“A Pilgrimage to Eternity” is a weighty-sounding title for Timothy Egan’s take on the heaviest of topics: faith, its place in the modern world, and the history of religion in Europe. Don’t be daunted.
Egan stuffs this account of his trek from Canterbury, England, to Rome like a seasoned backpacker — he’s loaded a whole lot into a small space, but it’s carefully balanced and will rest lightly on your shoulders. It’s a trail mix of the personal, historical and even gastronomical, but it’s never a slog.
Egan is trekking the Via Francigena, a pilgrim route that “wends through dark towns still shadowed by King Clovis, Napoleon, and war, to hilltop cathedrals said to hold calcified scraps of saints and proof of miracles.” King Clovis, in case you didn’t know, is considered by many to be the founder of France, anointed in 496. He embraced Catholicism after it helped him win a battle; he then killed off most of his family.
The book is full of such history-buff-pleasing asides.
And even as Egan will have you wishing you, too, had time to walk across Europe, this is no mere travelogue. Egan, “a skeptic by profession,” is weighing what, exactly, he believes in. He ponders whether Roman Catholicism can endure and raises the ugly history that organized religion has wrought in the West, from the “pray-and-slay” Crusades to the repulsive anti-Semitism of Martin Luther to modern revelations about predatory priests.
Egan makes his respect for Pope Francis clear, but if he achieves his goal of an audience with the pontiff, he will have a lot of questions.
He quotes well-known atheists, but instead of trying to destroy religion, he’s examining it, challenging it, admiring the embraceable parts. He sums up the message of Jesus of Galilee as, “Love is intoxicating. Hate is poison. Above all, take care of the least among you. Revere creation.” He celebrates those who have.
Although he delivers cranky details about his physical misery, Egan’s is not a totally Spartan journey. In Italy, Anselmo’s theories about God’s existence are discussed over “Aostan wine and a dish of eggplant and melted fontina from the cows we had seen earlier in the day.” Fine wines are consumed. In Egan’s view, “A pilgrim doesn’t have to suffer.”
Some of the things he sees, and his ultimate conclusion, may raise eyebrows. But “for many of us, malnutrition of the soul is the plague of modern life,” he says. He offers open-minded seekers plenty to whet their appetites.
Michael Merschel is the author of “Revenge of the Star Survivors,” which won the Texas Institute of Letters’ award for best middle-grade book.
A Pilgrimage to Eternity
By: Timothy Egan.
Publisher: Viking, 367 pages, $28.