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, exploring one of the biggest stories of our time: the collapse of 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 makes his way overland via the alpine peaks and small mountain towns of France, Switzerland and Italy. 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.
Making his way through a landscape laced with some of the most important shrines to the faith, Egan finds a modern Canterbury Tale in the chapel where Queen Bertha introduced Christianity to pagan Britain; parses the supernatural in a French town built on miracles; and journeys to the oldest abbey in the Western world, founded in 515 and home to continuous prayer over the 1,500 years that have followed. He is 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.
A thrilling journey, a family story, and a revealing history, A Pilgrimage to Eternity looks for our future in its search for God.
Timothy Egan is a Pulitzer Prize winning author of nine books, including THE WORST HARD TIME, which won the National Book Award. His latest book, A PILGRIMAGE TO ETERNITY, is a personal story, a journey over an ancient trail, and a history of Christianity. He also writes a biweekly opinion column for The New York Times. HIs book on the photographer Edward Curtis, SHORT NIGHTS OF THE SHADOW CATCHER, won the Carnegie Medal for best nonfiction. His Irish-American book, THE IMMORTAL IRISHMAN, was a New York Times bestseller. A third-generation native of the Pacific Northwest, he lives in Seattle.
In an effort to reconcile his feelings about the Catholic Church, Egan sets out on a 1,200-mile journey, a journey he hopes to accomplish by following the Via Francigena on foot, from Canterbury to Rome. He does allow for some leniency in that goal, allowing himself the use of anything that will get him there, except planes. He wants to stay in touch with this land, to experience the journey and not just the destination. Along the way, at different points in his journey, he is joined by his son, and then his daughter, followed by his wife near the end of his journey, who has made the sacrifice of leaving her sister’s side in the last days of her life. Egan’s sister-in-law’s health seems to have been at least one of the catalysts that had him re-examining his feelings about the Catholic Church.
A blend of memoir, travelogue, history and his examination of his faith, as well as faith in general, this also delves into how friends, family and strangers were affected by actions of church representatives, including the sexual predatory priests, and those who turned a blind eye to the accusations, or dealt with the problem by shifting the priest to another, unsuspecting, parish to continue his predatory ways. He begins this journey thinking ”…this adventure is an attempt to find God in Europe before God is gone.… I’m looking for something stronger: a stiff shot of no-bullshit spirituality.” He reads the thoughts of Saint Augustine while preparing: ”’Men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tide of rivers, the vast compass of the ocean, the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought.’ We are spiritual beings. But for many of us, malnutrition of the soul is a plague of modern life.”
Sitting in the Catholic church of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, he observes the relics of the saint displayed behind glass. ”I sit and take in what aura there is, the years and hopes imbued in these average looking objects. I think of all the people with tumorous bellies or sightless eyes, pleading. Sadly, I’m not feeling anything. But then, I didn’t ask for anything. Not just yet.”
Hoping to meet the Pope once he reaches Rome, and in that vein he composes a letter to the Holy Father, offering his thoughts on the enlightenment he seeks to find in his pilgrimage:
”As I wander from the shrines of European Christianity, with many of the great cathedrals empty, I’m interested in the Big Questions. How do we live in an increasingly secular age? What is our duty to our fellow humans—the refugees of war and sectarian strife—in a time of rising nationalism and tribalism? And what can the Gospel say to someone who thinks he can get all the world’s knowledge from the Internet? …this would have to mark my point of no return, moving out of the security of spiritual complacency and into the unknown. It feels more like a plunge from Dover’s cliff than a gentle first step. Faith is groping at air during the fall, hoping to find something to grab on to.”
Four years ago, I read Egan’s The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl around five years ago, and last year read his The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero. He makes history come alive in a way few writers do, so that you can visualize it all, never trivializing events, sharing his thoughts along the way while at the same time allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions. While the main theme involves religion, there is much more to this walk through history, including moments of reflection on actions taken in the name of religion, but also reflecting on so much more. The daily ins and outs of life, food, travel, family, health, politics throughout the ages, but most of all, love.
Overall, this was a joy to read, his personal thoughts along with the goodness of those people he met along his journey, the need to receive and offer forgiveness juxtaposed against the good, bad and ugly sides of organized religions.
Many thanks, once again, to the Public Library system, and the many Librarians that manage, organize and keep it running, for the loan of this book!
