Timothy Egan, A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith (New York: Viking, 2019), 367pp.
Timothy Egan (born 1954) calls himself a "lapsed but listening" American Irish Catholic who is a "skeptic by profession." But he wants to remain open to new possibilities, and so a few years ago he walked the ancient Canterbury Trail that winds its way for a thousand miles from southeast England to St. Peter's Square in Rome. Does God still exist in a radically secularized Europe, once the cradle of Christianity (3,000 monasteries by the year 1400), but where today eight out of ten Swedish people identify as atheist?
There are really three stories in Egan's memoir. One is historical, and it reads like a good overview of church history, art, architecture, literature, geography, and politics. He recalls the people, places, and events that are associated with the stops along the way, like Anselm and Augustine, the Protestant Reformation, Napoleon, Galileo, and monasteries where prayer has continued unabated for a millennium. Second, he confronts the ghosts that haunt this way in the horrific abuses of the church that are also part of the path: the Holocaust, pedophilia among priests ($2 billion in settlements), Christians killing Jews, Muslims and fellow Christians, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and so on. This makes for painful if necessary reading. Third, there is Egan's personal quest for a renewed Christian faith: "I'm looking for something stronger: a stiff shot of no-bullshit spirituality." He seeks to "maintain my wonder of what could be, while never forgetting what was." I don't want to ruin a well-told story, so I will just say that he resonates with Saint Benoit Labre, the Vagabond of God and patron saint of wanderers, who remained homeless his entire life, and who observed that "there is no way. The way is made by walking" (64, 328). What Egan discovered "was not served in a stiff shot. A stiff shot does not last" (7, 320).
Timothy Egan has written eight other books. He shared a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter with the NY Times for his contribution to a series called "How Race is Lived in America" (2001). His book about the Dust Bowl called The Worst Hard Time (2006) won a National Book Award.
Dan Clendenin: email@example.com