Journalist and a New York Times bestselling author Timothy Egan, talks to KCRW host Jonathan Bastian about his adventures walking the Via Francigena trail and describes how his adventures walking the ancient pilgrims trail became the basis for his latest book “ A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith”. Egan, a self-described “lapsed Catholic” explores the meaning and history of Christianity, examines his own faith and develops a deeper awareness of his own spirituality.
The following excerpts from the interview have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
Jonathan Bastian: Why did you want to take a pilgrimage, what was going on in your life that inspired you to walk?
Timothy Egan: “Most people know about the Camino de Santiago, which is the best known pilgrimage in Europe, the lesser known, but in many ways more fascinating, certainly more scenic and more historically resonant trail is the Via Francigena, 1100 miles from Canterbury in England crosses the English Channel, through France, across the Swiss Alps, down through the spine of Italy and settles in Rome. The Via Francigena, was the most used pilgrimage in the Medieval Ages.”
“Now it's being rediscovered by people like myself, who are, or may not be strong members of one faith of the other. I'm a lapsed Catholic and come from a big Irish Catholic family. I went many, many years without thinking about my faith and then my mother died and that was very hard. She was a liberal, progressive Catholic but very devout and on her deathbed she just said ‘I'm not feeling it, I have doubts, I don't know what's ahead’ and that got me thinking that we are all spiritual beings and I'd let my spiritual side lapse.”
“So I thought I would take off on this wonderful, enchanting, extraordinary trail and try to do a couple things, push myself on a physical journey but also to try to understand the history of Christianity, its 2000 year history and to get a better understanding of that. And then most importantly, I’d try to examine my own lapsed faith such such as it was.”
Bastian: You write about the history of Christianity — both its beauty and its dark side. What experiences on the trail resonated with you?
Egan: “My conclusion was that the early centuries of Christianity were extraordinary. It was a religion of love, a radical philosophy of helping the least among you, living with the poor and the downtrodden and trying to understand other people's sufferings. They allowed women to be ministers, nothing was institutionalized, it didn’t have all this dogma.”
"I saw incredible acts of charity and faith by people trying to live by the simple words of the gospel. I talk early on in my book about Calais, [France] where poor Muslim refugees are hiding from the cops and living in the shadows. They're fleeing wars in Afghanistan, and ISIS, so they were fleeing the old biblical places in Syria and Iraq that used to be so prominent. And who was trying to minister to them? Who was trying to give them food and showers and make sure that little children looked after? Catholic volunteer organizations trying to live by the tenets of their faith. And these acts of selflessness don't allow me to just throw away the church entirely, there's a philosophical core here, that’s not only attractive, but very powerful. It's human beings that have made it bad.”
Bastian: In your book, you talk about a priest in your local town who sexually assaulted a number of young boys. Talk about the impact that has had on your faith.
Egan: “That's one of the reasons why I gave up on the Catholic Church was because right now they have an existential crisis, which is, sexual abuse among among the clerical class. And I compare it to the reformation of 500 years ago, when Martin Luther broke the church wide open over all the corruptions. Then priests were basically selling indulgences, you could get into heaven if you spent X amount of money or gave X amount of money to a certain person. Similarly, the crisis today is dragging this church down.”
“Now, beyond that, a priest nearly destroyed my family. We had seven kids in my family. We were Irish Catholic and we were fairly devout, raised by devout progressive Catholics. And I was educated by Jesuits who were intelligent men with PhDs mostly with a liberal persuasion as well. And then this horrible monster came into our neighborhood, we lived across from the church and he tried to molest my brother, he did molest some of my brother's friends and one of those friends threw himself in front of a train.”
“After that happened, I said, I will never forgive these bastards. I asked my mom, “how can you still worship in this church when they allow this organized crime to go on?” My mother kept her faith, though maybe not as she exited this world, but I did not. However when I embarked on this pilgrimage, I vowed to start fresh. The question for me was, could I forgive them, as so many lapsed Catholics have been forced to try to do. Could I forgive this great overarching sin of priestly pedophilia and Could I forgive what they did to my family?”
“I don't want to spoil the ending, but what won me over was the big open heartedness of Pope Francis, who was begged for forgiveness for this thing and listening to him and listen to victims of pedophilia, who've met with the Pope was a big part of my being able to have some closure on this issue.”
Bastian: Did you consider other faiths on this journey or was this a pilgrimage about strengthening your relationship with Christianity?
Egan: “I was on a Christian pilgrimage trail, I wasn't on the Buddhist trail, I wasn't on one of the trails of the other faiths. Every night bedded down in some town where some extraordinary miracle happened. The rocks themselves, the stones on the streets are alive with memory of this faith and I couldn't help but to be moved by how much historic Christianity was all around me.”
“Additionally, in preparation for this walk, many people suggested I read the great philosophers; people who have looked at questions of existence and spirituality and have wrestled with them. I read Oscar Wilde; the great Irish Catholic and poet, who did prison time for the, quote, crime of being gay; the love of another man and who, in the last three years of his life after he was released from prison, visited the Pope fourty times and wrestled with this question. I read about Augustine's struggles, I read Christopher Hitchens, who wrote a great book about atheism, so I had a back and forth conversation in my mind and could move around what people before me have struggled with”