Egan’s wonderful account of his pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome along the Via Francigena is part travelogue, part history lesson, and part a religious summation of the state of Christianity in Europe. It is also part a personal journey in honor of his mother and his Irish Catholic background. [Of note, Egan is not a fan of the Catholic church—his own brother’s good friend committed suicide due to the advances of a pedophile priest.]
It is a bit of a puzzle why this non-religious man decided to undergo the arduous journey. It is physically and mentally challenging. Fortunately, he is joined at times by each of his family members—son, daughter, and wife—that help to rejuvenate his spirit. For Egan is exploring his own mortality and the role faith has in containing great truths.
I loved the descriptions of the places in the U.K., France and Italy—the food, the fabulous churches, and the beautiful countryside. Egan's excellent writing brings it all alive. Recommend.
A devout, engaged, educated Irish Catholic woman has given up all her ambitions to stay home and raise a brood of seven. Active in the church her whole life, she lies on her deathbed from a brain tumor, and quietly says to her son: "I'm not feeling it, Timmy... I'm not sure anymore...I don't know what to believe or what's ahead..." It reminded me of my grandmother at the funeral of my grandfather (lifelong staunch Dutch Reformed, both of them) when they closed the lid of the casket. She sobbed and cried: "Now I'll never see him again!" All those years of faith and belief, a promised afterlife... and when it came to the end, it faltered.
Egan, a thoughtful, brisk, and gifted writer of history and commentary, is shaken. His wife is Jewish, he is mostly lapsed, and they have raised their children as freethinkers. But that astonishing human quest (including his own) for meaning, for "spirituality," for faith or belief or whatever it is, nags at him. So with a copy of Christopher Hitchens (!) in his pack, he sets off to make the pilgrimage from Canterbury, England to Rome. And it's quite a journey.
Over 300+ pages, he ponders Thomas Becket, Augustine, two Francises (Il Poverello of Assisi and the current pope, whom he hopes to meet), Crusaders, saints obscure and famous, church architecture, the Roman and papal empires, Jewish persecution, the unspeakable savagery with which Christians have treated not just Jews and infidels but each other and children, and the courageous and humane clerics who aid the helpless, who illuminate beautiful books and till gardens. He considers the age-old question of theodicy: why would an all-powerful God permit the Holocaust? the Massacre of Wassy? The serial abuse of young boys by his own parish priest with harrowing results? How could the Catholic Church be responsible for both a furious estrangement and salvation in response to tragedies - just within Egan's family?
To Egan's credit, he examines the questions: carefully, deeply, humanely, and has no easy answers. He expertly interweaves history, the lives of emperors, monks and saints, stained glass, and vaulted naves. There's a crash course in how theological bureaucracy politicized the simple gospels. He strides across the plains of northern France and contemplates the killing fields of the Great War, takes the occasional train to hilltop towns amid vineyards, the Great St Bernard Pass in the Alps, and down into the flinty sun of Italy where every meal seems to be an adventure of its own. He meets good-humored monks in pilgrim hostels, shares the road with other walkers with their own motivations, peers in amazement at an "incorruptible" lady saint, looking like Snow White in her glass casket after 300 years. Always thinking, always musing, always trying to unpack why we humans do this, why do we need this, in all its contradictions of glory and monstrous violence?
This atheist loved every page of this book. It's the kind of trek I would like to take, and the kind of book I wish I could write. Having done a mini-pilgrimage of my own to the grave of St Francis in Assisi, there were many moments when I wanted to dash off an email to Egan, and tell him something or ask him something... or spend a day or two on the road with him, with a carafe of local wine in a little restaurant in the evenings. He comes to his own conclusions: the journey seems to have settled him a little. He will keep the joys, the comforts; he will reject the evils, and let the rest go to be thought over more, or by others. I am grateful he chose to share his travels with us.
This book is like a pilgrimage. It starts out all ego, all mistakes, and wrong turns. It is clumsy and searching and not really sure the way. I'll be honest, I really didn't like the book until about halfway through. I found Egan's simplistic dismissals of complicated theological doctrines frustrating. I don't mind searchers - I think most of us are searchers. What I don't like is when people who don't understand something pretend that they do.
