Unsettled by his mother’s deathbed words about her long-held beliefs, Timothy Egan, a New York Times winner of the Pulitzer Prize and bestselling author, packed his own lapsed faith, curiosity and Pacific Northwest travel wear and set out to explore his spirituality in his new book, “A Pilgrimage to Eternity.”
The journey took him from Canterbury to Rome along the Via Francigena (pronounced frahn-chee-jeh-na), a 1,300-mile pilgrimage through the medieval history of Christianity. Along the way, he wondered about our “malnutrition of the soul” and allowed himself to ponder the possibilities of faith that he has spent most of a lifetime neglecting.
“I’m still haunted by the last hours of my mom’s life. She was a well-read, progressive Catholic, a mother of seven. ‘I’m not feeling it, Timmy,’ she said, the color fading from her face, the strangling tendrils of her brain cancer closing in, that lethal glioblastoma. ‘I’m not sure anymore. I don’t know what to believe or what’s ahead. I don’t … know.’ “
Joan Patricia Egan died in 2012 after spending her retirement years with her husband, Harry Egan, in Sequim. Her remains were buried at sea in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Her son’s book shares his hope to find “a stiff shot of no-bullshit spirituality.” What he finds is something else: amazement and surprise in way he’d never allowed before.
Egan confronts the child sex abuse crisis of the Catholic Church. He writes of the rage and its effect on his family. And he celebrates the words, humility and actions of Pope Francis, who is trying to hold together the 1.3 billion-member church.
“I had to open a vein to write this,” Egan says. “My faith is very complicated.”
Amid the sweeping themes of his book, Egan delivers a vivid history of Western Christianity and its collapse in a modern Europe that has grown increasingly secular. Some predict Christianity will be nearly extinct in Britain within 50 years.
Egan offers his own observations on Christianity through his personal triumphs, doubts and failures along the way. It is, after all, a pilgrimage, not just a physical trek. To achieve his goals, Egan says he embraced what his fellow pilgrims – by some estimates, 200 million people go on such journeys all over the world each year – call “deep walking,” the practice of meditating while moving.
Among his early stops is Laon, France. A magical place dominated by the 12th century Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Laon, Egan reveals that his pilgrimage is more than a personal journey to Rome to test his spiritual and physical mettle. He has “an ulterior motive for investigating miracles.”
His wife’s sister, Margie Balter, has cancer. And it has spread to 11 organs.
“She’s far too young, too vibrant, too full of fresh ideas, with too many songs still to teach her piano students,” Egan writes.
In Laon, Egan describes the Seven Wonders within this small, fortified city rising above the Picardy plain. And he considers miracles with the help of St. Augustine’s words: “Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.”
He recounts how Margie’s doctors advised her to settle her affairs while his wife Joni will not give up. Specialists. Radiation treatment. Chemotherapy. Alternative medicine.
Nothing is working.
“And I find myself, as with so many pilgrims on this road over the last thousand years, in need of a miracle. If that sounds expedient, last minute, an opportunistic misuse of prayer, so be it. If it means suspending rational thought, consider it done. If there is a force that can produce the scientifically inexplicable, I will beg for it on bended knee.”
While admiring the cathedral, Egan says he is compelled when he notices a priest hearing confessions. He summons his nerves and guilt and pulls the curtain closed.
“I gave it a good-faith effort,” he says last week. “I’ll have to wait another 30 years to try again.”
While some might see this book as a departure from one of the Northwest’s most-acclaimed writers, Egan says “Pilgrimage” is akin to his earlier works, including “The Good Rain,” his 1990 exploration of the Pacific Northwest and his call for man to change his relationship with this rugged and fragile landscape.
Both books find Egan reporting amidst his topic.
“I love history,” he says. “Not to go into the attics of academia. … It’s best to go out and feel it. Smell it.”
“There’s is something about when you go to where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake,” he says.
Egan says his travels, including the challenge of hiking through and over the Alps, and the glory of sun-drenched Tuscany en route to Rome, allowed him to share the details that transports readers to his side as he explores history.
Egan also plumbs his own family’s complicated faith into his telling of the Via Francigena. This honesty rewards readers with a compelling and devastating narrative that pairs with his role serving as a 21st century witness to, and tour guide through, Catholic history.
The Egans lived across the street from Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish along Indian Trail Road in northwest Spokane. He writes of the “monstrous crimes” against childhood friends at the local church and the consequences, including the death of his brother’s best friend.
Asked if laicized priest Patrick O’Donnell can be forgiven for molesting 60 or more boys during his time in the clergy, Egan is direct: “No. I don’t think so.”
O’Donnell never went to prison and retired to a small community in Skagit County.
But Egan also writes that religion helped his sister heal after her 17-year-old son, a Shadle Park High School student, was shot and killed in 2005. Egan’s sister said at the sentencing of her son’s killer that she hoped he would devote his life to God and help people in her son’s name.
Egan gives credit throughout his book to Pope Francis, who he calls the most fascinating religious leader in decades.
“He may be the most fascinating person on the planet just now,” Egan says.
Early in the book, Egan shares his desire to meet the Pope. His efforts include correspondence with Vatican officials that offer bright bits of anticipation as Egan overcomes searing heat in the lowlands of France, a blizzard at 8,144-foot St. Bernard Pass in the Swiss Alps, an injured leg and bandaged feet walking through Italy and finally on to the Vatican.
“My drive to meet him, to understand him, to see if my family can forgive him for how that abuse affected us, is at the core of my pilgrimage,” Egan says.