A Pilgrimage to Eternity by Timothy Egan


Timothy Egan wrote a history of the Dust Bowl (The Worst Hard Time) that I greatly admire so I wanted to read his recent book about his 1000-mile pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome on the Via Francigena. This book is the tangible outcome of his love of history (and recounting it), his abiding connection to the Christian faith, and the appeal for him of a good walk/drive/train ride. Given the number of highlights I made on the kindle, I will not be able to write about everything I want to remember.

The history one finds along this pilgrimage route is, of course, history of Christian religious thought. Let’s start with the bizarre:  reliquaries. In Canterbury it’s about Thomas Becket:

No matter who was in power, the medieval Becket trade remained highly competitive. The cult that had developed around every conceivable body part–hair, teeth, a piece of a finger–spread far and wide after he was martyred a second time by Henry VIII. Any church of standing needed a saintly relic, if not from Becket, then from a certified entrant to heaven.

As he walks along, Egan turned to thoughts of the Christian view of sex:  “The two most influential early philosophers in the history of Christianity, Saints Jerome and Augustine, contemporaries and correspondents, busied themselves with a body of work that demonized sex.”  The two were lusty fellows themselves and that apparently did not work out well for them. It was Jerome who promoted the idea of the virginity of Mary; he said, “Marriage is only one degree less sinful than fornication.”

Egan speaks occasionally of the personal:  he tells of his childhood experience when Father Schwemin at his school raged about someone trampling a flowerbed. A month later when he was in the confessional, he “mentioned to Father Schwemin that I might have been the one who trampled the tulips while playing kickball. ‘Egan–you worthless piece of shit!’ You wonder why I haven’t been to confession since. Now you know.” Then there’s the horrifying chapter about the priest everyone loved who followed Father Schwemin; his sins were unspeakable and while Egan himself had no personal experience of them, he knew others who did. Egan says, “One of the reasons I’m on the Via Francigena is to see whether I can maintain my wonder of what could be, while never forgetting what was.”

Things don’t get much better when he visits Geneva and talks about Calvin. He tells a story illustrating Calvin’s absolute supremacy over the city-state, “It took just a single generation for the new spiritual boss to become as despotic as the old boss.”

You might wonder how Egan’s faith could survive. Throughout the narrative Pope Francis comes up. “As pope, he washes the feet of prisoners and the poor, shares meals with the homeless and refugees.” “When reminded that his church has long considered homosexuality “an objective disorder,” Francis shrugged it off with the most memorable line by a pope in a century:  ‘Who am I to judge?'” “Science and theology are not at odds with each other, said Pope Francis. To the contrary, the more the universe is demystified, the better.” It’s true, this pope is a miracle one might believe in.

There’s so much more he shares, including going for stretches with each of his grown children and his wife, seriously blistering his feet, getting lost, spartan pilgrimage quarters, and many other hiking experiences. It was lovely to share it.

Timothy Egan, Pilgrimage to Eternity:  From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith, Viking, 2019, 367 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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