But as his journey progresses, so does Egan's humility. I was moved by many of his insights and inspired by his desire for God, even if he has a tendency to look in all the wrong places. Egan's complicated personal history with the Church provokes important questions that in many cases have not been adequately answered. Like many lapsed Catholics, he's enamored with Pope Francis, but he's ignored the rich theological contributions of Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II. Both previous popes set the precedents for the popular actions of Francis.
More than anything this book made me want to absolutely travel some portion of the via francigena someday. The beauty of an open-hearted journey may be a little cliche these days ("eat, pray, love" etc.), but it's a universal desire, a deep instinct in people who know they've lost their way. While I still think Egan needs a serious course in theology of the body and theology of suffering, I appreciated his very human, very relatable struggle toward meaning. Ultimately, a redemptive story.
A wonderful book. The writing is honest, precise, from the heart, sometimes tragic and sometimes funny. Mr. Egan is a consummate author. The history of Christianity and Catholicism specifically were moving, detailed and illuminating. The author's mix of his thoughts and opinions made this book a rich discourse on God and Christianity but more importantly, about humanity. A travelogue on some level it was a great read I could not put down. The Notes are filled with a huge volume of source material. This was a labor of love for the author and a huge gift to a reader.
(Note: I received an ARC of this work courtesy of NetGalley)
A Pilgrimage to Eternity has the core essentials for great travel writing - a journey through a region or well-worn trail unfamiliar to most of the intended reader audience, with every stop on the way bringing a wealth of information and insight on every waypoint’s particular history and present condition.
However, although his trip’s focus is supposed to be a deep look into Christianity past, present and possible future, what potentially makes Tim Egan’s trek a particularly memorable one to follow along on is the author’s inner spiritual debate that lies at the core of it all.
Raised in the Catholic tradition, Egan travels as a pilgrim searching for some sense of spirituality. But in his quest to find something more for his long-lapsed faith life, he acutely feels the full weight of a church history loaded to the brim with adherents behaving anything but Christ-like in near-countless horrific ways, along with the inevitable scarring from the seemingly never-ending sexual abuse scandals. Not only that, but he must also contend with his healthy modern-day skepticism that clashes with many a theological stance or miraculous claim. His situation is both uniquely his own, but also one that should feel more than familiar to many a few who find themselves long-lapsed in their own particular religious upbringing for any number of reasons. And while those feeling similar internal spiritual struggles, of course, may not agree with Egan’s own insights and conclusions, his own journey provides plenty of moments that could help a reader to start mulling over matters of faith and their own personal spirituality that may have been ignored for quite some time. Granted, I speak with the admitted bias of someone whose religious and educational background and current spiritual condition matches with Egan’s to an almost startling degree. However, I nevertheless like to think that if I was sparked into performing some self-reflection, then it’s not a far stretch to imagine that others may have similar encounters.
Even if Egan's journey sparks no personal insight, or if a reader is perfectly comfortable with their own religious or nonreligious personal context, there is still plenty for A Pilgrimage to Eternity to offer. Egan’s writing makes the Via Francigena come so alive that he’ll do far more than merely inform about both it and what it has to tell about Christianity. He’ll quickly transport one to right alongside him on the trail, where one can go on a vivid journey through numerous centuries-old towns and cities all without even having to buy a new pair of hiking boots.
This is a book that is definitely worth one’s time and attention. There’s a grand trek through a history-rich pilgrimage trail through the heart of Europe awaiting, with the strong chance that at least some readers will find themselves unexpectedly sent off as wandering pilgrims upon their own inner journey.
I have have read several accounts of journeys across Spain on the better known Camino de Santiago, but Egan’s pilgrimage follows the Via Francigena, another ancient pilgrim route which begins in England then winds its way across France, Switzerland, and Italy, culminating in Rome. Egan is like many modern travelers who have various reasons, not necessarily ones of faith, for their “pilgrimage.” His reasons for making this arduous journey, are ones of questioning.
Raised a Catholic, but no longer practicing, Egan, I’d say, is an open-minded agnostic who is familiar with both the beliefs of Christians and the arguments of atheists. As he puts it, “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.” As much as possible, Egan stays at religious sites that offer hospitality, and each of these places is full of reminders of the past, whether it be the architecture of the buildings themselves or of various icons and images. They recall the checkered past of Christianity in Europe, with both its ideals and its bloodletting savagery toward unbelievers and heretics.. It is in thinking about both this past, and the largely secular nature of modern Europe one which calls into question the future of European Chrsitanity, that engages Egan.
