Timothy Egan was at a crossroads. Raised in a large, devout, progressive Irish Catholic family in Washington State, the bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times had let the faith of his upbringing lapse. It was “time to force the issue, to decide what I believe or admit what I don’t,” he says. For him, the way forward was a pilgrimage: the Via Francigena.
In his newest book, A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith (Viking), Egan writes of his 1,000-mile journey on one of Christianity’s oldest pilgrimage routes. The Via Francigena took him from England, through France and Switzerland, into Italy.
As Egan notes in his book, pilgrimages have become hugely popular again after falling by the wayside during the Protestant Reformation. Today, Egan says, 200 million people worldwide take some sort of pilgrimage each year. The reasons, however, are unique to every pilgrim. “Early on in my pilgrimage somebody told me, ‘Everyone must walk their own camino.’ And I think that’s true. There’s no one reason for everyone,” he says.
For Egan, walking the Via Francigena was a chance to explore the history of Christianity and to wrestle with his own skepticism and his family’s experience with loss and trauma. By the end, what he gained was more than a good travel story. “I thought it would be a good adventure,” he says. “But it ended up being far more satisfying than that.”
How is going on pilgrimage different than a regular travel adventure or from long-distance walking or hiking?
In a pilgrimage the entire point of the journey is to enhance your spiritual life, to reach something. In my book I quote a French saint, Labre, the patron saint of homeless people, who said, “There is no way. The way is the way.” I think that’s true, as long as you’re moving toward something.
People on a spiritual pilgrimage are looking for resolution, enlightenment, enhancement, or epiphany. Now, you may not get any of that. But you don’t ask for your money back when you’re done and say, “Hey, I didn’t get an epiphany.” As human beings we owe it to ourselves to resolve some of these questions we all have.
Pilgrimages like the Via Francigena put you in a different rhythm. More like how human beings have always been until the internet age. A rhythm where you can be more mindful and where you can sort things out. There are so many distractions in our daily lives—digital, personal, financial, political. Pilgrimage is like, “OK, let’s wash it all out for a while. Let’s focus on one thing.”
It’s a wonderful experience. Every one of us lives with so much fragmentation: “Now I have 20 minutes to do this. Now I have 20 minutes to do that.” Not to mention the need that we all have for a digital cleanse. I’m as ADD as the next guy with my need to constantly check the crashing stock market and the coronavirus and Trump’s approval ratings. We’re all hopeless on that stuff.
Why did you choose to walk the Via Francigena?
I had reached a stage in my life where I’d stopped thinking about the big questions, and then my mom died. Her death propelled me to go a little deeper, to wonder if my thinking had sort of fossilized. I reached a point where I wanted to get out of my agnosticism and do a deep dive into my family’s Catholicism and the faith that was bequeathed to me by my parents. So I finally said that it was time to try to resolve some of my issues, and a pilgrimage is a great way to do that.
Plus, I’ll be really blunt: The Via Francigena is spectacular. It’s just beautiful. I’ve always been a backpacker and hiker, and when I looked at the trail it was just a dreamscape, especially once you get into Switzerland and the Italian Alps and start hiking down into the Piedmonte and through these villages in Tuscany.
Many of the places on the route are also infused with mysticism, with great historical resonance, especially in Italy. The route is resonant with great sites that are important to Christianity’s history.
What were your preparations for your pilgrimage?
The physical preparations were probably the easiest part. I’m in fairly good shape, so I kept my routine of running five miles every other day. I did a lot of midlevel hikes with a 20-pound backpack to get used to the weight. I tried to get good shoes and good equipment.
The closing out of affairs is also something I tried to do. I tried to make peace with people with whom I’d had a feud or two and to clean myself out of grudges and prejudices and all the things we have that clutter our lives. Like an old house where you don’t look at the stuff that you’ve held onto for so long, and you finally say, “Why did I hold onto this?”
Finally, I did a ton of reading—such as St. Augustine and histories of Christianity—so that I would be prepared when I got to certain places. I’d never really understood how violently anti-clerical the French Revolution was. Or Thomas Becket and his feud with King Henry II and how that started the modern pilgrimage. I wanted to be able to understand all those things before I went on the route myself.
What were you hoping to discover on your pilgrimage?
When you go on a pilgrimage, you have to trust there will be a certain amount of ambiguity in the things you are trying to clarify, no matter how good of a pilgrim you are and no matter how prepared you are. But there were a couple of things I was trying to resolve.
One was a fresh look at Catholicism and Christianity. I wanted to put Catholicism into my own thoughts as someone who comments on public affairs as a New York Times writer.
The more important thing was my family history. In my book I make a case that the greatest crisis facing the Catholic Church today, perhaps worse than even the Protestant Reformation, is the sexual abuse crisis among clerics. Pope Francis has gone out of his way to try to bring closure and healing. But to a lot of people, that’s an abstraction.
To me the sex abuse crisis is very personal, because it affected my family. I come from a family of nine: seven kids, my parents were both Irish Catholic and very devout. They were joyful Catholics, progressive Catholics. Our family wasn’t dour or rules-bound. And yet abuse still touched my family.
