AS ONE who has walked a good part of the Via Francigena, I approached A Pilgrimage to Eternity with interest. Unlike the route to Santiago de Compostela, not one centimetre of which has not been journalled, sketched, or made into poetry, books on this pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome are not so overwhelmingly numerous, in proportion to the number of pilgrims who make this less popular journey.
The impression that I got from the cover blurb and other reviews was that the author, Timothy Egan, had travelled the “thousand-mile pilgrimage through the theological cradle of Christianity”, on foot. This, however, was only the first misleading impression that was unpicked in the course of this long and rambling book, itself a metaphor of the journey from Canterbury to Rome via France and Switzerland.
As we follow him on his travels by foot, but also by bus and even by hire car, he tells historical anecdotes about the places that he travels through. Sometimes in the past tense, sometimes, unnervingly, in the present, we learn of the strange behaviour of saints and sinners who also took the pilgrim route or lived alongside it. At times insightful, at other times sarcastic, these anecdotes are not told objectively, but seen through the lens of an observer-participant — at once personally involved and curiously remote.
But Egan does not travel for the purposes of historical research. As he himself writes, he is “in need of a miracle”. Ostensibly seeking a reason to believe, he questions the people of faith whom he encounters along the road, meeting often only an admission of doubt. “Doubts are allowed by God,” one wise monk tells him. “If you only ride a bicycle with the wind at your back, that’s not going to help you. You need to ride your bike against the wind.”
And ride it Egan does; for, gradually, other reasons for the journey emerge. Egan is walking in mourning — for the death of his sister, his nephew, and two young friends, for the illness of his sister-in-law, and the loss of innocence of his brother, molested by a priest as a boy. He mourns his loss of belief in the Church perhaps more than in God.
The journey is long and punishing, the arrival both an end and a beginning, as Egan finally finds “words of absolution to the faith”, an acceptance of death, and a “half-belief” — in miracles as well as much else. By turns angry and cynical, sentimental and questioning, this mixed-up book reflects not so much the journey as the man — unsettled and unsure, the only certainty being his loving relationship with his family and the via Francigena itself.
The Revd Dr Sally Welch is the Vicar of Charlbury with Shorthampton, and Area Dean of Chipping Norton. She is the author of Making a Pilgrimage (Lion, 2009) and Pilgrim Journeys (BRF, 2017).
A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in search of a faith
Church Times Bookshop £19.80