Along with his thoughts on history are descriptions of the physical endurance to make this arduous trip. He committed to staying on the ground (no flying) and that means occasional going forward by train or car. But for the most part he tried to walk, a constant struggle with fatigue and battered feet. Along the way, though, he meets many interesting people with whom he converses, and for a portion of the pilgrimage, he was joined, separately, by his two children and his wife.
Egan is favorably impressed by Pope Francis and the ideals of Franciscan hospitality which attempts a life of simplicity, not living by the norms of consumption and the amassing of wealth which leads to the scourge of global warming. This takes Egan back to Christ’s message, one of love and “liberation from rigid societal norms of class and religion.” He is not very optimistic about the future of the church, one that he thinks Francis has tried to make more humane and reasonable. Pope Francis is an old man, and after him, he fears the church will go back to business as usual.
The institutional church has too often gotten far distant from these ideals, and as personal evidence, Egan relates his own past family experience with priest sexual abuse and the reaction of church authorities, for whom the institutional reputation of the Catholic Church was more important than the harm that abuse did to individuals.
The real strength of Egan’s journey is the combining of his personal experiences, both on the trail, and in reflecting on his past, with a running history of the church in Europe. At times, this may seem slightly extraneous, as if it were filler, but it’s all part of Egan’s “pilgrimage.”
Egans’ voyage could be seen as a prayer, not in the usual pious sense of the word, but conforming to one definition of prayer as a “quieting of the brain.” Without this pilgrimage, Egan would have been too busy to consider what religion meant to him. He concludes by writing “There is no way. The way is made by walking.” A final meaning of religion is an ongoing quest.
To know me is to know that I am fascinated by the history of Europe in the Middle Ages, I love long-distance walking, I have written a novel about the Catholic Church's crusade to rid France of the Cathars, and my bucket list is full of pilgrimages, even though I'm not, nor will ever be, Catholic.
So I couldn't wait to curl up with Timothy Egan's A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith, not only because of its setting and subject matter, but the author himself. A personal hero, one my Pacific Northwest compatriots, whose narrative nonfiction ranks among my favorites.
The author takes on the 1,200 mile Via Francigena, a medieval route between Canterbury and Rome, to contemplate the Catholic faith, search for meaning in its history, and come to terms with his own ambivalence. Egan was raised in a large Irish Catholic family in Spokane, home to the Jesuit university, Gonzaga. His mother was a vibrant, selfless, would-be artist who traded her own ambitions to raise a family and be a wife-mother to a taciturn salesman. He is a self-professed skeptic and abandoned his faith in the face of the Catholic church's and God's many failings, “You can see why people shun a supposedly benevolent creator who presided over the slaughter of the Wars of Religion, the African slave trade, the butchery of the Great War, Stalin’s mass executions, genocide in Germany and Uganda and Cambodia.” But Egan is hoping to reconnect with some manner of spirituality. His sister-in-law is dying of cancer, and he's getting to the age when one's mortality begs the question of an afterlife.
A Pilgrimage to Eternity is a humane, funny, gentle and engaging travelogue, a glimpse into the fraught and fascinating history of Catholicism and Christianity which is in many ways the history of Western Europe. Egan pulls no punches when detailing the broken promises and travesties of the Church, either historical or contemporary, including a harrowing episode of a predatory priest in Spokane, but he remains unabashedly admiring of Pope Francis and eagerly hopes for an audience with the pontiff at the end of his journey, using his connections as a journalist to reach out to the Vatican.
It's not clear what inner demons he calmed during his long walk to the seat of the Catholic Church; this books is less about Egan's spiritual journey than his physical and cultural one. It made me long to lace up my boots and strap on my pack, recalling the mind-emptying meditative bliss of my own long foot journeys through Ireland, and the peace I found in walking. I now add the Via Francigena to the long list of pilgrimages throughout Europe I will take in the years to come. Glad to learn the trick about taping heels (and toes- oh, that was so painful to read!).
A lovely travel narrative by one of my favorite non-fiction writers and journalists.
This book was like riding a roller coaster for me. I went from enjoying his descriptions and history of towns along the pilgrimage, being happy he introduced topics like Miracles at Lourdes, incorrupt bodies of saints, etc. to pulling my hair out at some of his other very adolescent and wrong descriptions of saints and the Catholic faith.
