Timothy Egan wrote this little gem the year before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, so he couldn’t have known it would turn out to be such a heart-warming diversion for these troubling times.
But it is. A Pilgrimage to Eternity is an enjoyable read, not a heavy religious tract, and will appeal to believers and non-believers, the spiritual and the skeptic.
Tim Egan writes a twice-weekly column for The New York Times from his base in Seattle, which he reports is the largest city in the world named for an indigenous person. That last aside is only one of the many idle factoids Egan drops into his otherwise mostly focused prose. Egan is a Jesuit-educated “lapsed, but listening” Catholic, a member of what he claims is the largest Catholic body in America—the baptism, marriage, and funeral-going only kind. For Egan, the pilgrimage was “time to force the issue, to decide what I believe or admit what I don’t.”
A Pilgrimage to Eternity is hard to pin down. It could be an entertaining and amusing travelogue through picturesque European backwaters; a history of Christianity in its European heartland or a journalist’s investigation into the rapid decline of Christianity in contemporary Europe; a personal search for the writer’s lost faith; a gastronomic tour of French and Italian cafés, osterie, and monasteries; a response to one man’s anger over his family’s Church-inflicted pain; or a plea for divine intervention for a beloved sister-in-law dying of cancer. It’s all of those and it’s told with humor, pathos, anger, and a reporter’s skepticism.
The hook on which the narrative hangs is the Via Francigena (i.e., the way from France), the medieval pilgrimage route from the English cathedral town of Canterbury to the Vatican. For 1500 years, pilgrims have followed this route from southeastern England, across the English Channel, through northern France and into Switzerland, over the Alps via the Great Saint Bernard Pass, and into Italy and the Eternal City. In the Middle Ages, these pellegrini (pilgrims) stayed at abbeys, monasteries, churches, castles, and barns and were variously fed, housed, admired, revered—or robbed—by the locals along the way.
Today the route is a mix of marked and unmarked pathways, trails, farm roads, and a few major highways, and many churches and small villages along the way cater to the thousand or so people a year who still travel it by foot, bicycle, or automobile. Egan’s journey begins with a wonderful description of Canterbury Cathedral and, among its many architectural charms, its history as the site of Thomas à Becket’s murder by Henry II’s henchmen. The whole route is beautifully described and explained, with a little art history, a few political observations, a bit of food criticism, eerie Church miracles and gory atrocities, and Egan’s never-ending search for something.
Much of Egan’s trip is on foot, but at times he had to take public conveyances, rides from accommodating passersby, or in one case, a rental car when the blisters on his feet partially immobilized him. He decided to shop for open-toed sandals to ease the pain of his bloodied toes, only to end up with practical, but very un-chic shower slippers. The resulting sweaty, disheveled hiker look, supplemented by the shower-slippered vibe of a homeless head case, only drew titters and disapproving murmurs from the fashionable Italians.
Egan stayed mostly in monasteries, pensions, and modest hotels. While he often walked alone, he also met other pilgrims, some on a religious quest, others on a lark, and a couple of times he rendezvoused with his skeptic son, an agnostic daughter, and near the end, with his secular Jewish wife.
The reader learns together with Egan about the plethora of centuries-old churches in Europe that today are little more than museums. They almost all hold marvelous old artwork and ancient religious relics, and even now express the workmanship and skill of their medieval architects and craftsmen. But few attract parishioners and many are closed and a touch shabby.
Egan repeatedly returns to the Catholic attachment to miracles, saints, and their relics. Purported body parts of the holy and their saintly possessions and sacred liquids (tears, blood, oils, etc.) can be found encased in various vessels and displayed in many of these mostly empty churches. And in one church catacomb, Egan had something akin to his epiphany when a saint’s miraculously incorruptible corpse seemed to wink at him.
Egan is a probing, skeptical thinker and an elegant writer, and A Pilgrimage to Eternity is a thought-inspiring, well-told tale. Recommended.
Ed Guest lives and reads in East Burke.