A friend recommended A Pilgrimage to Eternity knowing how much the Camino de Santiago meant to me—my walk and the aftermath, what I learned about myself. I confess I thought I’d be wading through a lot of historical minutiae reading this book. But I was pleasantly surprised, moved and entertained.
Timothy Egan’s mother was a progressive but devout Catholic. After her passing, he decided to make the pilgrimage on the Via Francigena, an ancient route actually older than the Camino de Santiago by about two hundred years. It begins in Canterbury and ends in Rome. The Via passes through England, France, Switzerland and Italy, a length of 1100 miles.
Egan self-identified as a “lapsed” Catholic. One reason for his undertaking such an incredibly testing journey was the sheer physicality of it. But there were two other reasons. He really wanted to get to the bottom of how early Christianity—whose tenets were love, gender equality, charity and little dogma—transitioned to what it is today. He also wanted to reactivate his own spirituality, and see if he could find those original core precepts in action in the present-day Catholic Church.
This is Egan’s account of his own personal pilgrimage. By his very reasons, it included a fine examination and accounting of where the Catholic Church fell from its early grace. The Inquisition, murders, sexual abuse, bias and politics are already commonly known. But this writer fills in the gaps and pinpoints specific immoral deeds, contradictions, greed and subterfuge— often told with wickedly irreverent, biting humor. He doesn’t cut them any slack.
He came into the pilgrimage already carrying his own personal grief and strikes against the Church, which are relayed in the book. One had to do with Father Patrick O’Donnell who lived across the street from his childhood home, back then a 31-year-old priest. Egan’s mother welcomed him, a frequently invited guest. The priest was charismatic and considered a Pied Piper with kids. We know this familiar story. In 2002, a Spokane paper broke the story of dozens of accusations against the priest for sexually abusing boys across his priestly career, and how he’d just been moved by from one parish to another when things got too dicey. When Egan’s grown friend read the news, trauma came flooding back…what he’d kept secret. He subsequently took his own life.
Egan takes the Church to task about their fear of women’s power and sexuality: “Sex got stuck, just like those clerics who were never able to move beyond the boyhood trauma of arousal. The best women—Mary the mother of God, Joan the Maid, and Brigid of Ireland—were [made] virgins. The best men—Augustine, Jerome, and Benedict—renounced sex.”
He goes on to talk about Pope Gregory VII’s edict in the 11th century against clerical marriage. This when nearly half the clerics had wives or mistresses. There’s a lot more on that subject. But you’ve got a taste.
Here’s an accounting of high shenanigans I hadn’t known. When in Geneva, Egan sought out the repository of a special, preserved document issued by the pope—a “passport to paradise” of which who knew how many were sold. The purpose was protection from hell. The cost of the document depended on how many years the buyer wanted to reduce their time in purgatory. They could do so for themselves or a deceased relative. The fee lined the pope’s and clerics’ pockets. Thus were palaces built and feasts laid out…while peasants gave what money they had to the Church and their families went without enough food. The practice came to a halt after Martin Luther made a public exposé of this and a plethora of other instances of vast indulgences and greed by the Catholic Church. So began the advancement of Protestantism.
Along with informing us of the Church’s misdeeds, the author shares his experiences. This one is quite remarkable. He visited the crypt of Saint Lucia Filipini located in Montesiascone Cathedral in the town of Montefiascone, Italy. She died in 1732 at 6o. Her body remains incorruptible. On his visit, Egan looked closely. Her eyes were half open. Shooting a number of photos, he zoomed in and observed “a slow but discernible movement. The eyes are opening wider, to a half oval.” It jolted him with a sense of direct connection to the saint, the body. The next day he returned to the crypt. The eyes were completely closed.
He introduces us to the Abbey of Saint-Maurice along the Great St-Bernard Pass. Yes, the one with the rescue dogs. Perpetual prayer and chanting has endured 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for centuries. These days the monks who perform this duty are known as the Sleepless Ones. A site for contemplatives, there’s a draw for retreat.
Why truly would someone, and particularly the author, want to make such an arduous pilgrimage on the Via? “Wonder is a simple virtue. Like childhood, it’s grounded in innocence, taken for granted until it’s impossible to reclaim. One of the reasons I’m on the VF is to see whether I can maintain my wonder of what could be, while never forgetting what was.”
Now I’m dreaming of doing it myself. Well, maybe a truncated version at least.
A Pilgrimage to Eternity is available wherever books are sold. I checked mine out from our local library.
This book review first appeared in the publication Illumination on Medium.