Some things seem very well researched but others are most likely not researched at all and presented as fact. His writings about Catholic beliefs regarding the marital union do more to uncover the preoccupation the author has with uninhibited sex without consequences than any preoccupation by the church. I think a lot of the author’s life stuff gets in the way of clear thinking.
I found spots of truth about the Catholic faith and then moments later a shot to denigrate. Most were thrown out at the unsuspecting. Those who don’t know history or their faith can be greatly mislead.
One minor instance is the following. “In the seventeenth century, an Irish Archbishop, James Ussher, had famously calculated that the earth was created in the year 4004 BC —at six pm. The consensus now is that the universe began almost 14 billion years ago with the Big Bang.... In doing this the author is pointing out how wrong was this archbishop’s theory. That is all fine and good but if you are going to point out the error of Archbishop James Ussher, then you should also point out that the the Big Bang theory was the idea of Father Georges Lemaître, a Belgian cosmologist and Catholic priest. He leaves that part out. This is what I have found all the way through this book. He used the history that fits his agenda but leaves out the history that weakens it. His story is like a biased news report where what fits the narrative is included and what doesn’t fit is absent. These one sided hits and poorly researched or deliberately excluded research are frequent.
There were times when I was enjoying his writing then “bam” he would throw in a petty political comment that had no reason to be there and had nothing to do with the story at hand. It was Maddening!
These are the two reasons I continued to read this book till the end although I really wanted to throw it in the trash.
1. It was a gift and the giver wanted to know what I thought of the ending. Also, all three of us, author included graduated from the same high school although I did not know him at the time.
2. I was curious what he said of Italy which is at the end so I had to slog through the rest to get there. Once I did, it was so brief it seemed like a long travel uphill only to fall off the cliff at the end.
Too much. Is it a travelogue? is it a one sided, poorly researched history book (although I’m sure he would not feel that way because of the long bibliography he listed at the end)? Is it a rant on Catholicism and everything ever associated with it? Is it a liberal tool to bonk the unsuspecting on the head with liberal shots? Is it a personal journey of wanting to find faith but also not wanting to challenge deeply held beliefs from this material and often dysfunctional world? I believe all of the above and it’s all too much.
What I got out of this book is a few bits of knowledge about towns I may visit some day and the certainty that I don’t want to read another of this author’s books. Time is too short.
Interesting journal of the author's personal experiences as he walked (for the most part) a 1000-mile pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome, following in the footsteps of pilgrims along the Via Francigena, the course described by Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury, who in 990 walked from Canterbury to Rome to see the Pope. Egan is doing this in an attempt to resolve his issues with his beliefs and his church. This is not a scriptural or spiritual book, it's his commentary on his travel experiences, some interesting, some amusing, some annoying, some quite moving. There is, however, a lot of fascinating history, since the route he travels does not include the usual tourist stops, but rather has locations significant to the history of the church, particularly the Catholic church, which would not be the chosen destinations of the average tourist. He begins his journey at Canterbury, then travels through France, Switzerland, ending in Rome at the Vatican. His comments on the people he meets along the way are worth the reading!
It's a different kind of book, and I enjoyed it very much and found his conclusions about his faith and future of the Church at the end of his journey to be quite revealing and interesting. I won't include any spoilers. If you're that interested, you should read the book.
Having read and loved several of Egan's other books, I was quite disappointed in this one. I wasn't sure what it wanted to be. Is it memoir? Family and personal moments are revealed briefly throughout, but not a major focus. Is it travel/pilgrimage? Yes, but I've read at least a couple books about the Compostela pilgrimage in Spain with far more detailed sharing of landscape and emotion. I nearly gave up reading altogether until the love and warm detail picked up as he moved into Italy, but he and his family had lived there for a time, so it's like second home to him. England and France seemed just sort of gray and flat. His previous books popularize unique, perhaps small moments in history, but this one covers 2,000 years of Christian history, maybe just a bit too much for 328 pages. Finally, his subtitle claims it's a pilgrimage "in search of faith." That it is, though I'm not sure why he was looking. He seems quite comfortable in his personal life, and most of his historical overview and actual experiences along the way are negative or remind him of corruption and cruelty. I know that I as a reader must accept that his visiting the locations of numerous legendary medieval miracles were supposed to give him insight into a modern faith, and possibly did, and I understand that the Church had seriously hurt him and his family, but I couldn't help but judge that he really didn't seriously engage with anyone living their faith in a positive manner in today's world, such as volunteers helping homeless refugees in France. And his conversations with fellow pilgrims or clergy running hostels for the pilgrims seem very brief. I feel this book just tried to do too much.