My mother welcomed into our house this new priest at our parish in Spokane, Washington. He was a young guy with a master’s degree; he was charming, he’d been in the army and had life experiences. And it turned out he was an awful, monstrous predator who had probably more than 100 victims, at least three of whom committed suicide. One was a very close friend of my brother, who had been peripherally involved in the abuse.
For a while, after I first heard about what happened, I couldn’t forgive. Part of my pilgrimage was coming to terms with that: Can I forgive? Pope Francis has talked about this: the great act of forgiveness, being able to let go of things.
Did you have to go on a pilgrimage to find resolution?
You don’t need to go on a pilgrimage to resolve things, but it helps concentrate the mind. Every day you’re out there taking a step toward something, even if you don’t really know what that something is. In our everyday lives, we’re so distracted by things and responsibilities that spirituality gets pushed off into the margins. It becomes a smaller and smaller percentage of our lives.
The great thing about pilgrimage is that it becomes the dominant part of your life. One way in which I changed is that I felt like my spiritual life was fortified. I was keener to things that I’d let lapse. That alone is a good reason to go on a pilgrimage. We use so many parts of our life, but we let this one part fall away. To be able to focus through pilgrimage made me feel like I was in renewed spiritual shape.
What are the moments of your pilgrimage that stand out for you?
One of the things that I try to deal with in my book—and this is hard to talk about as a rational journalist, as someone who’s skeptical by profession and who believes in fact-based reasoning—is miracles.
Eighty percent of Americans believe in miracles. And as I went to different places on my pilgrimage, there are many places on the Via Francigena where miracles—or something inexplicable—has happened. Many of these places became shrines. You see this particularly in Italy, where there are bodies of saints under altars or in crypts that haven’t decomposed. The term for this is incorruptible. The church says that the lack of decomposition is a miracle in and of itself; I’m honestly skeptical of this, because a good embalmer can do wonders.
But something happened to me in the third-largest domed basilica in the world, the Duomo di Santa Margherita in the town of Montefiascone, Italy. It’s a huge domed church in a tiny town—when I saw it, I thought to myself, “What the heck is this thing doing here?” I went in on a dark, stormy night, and I saw the woman in the crypt: Santa Lucia Filippini. She’s 300 years dead, and she’s lying on her side in this glass encased coffin. And I’ve got to say, she looks pretty good. Her skin looked great.
When I went up closer to her, I swear to God, her eyes opened. I watched it; I took pictures of it. And then just as slowly as they’d opened, those eyes closed.
I wrote the priest in the parish to ask about it. I also met someone later on my pilgrimage who’s an ex-physicist from the ex-Soviet Union—he was on pilgrimage to do penance for what he felt was his responsibility in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster—and this guy saw the exact same thing as me.
So what do I take away from that? One takeaway is this is a kind of fraud designed to get people to believe. But another is that we just don’t understand it.
I’m drawn toward what Augustine said about miracles: They’re not contrary to nature, they’re just contrary to what we know about nature. I don’t really know, but I know what I saw.
This incident was deeply affecting. I didn’t sleep for a couple of nights, and I was troubled by what I had seen and experienced. I still can’t put it into proper perspective. When I tell audiences about this, most of them, even very secular people, nod approvingly, meaning that they believe in things that don’t pass the skeptic’s test.
What’s interesting about Santa Lucia is that her saintliness was just her goodness in life. She was a woman who promoted schools for girls and did great acts of charity, but she didn’t do anything astonishing. She just did goodness in and of itself. That raises the question: Does Catholicism need miracles to prove its faith? I don’t think it does, but then I saw what I saw.
What was one of the most moving moments of your pilgrimage?
Part of my pilgrimage was to look for a living faith, not just to visit cathedral museums, which I saw a lot, especially in France, where there are these spectacular cathedrals that are basically empty. I was looking for a church with a pulse.
I found that living church right off the bat in Calais. This city has been in an ongoing struggle with poor refugees, most of whom are from Syria. There are children and families with nowhere to go who are trying to make their way into Europe. In Calais, there were encampments where these families lived called “the Jungle,” although the city has since cleared it out.
In the Jungle, there was a group of dedicated Catholics living by their faith. They were feeding the refugees, clothing them, giving them showers, and taking care of them as human beings. It was very moving to see that faith in action.
That hospitality has been a tough sell among a lot of Europeans, many of whom feel like they’re losing their cultural Christian identity by letting in so many Muslim refugees. Well, part of Christian identity is acting Christian.
How did your pilgrimage affect your own understanding of faith?
It’s not black and white. Before I left, I was sort of squishy on faith. Now I see faith as a living thing more than as a dead one. I saw what Catholics were doing in Calais. I’ve heard Pope Francis speak on the issue of refugees: Even though it’s not one of his most popular stands, he’s been adamant that as Christians and fellow human beings, we have an obligation to help these people.
A similar thing is happening at the U.S.-Mexico border: Catholic Charities is stepping up to help as much as they can. People are trying to take care of kids who’ve been separated from their parents.
These people, and others like them, are living out a pure sense of Christian obligation to their fellow human beings. Since I’ve returned from my pilgrimage, I am more aware of these examples of faith as a positive, living thing.
This article also appears in the June 2020 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 6, pages 18-21). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Ruth Fremson