Monthly Archives: November 2019

A Pilgrimage to Eternity, by Timothy Egan

Pilgrimage to EternityThrough persecution and famine, the Roman Catholic church has spread her children all over the globe. Timothy Egan is an American of Irish heritage, and like so many of his brethren, his faith has faded, knocked back even further by the recent scandals in the church. At age 62, however, he is restless. His wife’s beloved sister is struggling with cancer, and Timothy yearns to do anything to stop its progress. Perhaps praying in consecrated places along the ancient pilgrim route, the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, will cause God to work a miracle, or at least cause him to reveal himself to Timothy.

As Chaucer told us so many centuries ago, spring brings crowds of pilgrims to Canterbury. Egan shares some observations on the current inhabitant of the seat of the Anglican church, then goes through the history of this place that once played an important role in the Roman church. Here he picks up his official pilgrim documents and sets sail from the white cliffs of Dover for the ancient port of Calais. All along his route through France, Switzerland, and Italy, Egan works this layer cake of a narrative: part history, part travelogue, and part spiritual journey. The reader visits tombs with a smorgasbord of saintly body parts, eats dinner at both monastery refectories and gourmet restaurants, ruminates on deep meanings and great wines, meets Egan’s family members one at a time, and empathizes when his feet are mangled hiking down from the mountain heights. Egan travels with a copy of the atheist Christopher Hitchen’s book and engages in conversations with fellow pilgrims who cover the spectrum from faith to nihilism. Some are unquestioning believers in every church teaching, and others are merely accompanying a loved one for the fitness opportunity. Most are in between, on the road to inner discoveries, like Egan himself.

Being of a similar age to Egan, many of his thoughts resonated with me. While he railed against the abuses of the church, both past and present, he recognized the places and events to be foundational to western civilization. Although there were institutional failures, there were also stories of inspiring individual sacrifice, and working through these struggles nourished his understanding of the meaning of suffering. When he met with his grown son and daughter at different points along the way, he worried that bringing them up with faith in reason alone had robbed them of an awareness of deeper, spiritual truths. They showed no interest in the holy sites that fascinated him, but it was handy in the evenings that they knew all the best watering holes.

Without revealing his conclusions at the end, the journey itself was a revelation. Peeling back the centuries at a walker’s pace gives us time to consider human history and whether our suffering holds spiritual significance, whether corrupt institutions expose the emptiness of faith or cover up the beauty of true faith. So, step on the road, pilgrim. This is a journey well worth taking.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales ran through my head many times while reading this book. 😉

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The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett

Dutch HouseMaeve and Danny Conroy sit in her car across the street from their childhood home. They smoke endless cigarettes as they reminisce, keeping their resentment of their stepmother alive and smoldering. Their father had bought the huge, glass-fronted house out of foreclosure after the original Dutch owners were gone. He had hoped that their mother would be thrilled with this surprise. She was not. She was so sickened by the idea of wealth and privilege that she left her two children with the servants, and a few years later Andrea showed up with her two daughters. Cyril Conroy was so busy with what had become his real estate empire that, in his kids’ opinion, he married her because it was easier than making her go away. Whether or not Andrea loved Cyril is debatable, but she certainly loved the Dutch House.

Patchett tells this tale in Danny’s voice. When their mother leaves, Maeve is eleven and Danny is four, so Maeve becomes all things in Danny’s world: mother, sister, friend. Maeve’s sudden sickness is diagnosed as juvenile diabetes in a day when syringes were boiled and insulin dosages were sketchy. Although their servants were kind, they could easily be dismissed, and so Danny stood on a brittle foundation every day of his young life: all of his caretakers could disappear in a blink. Central to his existence was their absurdly glorious home. The Dutch House was their shelter, their joy, and then later, their idol.

The Dutch House is the story of a brother and sister’s love that survives the betrayal of their parents, their divergent paths as adults, and the complications of other relationships. It is a story of revenge and a wisdom that takes a lifetime to arrive. Maeve and Danny are so different, and they often disagree with one another’s choices, but they allow one another to stretch the bonds to follow separate destinies. They are pulled back together by the house and their anger toward the woman inside.

Ann Patchett’s writing is superb, as always, and since I listened to the audiobook, Danny will always have Tom Hanks’ friendly voice. As a matter of fact, if you are able to listen to the book, it is a worthwhile experience. I am a character-driven reader, so living with the injustice of Danny’s life was emotional and engrossing. Maeve was a more difficult character, but the reader comes to realize that her chosen solitude allows her to nurse a gaping wound. The ending, in my opinion, is perfect, and I so, so want to live in the Dutch House.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I listened to a downloadable audiobook of this novel. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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