At this stage in his writing life, Timothy Egan would seem to have little to worry about. As the author of nine books, winner of the National Book Award and an opinion columnist for The New York Times, Egan has reached the mountaintop, careerwise.
And yet, he’s anxious about his latest release. In a culture where large swaths of readers are indifferent or even hostile toward the notion of faith, Egan set out to reassess and possibly reclaim the Christianity he grew up with in his new book, “A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith” (Viking). “I’m nervous,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It’s hard to talk about matters of the spirit in a secular town like Seattle.”
Egan grew up in Spokane and has called Seattle home for many years. One of seven children from a large Catholic family, he let his faith lapse, but was moved to revisit it when his mother died suddenly from brain cancer.
His path of rediscovery was the 1,000-mile Via Francigena, a medieval pilgrimage route that stretches from England’s Canterbury to Rome. It winds through four countries and stops at monasteries, churches and shrines. It passes through small towns and large cities, vineyards and mountain ranges. For several months in 2017 Egan walked the route, often alone, sometimes with family, periodically interrupted by family health crises, a torn muscle and a world-class set of blisters.
His conclusions about his faith are best left to the reader, but here’s a critic’s opinion: “A Pilgrimage to Eternity” is one of Egan’s best books, a moving combination of history and memoir, travelogue and soul-searching, buoyed by Egan’s strengths as a writer: color and humor, a sense of wonder and a gift for getting to the point. He answered some questions in advance of his Oct. 15 appearance at Town Hall.
How did your mother’s death move you to make the pilgrimage?
She was a progressive Catholic, always very devout. But on her deathbed [from brain cancer], she said, “I’m not feeling it. … I don’t know what’s ahead.” It haunted me that on her deathbed she still felt these doubts.
And with the start of the Trump era, I was looking for something durable. In the heart of Europe, there’s this great old pilgrimage trail. Every place you go there’s a shrine — you confront questions of Christianity, miracles, eternity. It was a way to force these issues my mother got me to thinking about.
How did you prepare for the walk?
I did a lot of hiking over a lot of hills. I’m still running. I tried to get in spiritual shape as well. I didn’t want to be a cynic. I had to put my journalism skepticism on hold — I had to get in great shape and clean myself of cynicism. I told myself to go into this with a completely open mind.
Someone in your family experienced a terrible betrayal by the Catholic Church. Without giving away the details, can you talk about how that has affected you and your view of the church?
Catholicism is going through its worst crisis in 500 years, and it’s all about sexual abuse [abuse by priests of church members, especially children and young people]. At the same time, they have an extraordinary pope. I’m really attracted to Francis. I really like his authenticity, to his reaching out to the poor. But can he save the church in the middle of this crisis?
My family has been tarnished by this issue, stained and ripped apart. I went into this wondering, could I forgive this church for what it did to my family? As I approached Rome, these questions got harder and harder. It was very tough. I tried to separate the institution from [Christianity’s] message.
You write extensively about the Catholic Church’s intersection with political power, which led to some of its worst excesses. How did Christianity change when it was melded to the aims of governments and kings?
That’s a great question. This book is a physical journey, a spiritual journey, but it’s also a history of Christianity. It was a struggling spiritual startup with barely 2,000 members, and it’s now the world’s largest faith. It started out with a message of tolerance and love, but examining its history, Christianity doesn’t fare well.
My conclusion is that the great original sin of the church was when church and state became one. Almost immediately after that happened the persecutions began. Charlemagne had 5,000 Saxons beheaded because they wouldn’t convert. The European wars of religion in the 15th and 16th century killed a greater percentage of the population than World War I or the Napoleonic wars. Awful crimes were committed on the part of the so-called Prince of Peace. Where Christianity renews itself is when it simplifies and goes back to the original message.
The Via Francigena travels through England, France, Switzerland and Italy. What was your favorite part of the trip?
I loved the Italian Alps. As soon as I crossed [Great] Saint Bernard Pass and down through the Valle d’Aosta, it was like I could hear music. It was a lot like the Cascades, but at the end of the day there was always really fabulous food. People were so welcoming. Italy is so soaked in the supernatural — everywhere I stopped there was some occurrence, some supernatural event.
You write that worldwide, the number of Catholics has doubled, but the number of priests hasn’t changed since 1970. How can the church continue with a declining number of priests?
It’s an incredible life [for a priest] to take a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. It takes five to seven years. You lose the free will to make decisions. In a world where everything is immediate and gratification comes quickly, these things take forever. … I think if they let clerics marry, that would reverse the trend fairly quickly. There was nothing in the New Testament about celibacy.
You write that you were “Looking for ghosts, and OK, God.” Did you find God?
Let me just say that I feel like I resolved some things. What’s great about a pilgrimage is that it does force the issue. A pilgrimage is a concentrated effort. I don’t want to spoil the ending and say what I found but I did resolve some things. Others cannot be resolved.
“A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith“ by Timothy Egan, 384 pp., Viking, $28
Author appearance: Timothy Egan will read and discuss “A Pilgrimage to Eternity” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15, Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; tickets $35 (admission for one and copy of book) or $40 (admission for two and copy of book); townhallseattle.org