A Pilgrimage to Eternity


Timothy Egan




Date Reviewed:

February 28, 2020

ntil I heard of this book, I knew nothing of the pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome, the Via Francigena, which requires a hike of more than 2000 Km to complete the entire distance. Yet, since the Middle Ages, thousands of pilgrims went on this journey, believing that it would absolve their sins and lead to a better afterlife. I think this book is a success, because when I finished it, I wished that I could make my own adventure along the route - even though I know such a trek would be too difficult for me. It's like dreaming of the Appalachian Trail - it would impossible for someone like me to hike it, but that doesn't stop me daydreaming that I actually could make it.

Egan's book is rich with history, especially church history. And the history of the Catholic church is mostly bad - since the emperor Constantine made Catholicism the official state religion in the 4th century, the church abandoned its professed beliefs of poverty and community, and instead focused on power and wealth here on earth. The list of sins is incredible - crusades, inquistions, burning of heretics, selling of indulgences, the murders of Jews, slaughter of Protestants, presecution of Galileo, kowtowing to Mussolini and facism, and on and on, right up to the present day crisis of the worldwide rape of thousands of boys by many members of the priesthood, and the subsequent cover-up of these heinous crimes by the church hierarchy. It is fascinating reading. Did you know that Joan of Arc is the only person executed for heresy by the Catholic church (they burned her body three times so that there wouldn't be any relics) and also canonized as a saint? I was raised in a Catholic family, and never was taught any history of the church - now I know why. There are few positives to balance the centuries of crimes committed by the church.

Despite the many sins of the church, Egan is interested in meeting the pope when he completes his journey to Rome. Egan really likes Pope Francis. But it wasn't clear to me why Egan hadn't given up on the Catholic church entirely. His brother had an experience with a pedophile priest. Why does he think the needs the "wisdom" of the church, when throughout its history, the church's wisdom is clearly wrong? Even now the church is against contraceptives and against the idea of women becoming priests, even though there are no reasonable arguments against these ideas.

For a book about such an epic journey, Egan doesn't write alot about the actual hiking experience. There isn't much description of the landscape (other than the stages in the Alps - the Aosta valley sounds beautiful); he rarely interacts with the other pilgrims. He admits that on multiple stages he travels by car or train, and he meanders from the official route to visit nearby sites of historical significance. Although Egan does end up at Rome, it is unclear how many miles of the pilgrimage he actually walked. Half? I think his journey is different than that of a typical hiker, because how many other pilgrims have such a knowledge of history? Egan is a professional writer, he must employ a team of researchers to learn all these details of the sites he walks by - but who else has time for all of the background preparation before going?

At the Swiss / Italian border, at Bourg St Pierre, Egan meets several new hikers - apparently most of the modern pilgrims do just the Italian stages of the Via Francigena. Even that portion is a 1000+ km stretch that takes 50 days of walking. It's hard not to read a book like this and dream about trying it also. I think it would wonderful to attempt to make the trek for the scenery, the history and the adventure. Hopefully, if I did go, it would be without suffering the damage to my feet that Egan endures.

This is a terrific read, recommended for all. It reminded me a bit of A Walk in the Wood, by Bill Bryson - that book describes the Appalachian Trail, and, like A Pilgrimage to Eternity, it is chock full of interesting history and research that is a joy to read. It is inspiring to read about people making long journeys like this - if they can do it, maybe I could do it too. Or maybe I could try just walking a tiny portion of it...