October 15, 2019

A Pilgrimage to Eternity

By Timothy Egan
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Timothy Egan is Irish Catholic, thoroughly lapsed. A well-read skeptic and New York Times columnist, Egan shares a telling anecdote about his mother. On her deathbed, she still wasn’t sure how she felt about the afterlife. “I’m not feeling it, Timmy,” she told him. “I don’t know what to believe or what’s ahead.” He doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties of faith. And yet.

Egan finds himself wanting more. He wants to slow down. He wants to take time away from his many screens. He wants to meet Pope Francis, who has captured the attention of the world. And so Egan becomes a pilgrim, determined to walk the Via Francigena, an ancient route from Canterbury to Rome. “I’m interested in the Big Questions,” Egan writes in a personal letter to the Pope. “How do we live in an increasingly secular age? What is our duty to our fellow humans in a time of rising nationalism and tribalism? And what can the Gospel say to someone who thinks he can get all the world’s knowledge from the internet?”

Egan stays on the road for months, traversing snowy mountains and sweltering valleys, getting lost and blistered and lonely, reconnecting with family and buying more comfortable shoes. He visits libraries, monasteries, plus all manner of religious sites. As he wanders, Egan beautifully describes the landscape, his personal prayers and his family’s heartbreaking experiences with untrustworthy men of faith. In the most surprising passages of the book, Egan turns to the history of Catholicism in Europe.

It’s a bloody story, full of martyrs and villains, gruesome relics and deserted graves. Egan’s lively recounting of history is juxtaposed by his contemporary observations of the emptying cathedrals of today, as he traces the many ways that the Catholic Church has changed over time. And he himself is changed through the journey. Part travel memoir, part history, part spiritual reflection—A Pilgrimage to Eternity is wholly enjoyable.

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