The first Moment of Zen in any road book comes when the narrator poses the familiar question: Is it about the destination or about the journey? Then comes the second Moment of Zen: Maybe the journey is the destination. You can call this a cliché, or you can simply accept it as part of a traditional structure. Sonnets must have 14 lines. Heroes must have tragic flaws. And road books must have a moment when the weary traveler puts a hand to the chin and says, “Hmm. Wait! Maybe … ” Or, as Timothy Egan gnomically puts it in A Pilgrimage to Eternity, citing an 18th-century saint and fellow wanderer: “There is no way. The way is made by walking.”
Egan is a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter and columnist. His book is an account of a 1,200-mile pilgrimage on the so-called Via Francigena, from the cathedral at Canterbury (where Archbishop Thomas à Becket was murdered, at royal behest, in A.D. 1170) to the precincts of the Vatican (where the purported bones of Saint Peter lie beneath the high altar)—retracing a route trod by countless medieval pilgrims.
Then comes the second Moment of Zen: Maybe the journey is the destination.
As Egan is aware, the pilgrimage book is one of the earliest forms of road book. Before Kerouac there was Chaucer. Dante’s Divine Comedy has the flavor of a pilgrimage book: it begins with the poet admitting that he is lost on the road, midway through life. The literature devoted to the best known Christian-pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago, would fill a library. (Not to be missed: Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s antic, blisters-and-all account in A Sense of Direction.) The Via Francigena—pronounced “frahn-chee-jeh-na”—is not as famous as the Camino, but it offers far greater variety: from Canterbury to Calais; past the cathedral at Reims and the abbey of Clairvaux; over the Alps into Switzerland; and along the spine of Italy to Lucca, Siena, Viterbo, and Rome.
When Egan sets off—following a route prescribed by Sigeric the Serious, archbishop of Canterbury, in A.D. 990—he has several objectives. One is to encounter the state of Christianity in what has largely become a post-Christian Europe—“to find God in Europe before God is gone.” Another is to reflect on the challenges facing one denomination in particular, the Catholic Church. Egan’s third objective is personal: to come to terms with his own uncertain faith. He describes himself as a “lapsed but listening” Catholic while admitting to an impatience with those, like himself, who inhabit “the squishy middle.” The reading material in his backpack represents non-squishy extremes: God Is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens, and the Confessions of Saint Augustine. Like pilgrims on the Camino, Egan carries a “passport” that must be stamped at various points along the way if he is to earn an official testimonium when the journey comes to an end.
How does he fare in his quest? Pilgrimages are by nature unpredictable and picaresque. The days unfold. The weather changes. Plains give way to mountains. The past is everywhere present—centuries, millennia. Every few miles yields a chance conversation with a stranger. Many episodes prompt excursions by Egan into reflections on religion, theology, the inner life.
These are not his truest gift. His greater gift lies in recounting the episodes themselves—where serendipity has brought him. The Via Francigena takes Egan to a monastic library in Saint-Omer, where he turns the pages of an illuminated manuscript and finds notations by monks in the margins: “I am very cold,” “The parchment is hairy,” “Thank God, it will soon be dark.” The route takes him through the battlefields of the Somme; at the Museum of the Great War, in Péronne, he falls silent before a display of prosthetic limbs and eyes and noses. In Épernay, Egan ventures into the cellars of Moët & Chandon—17 miles of caves and tunnels—and visits the nearby tomb of the winemaker and monk Dom Pérignon. He explores Brienne-le-Château, where a young Napoleon spent unhappy years enduring the spartan Catholicism of a military academy. Egan quotes an older Bonaparte: “Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.”
Notations by monks in the margins read: “I am very cold,” “The parchment is hairy.”
Pilgrim and pilgrimage can never be separated; the pilgrim’s preoccupations are central to the story. A grave family illness is never far from Egan’s mind. The journey’s physical toll is considerable: “Breakfast of ibuprofen,” Egan records at one point. The shortcuts he attempts lead generally to mishaps. Mostly he travels alone, though you’d want him as a companion. At the Abbey of Saint Paul, outside the village of Wisques, in northern France, he is interrogated by a skeptical abbot before being granted shelter for the evening:
“Are you a Christian?”
“I was raised Catholic.”
“And educated by Jesuits.”
“High school, Gonzaga. In the Pacific Northwest. Spokane, Washington. Do you know where that is?”
“We have maps here at the monastery.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“Are you married?”
“Yes. Two kids—”
“How are things in America?”
“Why is that?”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“I’ll show you to your room.”
“Is there Wi-Fi?” The abbot stops dead in his tracks and glares at me.
Sometimes in A Pilgrimage to Eternity, Egan really is just kidding. And sometimes he is not. “Each day brought some twist from nature,” he writes when his walking is done, “some quizzical artifact from the past, a small personal challenge. Each dusk allowed time for rumination about the verities of a trail compressed by the patter of 150 generations, my footsteps now added to theirs.”
Cullen Murphy is the Editor at Large of The Atlantic. His books include God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World