famous northwestern university) is now the patron saint of AIDS patients and their caregivers. Perhaps today we can hope St. Zag is blessing COVID-19 patients, caregivers and first responders.
“A Pilgrimage to Eternity” is the chronicle of a journey, but Egan is no journeyman writer; he’s a veteran whose observation and wordsmithing skills have been well-honed with decades of practice. Add in his natural wit, and the result is a book that is a pleasure to read.
But be warned: Sometimes Egan goes out of his way to accentuate negatives in the Christian past. Some readers may find it clever, and others may find it annoying. For instance, entering St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he paused to note that the great church was named for a man who denied Christ three times on the night before the crucifixion. Yes, Peter briefly stumbled in his faith, but we all fall short of God’s grace. Egan also dwells deeply, and sometimes cynically, on human tragedies, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Crusades. It is no secret that Christians have engaged in wars of conquest and performed inhumane acts of cruelty, despite the teachings of Christ.
Cynicism aside, Egan’s journey is fascinating and well worth taking, from the Russian physicist he encounters walking the route to atone for his role at Chernobyl, to the Swiss village that still has a promissory note from Napoleon for pillaged wine and cheese. We could all use a digital cleanse to get away from the screens of useless information we all consume.
A literary pilgrimage is not just a safe substitute for international travel during the pandemic, it’s a meaningful way to spend companionless days.
Reviewer Tracy Todd is president and CEO of Middleton Place.