Hiking somewhere near the Italian mountain town of Aosta, about five hundred miles from Rome, Timothy Egan’s feet began to hurt. “The toes on my right foot are a throbbing mess of bubbled blisters.” He can barely move. “The best I can do is wrap them in tape and treat the skin later with antiseptic and cushions.” That won’t be much help. Fifty miles later, near Piverone, he reports: “a bloody mess of skin, gauze, blood and pus.” Further down, in Pavia, Egan’s feet are “hamburger.” While numbering the lessons he learned from completing, mostly by foot, the Via Francigena—a thousand-mile religious pilgrimage spanning four European countries—Egan writes: “I will never hike without blister medication.”
A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith is a lofty title, and this book, a travelogue with essayistic interludes, addresses lofty themes in theology, philosophy, history, and politics. But the wince-inducing foot-related asides make the book what it is: a personal story of pilgrimage. Foot-talk is a central part of pilgrimage, and any modern pilgrim will relate to Egan’s agony. What can I do to avoid blisters? Should I buy waterproof boots? When do I switch to sandals? Waxy plaster or gauze? To pop or not to pop? Disgusting, no doubt. But the stinging pain, along with the apparent lack of medical consensus on foot care, helps the pilgrim abandon any illusions of having things all figured out and under control. A months-long pilgrimage isn’t a pleasant stroll accompanied by intellectual contemplation. It is a physical as well as a spiritual project.
The Via Francigena (“the road that comes from France”) dates at least as far back as the ninth century. It is a series of interconnecting paths, starting in Canterbury, that leads pilgrims all the way to the seat of the bishop of Rome, crossing through France and Switzerland. In his mid-sixties Timothy Egan, the author of several commercially successful books and a New York Times columnist, found himself lost in a dark wood, ruminating over various experiences of suffering, needing “a stiff shot of no-bullshit spirituality.” At the beginning of his book he considers himself “an Irish Catholic by baptism, culture, and upbringing,” one who is “lapsed but listening,” though still a “skeptic.”
In search of answers, he chooses not only to read and think but also to walk a pilgrim path that has been trodden by centuries’ worth of fellow seekers. He is also inspired by the rise of Pope Francis, which Egan considers a sign of rebirth in Christianity. He hopes to get an audience with the pope once he reaches Rome.
Most chapters in this book focus on different sites along the Via and the historical figures associated with them. Rich in detail and anecdote, many of these pieces could stand alone as magazine articles. At Canterbury Cathedral, Egan ruminates on the life of the martyr Thomas Becket and Justin Welby, the current leader of the Anglican Communion. He connects a small monastery near the French village of Wisques with thoughts about Benedict of Nursia. In Corbény, he reflects on Joan of Arc and the role of women in the church. Langres makes him think of Denis Diderot; Lausanne, of Martin Luther; Geneva, of Michael Servetus (the Unitarian beheaded by John Calvin).