If you’re looking for something to believe in, you could do worse than Timothy Egan’s particular blend of intelligence and empathy. In his ninth book, A Pilgrimage to Eternity, this self-described “lapsed but listening” Irish Catholic makes the 1,200-mile journey from Canterbury to Rome along the Via Francigena “on foot, on two wheels, four wheels, or train — so long as I stay on the ground,” as he attempts to decide what he believes. If this book doesn’t quite settle the question of belief for you, it will at least fortify your faith in scrupulous reporting and captivating storytelling.
Egan was educated by Jesuits and is a “skeptic by profession.” He says he has arrived at a point in life where he is “no longer comfortable in the squishy middle” and so he undertakes this journey willing to be led to deeper belief. He writes, “Until atheism can tell a story, it will always have trouble packing a house.”
But this isn’t just a book about religion: It’s also one about family. Egan is visited in his travels by his son, his daughter and, finally, for the last leg, his wife. He writes of how the two of them tried to expose their children to the basics of major religions and then “let the free market of ideas settle the debate as they thought it through.” Now full-fledged adults, Egan’s children have “a reasonable person’s skepticism toward the supernatural claims of religion.” Egan expresses some misgivings about his own flexibility as a parent, wanting his children “not to foreclose on the idea that a great faith, though flawed, can contain great truths.”
His journey can also be enjoyed as a travelogue, complete with the kinds of absurdities that happen on any long trip. For instance, Egan learns that Canterbury Tales is not sold at Canterbury Cathedral; the book is too bawdy. When he arrives at the Abbey of St. Paul in Wisques, Egan must pass an amusing entrance exam. In a series of rapid-fire questions, the abbot asks, “How are things in America?”
Egan answers, “Troubled.”
“Why is that?”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“I’ll show you to your room,” the abbot says, satisfied.
Then there are the meals — many good, some spartan. And the mishaps: Egan doesn’t properly tape his toes in the Alps and carries on, blistered and mangled, until his discomfort finally forces him into a car. At this point, the reader shares his sense of relief and defeat.
Along the way, Egan sets a goal for himself: To get enough stamps in his pilgrim passport to earn a special seal from the Vatican at the end of the journey. Considerable energy builds around the lengths he goes to to get those stamps. When he finally lands the hard-won certificate, he says: “It’s official. I know how the Scarecrow felt when he got his brain.”
“A Pilgrimage to Eternity” is also a stunningly comprehensive history of both Christianity and Western Europe. It’s all here: from St. Maurice, “believed to be ‘the first black saint’” (wrote Henry Louis Gates Jr.), and the 1,500-year-long uninterrupted prayer at the abbey named for him; to the 1518 Treaty of London forever outlawing war between Christians (it lasted “barely two years”); to Mencken on Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” In fact, there’s so much history that the plot can sometimes feel like an excuse to get the background in, though one hardly complains; Egan is so well informed, he starts to seem like the world’s greatest tour guide. You follow along as much to hear him talk as to see the sights. It feels as if there’s nothing he hasn’t digested for the reader, and his extraordinary reliability is reminiscent of that of the monks he describes so evocatively throughout the book.
Egan doesn’t shy away from contentious subjects. He calls for more women in the church’s hierarchy. “The desire among women to be a guiding part of this faith is great,” he writes. “There are more than 50 per cent more nuns and sisters in the world than priests.” He’s sick of the church’s censorious attitude about sex — little basis for which can be found in Jesus’ teachings — and harbours a healthy skepticism about Mary’s perpetual virginity and Jesus’ celibacy. He sees misogyny in this history, and in the revisionist denigration of Mary Magdalene, and traces this thread from St. Paul — an “early celibate” — to SS. Jerome and Augustine, who preached celibacy after long careers of debauchery, and to St. Benedict, who “feared sex so much that whenever he was aroused he threw himself into a patch of nettles or a bed of thorns.” Of the 1968 Vatican encyclical against birth control, Egan writes that it “is almost universally ignored by Western Catholics — and has little basis in the philosophy of Christ.”
Egan also turns a critical eye on those who treat refugees poorly. For instance, he describes how the police in St.-Omer, France, “fired tear gas at volunteers” who were distributing food and clothing to refugees. Representatives of Secours Catholique, the charity behind the effort, pleaded, “Didn’t Christ say we have an obligation to help ‘the least of these brothers of mine’?” The authorities’ response: Such assistance would only encourage the refugees to stay. Egan writes, “A religion whose leaders once called on followers to wage savage war against faraway cities held by people of a different religion now fights to feed and protect forsaken members of that same faith from those same faraway cities.”
After traveling through England, France and Switzerland, bedraggled and untouched by strangers, Egan finally receives a hug from a woman in Italy. She is no longer a Catholic — but she still asks Egan to say a prayer for her when he sees Pope Francis. “I like this pope,” she says.
The woman would never know if Egan failed to utter that prayer, but he keeps his promise at a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Of course he does, you think at the end of this marvelous account. Reading it, you feel yourself in the presence of goodness — the kind you might simply have to decide to believe in.
© The New York Times, 2019
PILGRIMAGE TO ETERNITY
From Canterbury to Rome in Search
of a Faith
Viking; 384 pages; $28