Through 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. 😉