Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
Timothy Egan is an award winning op-ed writer for “The New York Times.” He was raised a Catholic, but like many others born into the faith, he had serious doubts about the religion once he reached adulthood. He stopped attending church, married a Jewish woman, and raised a family with no religious affiliation. After his mother’s death, he undertook a thousand-mile pilgrimage from Canterbury, England to Rome, Italy along the Via Francigena to clear his mind and reevaluate his attitude toward the faith of his parents.
The Via Francigena is the common name of an ancient road and pilgrimage route running from the cathedral city of Canturbury to Rome and Apulia, where there were ports of embarkation for the Holy Land. The route passes through England, France, Switzerland and Italy. In medieval times it was used by those wishing to visit the Holy See and the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul. It traces the course taken by Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury, when he walked from Canterbury to Rome in A.D. 990 to receive his ecclesiastical vestments. The detailed journal that he kept, describing his 79-stage trip back to England, became the basis for the Via Francigena. The Via Francigena, like the better known Camino de Santiago, is well marked, if arduous. Egan set out to follow the route on foot, by train, or by car, as long as he stayed on the ground. [One doesn’t even have to travel across the English Channel by boat these days since the Chunnel provides a route for cars.]
Like many other good travel authors, Egan mixes in a lot of history with the description of his travels. His historical snippets (always directly related to the current locus of his journey) and his musings about his own personal history and the state of the Catholic Church are interesting and thought-provoking.
Egan’s parents were believing Catholics, raising their family in the 1950s and 1960s when the Church’s attitude toward married couples seemed to be limited to their value as baby-making machines. After the birth of her seventh child, Egan’s mother suffered complications endangering her life. Her physician recommended a hysterectomy, but both her parish priest and bishop told her that the Church forbade the operation. After much soul searching, as Egan puts it, “she chose life” and had the operation, but was plagued with remorse. This was a severe, but not atypical, situation Catholic families faced because of the Church’s unyielding position on all forms of contraception. Egan, like many Catholics today, rejects Church teaching on this subject.
Egan takes the Catholic Church to task for its imperfections, such as its attitudes toward women, but he also lauds the good it has accomplished. As he travels from England to Rome, he contrasts the venality of Pope Innocent III with the incorruptibility of St. Francis of Assisi. He also muses on the crusades and recounts the trial of Galileo, the Protestant Reformation, the European wars of religion, the plight of the French Huguenots, the intolerance of the Calvinists of Geneva, the insistence by the Church of the authenticity of both miracles and holy relics, and various atrocities committed by both Catholics and Protestants in the name of their particular sect. His consideration of the Church’s recent scandals are particularly poignant since Egan’s brother was a victim of sexual predation by a parish priest.
At the completion of the book, Egan’s attitude toward the Church remains ambivalent. Despite what he calls the “weight of dark history,” he has been encouraged by the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis in 2013. He sees the Pope as deemphasizing a morbid concern with sexuality and returning to the basic teachings of Jesus and the early Christians. He concludes with a paragraph as opaque as a zen koan:
“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. There’s no Testimonium for the memories I’m loaded down with here at the pathway’s end, but my passport is full. [Testimonium is the name given to the certificate you can receive when you complete your pilgrimage to Rome along the Via Francigena.] . . . Beyond that is a conviction, this pilgrim’s progress: There is no way. The way is made by walking. I first heard that in Calais, words attributed to a homeless man, the patron saint of wanderers. I didn’t understand it until Rome.”
Evaluation: The corpus of the book was well worth reading. Egan’s historical sketches are enlightening and his travel anecdotes are often amusing, as this exchange that took place when he arrived to take a room at the Abbey of St. Paul in Wisques. The abbot asked, “How are things in America?” Egan answered: “Troubled.”
“Why is that?”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“I’ll show you to your room,” the abbot says, satisfied.”
I’m not sure what Egan discovered in terms of religion. What he ended up with, as I understood it, is perhaps a good description of many people’s accommodation to religion: ambivalence and ambiguity, but feeling better about life by embracing it anyway.
Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2019