Book Review: A Pilgrimage to Eternity

A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith 

Timothy Egan

What could induce someone who’s not that big a walker to (mostly) walk over 1,000 miles of pilgrimage?

Maybe desperation and doubt. Death. A “complicated” history with the Catholic church.

In this account of his own pilgrimage on the Via Francigena, beginning in England and winding through France, Switzerland, and Italy—all the way to Rome—this Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author details his journey and conflicted feelings toward faith and some of the hard "why’s" we encounter in life.

At times he’s joined by various family members as they encounter rude drivers and stray dogs, sacred places and local foods.

Summary of A Pilgrimage to Eternity

This 328-page narrative takes the reader on twin journeys: 

  • The Via Francigena, a path traced by innumerable medieval travelers winding through four countries on its way to the sacred city of Rome (and, for some, going onward from there to the Holy Land), and…
  • Timothy Egan’s own journey through faith, doubt, and some big questions after the death of his mother and his sister-in-law’s battle with cancer 

A Pilgrimage to Eternity is divided into three sections that complement where he is geographically and spiritually:

  1. Part One — QUEST: Land of Kings and Atheists. The first part takes you from Canterbury, England, to about midway through the French part of the trail.
  2. Part Two — LOST: Land of Heretics and Heroes. This part goes from Langres, France, to the Great St Bernard Pass in the Alps.
  3. Part Three — ANSWERS: Land of Miracles and Wonder. This section takes you from the Alps into Italy and the final leg of the pilgrimage. 

My Thoughts on the Book

This isn’t a how-to book. It won’t tell you the Top 3 Hostels or where to find a monastery for the night or whether you need a booking first.

It will give you an honest account of what one man’s journey was like and the kinds of people and places he encountered along the way. It will tell you about his inner journey and the questions he struggled through, even as his family faced its own struggles—just like many of the rest of us.  

Some things in life just don’t make sense. Others are simply hardBut they’re the very things that can drive people to step out of the ordinary and onto a different path. 

Haribo (from the museum in Uzès, not the trail, but still...gummies are a happy thing)

A Pilgrimage to Eternity is interesting simply as a traveler’s tale, with its astute commentary on place and Egan’s keen eye for details: the vending machine with Haribo in the middle of nowhere, the saint’s statue where families left their children’s shoes, the noble story of Saint Maurice (the first Black saint), the testaroli cooked fresh in Tuscany, the walled cities and ancient tight streets. 

It is additionally worth reading for Egan’s candor and vulnerability in, at times, telling such a personal journey so relevant to quest he walked. He is open in his questions, in his anger over abuses within the church, in his discussion of faith questions with his family (and his doubts over whether he approached that right).

I don’t want to give away the “ending,” but I’ll say this. I see this quote, this explanation for why Theseus escaped the labyrinth and freed those it held in thrall:

“You don’t solve a labyrinth. You sacrifice for others.” 

Maybe not every question has to be answered in irrefutable detail. Maybe the labyrinth isn’t meant to be solved. 

We walk and we wonder. We open our eyes. We give and receive. And sometimes the riddle is solved not by what we conquer but by willing sacrifice. 

And regardless of what leaders within the church have sometimes done from their positions of power—as Egan can scathingly remind us—at the heart of Christianity is a loving sacrifice of self, arms open wide.