I do enjoy a good faith journey. I was hoping that a journey of faith combined with travels along the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome would be the perfect mix of wonder and discovery, combing the spiritual with the reality of our beautiful world. Indeed, Egan tells us early on he is looking for a dose of spirituality. But this is just not the case. It is very rare that I do not finish a book. I always like to give the author the benefit of the doubt. I am often disappointed in my choice to stick it out, but in this case I couldn’t even do that.
Despite Egan’s declaration that he is trying to understand faith and he has an amorphous sort of wish to help his sister-in-law who is dying of cancer, there is no effort at spiritual understanding or engagement with any of his fellow pilgrims or the monks or priests he meets along the way (He avoids the nuns!). Instead he refers to his fellow pilgrims by their blogs for information on the route, and seems to have no substantive discussion with any of them. There is an endless list of the food that he eats, some nice description of the countryside here and there, and then a long catalog of all the ways that the church has failed.
When Egan passes through the part of France where Joan of Arc lives, he recounts the story of her life through the prism of the church having trouble with women and sex. He does not explore her deep faith or that she was so moved by the message she received from God that she died for it. That’s pretty powerful stuff, but Egan cannot seem to help viewing the world through his own modern, progressive filter that insists individual freedom is supreme and immaturely elevates the importance of sex along with it.
This is seen more clearly when Egan focuses on the church’s early writers, Jerome and Augustine and the former’s obsession with sex. There is no doubt that the Catholic Church has an unhealthy relationship with sex and it has led to all sorts of problems within the institution, but Egan’s focus on it, especially when looking at the writings of these professional theologians, betrays an inability to see things except through the lens of his own time and with adherence to progressive dogma that pleasure is of the utmost importance. His complaints seem whiny, superficial, and frankly like he is discussing things above his pay grade.
Later, Egan rails against the Holy Wars and laments all the people that have died in the name of religion, but ignores the Peloponnesian Wars, Caesar’s Gallic Wars that were the normal state of affairs in the brutal way of life before the rise of Christianity and more recently the deaths under communist regimes. Hitler always gets credit for killing millions (and he was not religiously motivated), but Stalin killed millions more of his own people in the name of ideology not Christianity. Let’s not forget Mao and Pol Pot either. But Egan only recounts the destruction of the Holy Wars with indignation.
This was about the point when I started to lose patience with the book. He would do just enough to pique my interest – the stories about Dom Perignon, the monk who made champagne, was fascinating and light and interesting – but then he would slide into yet another attack. Oh but he still wanted to meet the Pope when he got to Rome and he thinks that Francis, who is an awful heretic, is just wonderful (mostly because he fits in nicely to that aforementioned progressive dogma) and by the way I want something – I want my sister-in-law to be healed. So much for a humble heart.
In the end I had no patience for this man who wanted something, but was so critical of those he was seeking it from. I understand that in the later chapters he recounts some familial abuse and trouble with the church, and other reviewers suggest this explains his attitude. But why go on this journey at all then? Why go when your purpose seems to be to attack and criticize? One of the central tenets of Christianity is forgiveness. I saw none of that in the first half of his book. I sure hope he finds it in his heart.
