In Timothy Egan’s new book, “A Pilgrimage to Eternity,” the Seattle author walks the Via Francigena, a nearly 1,100-mile pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome – the seat of the Church of England, to the epicenter of Roman Catholicism.
Egan grew up Irish Catholic in Spokane and points to the Catholic Church as a source of both comfort and pain for his family. He writes in the early pages that the pilgrimage was a way to “force the issue, to decide what I believe or admit what I don’t.”
The pilgrimage came shortly after the death of his mother, Joan.
“She was a very devout, progressive Catholic – we had all the liberal Catholic magazines around our house … and on her death bed, she expressed some doubt. She said ‘I really don’t know what’s ahead,’” Egan told KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco. “I didn’t think about it much at the time, because my faith was lapsed, but then as I pondered this pilgrimage, I could sort of hear her voice and her urging: Press this issue yourself.”
The book follows Egan through England, France, Switzerland and Italy. Along the way, we learn about how his family was buoyed by the church – and how it was deeply hurt by the crimes of their parish priest in Spokane. And we take a walk through the cradle of Christian theology, and the early days of the faith in Europe.
“When it was a religion of love and tolerance, it was infectious … women could be deacons, there wasn’t all this hierarchical power. But then they make their original sin, which is church and state join,” Egan said. “And that starts when the Roman Empire not only legalizes Christianity but makes it the state religion. … And shortly thereafter they’re waging war against infidels.”
But Egan’s book is not a treatise against organized religion. Instead, he draws lines, between the institutional church and people’s deep-seated faith.
Hear the entire conversation, about 25 minutes long, below. A shorter, edited version of the conversation can be found at the top of this page.