Won in a Goodreads giveaway-with much gratitude. Timothy Egan was born of my generation into a family probably more Catholic than mine (my paternal grandmother was a New York Egan). Now like many of us he is disillusioned with-angry at-the church he was raised in without question. His family touched by the clergy abuse scandal, we journey along with him in a quest for reconciliation and discovery-and rediscovery-along the ancient Christian pilgrim's route, the Via Francigena. His trek through late spring and summer heat begins in Canterbury and proceeds through the traditional but depleted heart of Catholicism, France on to Rome. Along the way he encounters a culture indifferent at best to Catholicism and Christianity, and at some points hostile to the faith. He enters once thriving monasteries now echoing with the voices of a few remaining religious brothers. He visits the sites which knew the blood of the martyred Thomas a Becket and the stigmatic Francis of Assisi. He walks the places which knew Ignatius Loyola and Catherine of Sienna. He encounters the remains of great and obscure saints; some declared incorrupt, others bits in a reliquary or dust in an age darkened tomb. In Switzerland he reminds us that brutal excess was not confined to Catholicism's bloodthirsty rulers and corrupt Popes; the anti-Semitism of Martin Luther and the deadly oppression of John Calvin are part of the journey. Over grasslands and through forests, in the shadow of mountains or in crowded ancient towns, Egan brings his readers toward his goal of St. Peter's in Rome and the current Pope whose words and manner offer him some hope. Feet bloodied with blisters, he encounters clerics and villagers offering encouragement and hospitality. His diet is a discovery in itself of farm to table cultural delights: wine, cheeses, pastas and meats. He walks beneath ripening olive trees and across fallen hazelnuts. In the closing miles of his pilgrimage, Rome in sight, as he shares a table with fellow pilgrims of several nationalities, I wondered if there is not only hope for an anemic Christianity, but in their laughter and shared goals a light for a divided and troubled world. No pious religious tome, Egan's journey is accessible to the faithful, the cynical, and even the atheistic. We are left with-perhaps a miracle-that despite the swords and wars of misguided spiritual and temporal followers of Jesus Christ, the message of the simple carpenter survives and inspires a journey toward forgiveness and tomorrow.
I have read several of Egan's books and enjoyed them all. This one was quite different, by design, but less satisfying to me than the others. Egan was raised a religious Catholic and has that as a foundation, but has grown away from religion over the years. He has the opportunity to take a pilgrimage from Canterbury UK to Rome on the Via Francigena, which he did mostly solo. Another potential title for this book might be "Reflections on Religion on a road to Rome". It is densely packed with Christian history which cannot be easily retained by this lifelong atheist/agnostic without any significant spiritual background. It is interesting and well-written, but I don't know who his intended audience is; it seems more of a journal of his thoughts toward repair of his faith. For me it was interesting but not memorable, I'm sorry to say. Perhaps time will change my appreciation of it as I hear others' opinions and "Reflect" on it myself.
"We are spiritual beings. But for many of us, malnutrition of the soul is a plague of modern life." And so begins Tim Egan's pilgrimage along the Via Francigena, making his trek from Canterbury to Rome. His journey is physically demanding but also spiritually and intellectually challenging as he wrestles with the tension between the values of Christianity and the stark reality of acts carried out in the name of faith that oppose those values - The Crusades, beheadings, sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. He is in search of answers as he tries to reconcile some of this in his mind and struggles to come to grips with the core of his own faith. The relgious history is complex but he manages to make it relatable in how he tells the story (he is an excellent story teller). Along the way he visits some of the key shrines to faith, talks with priests, and befriends other pilgrims who he encounters. He also reveals the personal backdrop that led him to do this in the first place. Not one big event but a series of things in his life that drove him to undertake this quest. Tim Egan writes with humility, compassion, wit, and grace. There is a lot to wade through here and even though complex at times in the end it is a satisfying and nourishing story of his pilgrimage.
It's hard to rate someone else's faith journey as it is specifically their faith journey. This journey is not mine, but I do understand Egan's deep hurt by the Roman Catholic Church. I appreciated the places that he went to - and I admit to laughing when he got in a car - I kind of felt that he would walk the whole thing, but he also had a very painful foot issue going that made me cringe.
This was interesting, but not as powerful as I was expecting it to be. I'm reading this with a friend who did the Camino, and both of us were raised Catholic and are now exploring other options -- she's further along than me, having gotten married in the Episcopal church last year. I guess because of the time in my life that I'm reading this, I thought it would hit me harder. I didn't particularly like Egan. There was some mild fatphobia, and at time he would use super casual language in the midst of otherwise sophisticated writing, and that always took me out of the experience. Some of his stories about the saints were very poignant, and those were the parts that I found the most interesting. His telling of Saint Francis' story was particularly powerful. His own family's story about experiencing abuse in the Church was also very affecting. I liked learning about these towns and saints that I had (mostly) never heard of, and I learned a lot about the Church's past (which we all know is very ugly). In the end, though, Egan isn't a philosopher, and I don't think he came to any great conclusions, which means I didn't, either. I think it will inspire me to finally crack open the coffee table book I have on the saints, though.
As a reader of everything Egan, I had my doubts about reading this memoir of his "pilgrimage" on the Via Francigena as he struggled with his Catholic faith and his sister-in-law's impending death. But Egan is a wonderful and thoughtful writer, and an honest and deep thinker on the (often ugly) history of the Catholic church and its current predicament.
I do wish he had actually walked the entire 1000+ mile trail, rather than traveling by rail and car over much of it to rest his tired body and bloody feet, but his reflections along the route, descriptions of the passing scenes and fellow travelers, and mostly his philosophical grappling with the church and modern political and social realities make this a very worthwhile read. His daughter Sophie, who spent some days hiking the trail with Egan, said it best for me:
"I don't like labels. I don't have a text or Bible I consult. But I know what I believe in. I value family, friends, love, community, lifelong learning, continuous self-improvement, reflection, creative expression, empathy, care of the natural world and all the creatures who inhabit it."
I liked the human-ness of Egan's book. To confront the tough questions of whether there is a god and if there is, why is evil and suffering happens, Egan gathers up stories and experiences rather than abstractions. He has partial glimpses rather than transcendent, definitive insights. His journey literally and metaphorically has peaks and sloughs and lots of wrong turns. His recognition that a longed-for miracle would not happen made me cry. Egan is also constantly wondering what's for dinner. Lovingly described meals, particularly in Italy, were one of the delights of the book. Humanly, the quality of the food seemed to feed his spiritual state. If Egan had gone out for a good curry, perhaps the section on England would have been less snarky.
An intriguing read. Timothy Egan, after the death of his mother, decides to walk a less well known “Camino”, the Via Francigena, which follows a one thousand mile route from southern England through France, Switzerland and Italy. While Egan ponders the vestiges of his childhood Catholicism, he also explores the religious and social histories of the places he visits. There is a lot to think about in this insightful book. Highly recommended!
A cleared eyed look at both the appeals and crimes of the church from the perspective of a lapsed Spokane Catholic. I appreciated that while the author did experience spiritual growth, he still has no easy answers at the end.
Published by Penguin Audio in 2019. Read by the author, Timothy Egan. Duration: 12 hours, 42 minutes. Unabridged.
At the beginning of this pilgrimage, author Timothy Egan describes himself as a lapsed Catholic, perhaps even an agnostic. He was raised Catholic in Washington State and decided to go on a long-established pilgrimage route called the Via Francigena to contemplate his faith and how the church has betrayed its own faithful with the ongoing sexual abuse scandal.
The Via Francigena runs from the cathedral at Canterbury in England, through France and Switzerland into Italy and ends in Rome at the Vatican. It is one of the most established pilgrimage routes in Europe, but not as well known as the Pilgrimage of Compostela in Spain.
Egan gives the listener little history lessons as he tells the story of his own pilgrimage through Europe. Those are usually interesting and informative. He tells his thoughts about faith and Christianity as he travels as well. When possible, he initiates discussions with the clergy as he travels. Sometimes, that works out well, other times you wonder why the clergyman became a minister. His best discussion is with a Lutheran minister in Switzerland.
After his mother's death, Timothy Egan decided to pay tribute to his Catholic upbringing by taking a pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome. The three-month journey visited many "holy sites" where monastics, popes, and saints trod. I enjoyed reading about the events that took place at the stops along his journey. Maps prefaced each section of his journey. It's a wonderful travelogue but is probably a little too Catholic-focused for this Southern Baptist who would have enjoyed a few more Reformation sites. (Martin Luther did receive treatment.) (3.5 stars)
Very enlightening, well written memoir of noted author Egan’s pilgrimage along the Via Francigena, from Canterbury, England to Rome (once the major medieval trail leading the devout to Rome). This excellent memoir of Egan’s trek is an extremely readable and educational discussion of European history from pre-Christian to today, as affected by the Roman Catholic Church; a very interesting discussion of Catholic (and Protestant) history, dogma and canonization facts; and a deeply personal story about Egan’s and his family’s relationship with the Church; reflections on growing up in Spokane Washington and attending Gonzaga University; and other deeply personal matters. Egan, a New York Times columnist and award-winning author, is one of the best nonfiction writers of the latter 20th and early 21st century. This book reconfirms that fact. (4.5 - 5 stars!)