...but the flesh is weak

Paul Constant

October 15, 2019

I've now heard the same true story twice, from two different people in two entirely different parts of the country. The story is about two different women — one is in her seventies, the other was in her nineties. Both were lifelong Catholics who never missed a Sunday service, and often attended weekday services. They were active in their church communities, participating in fundraisers and social events.

And then one day, without any warning, they just stopped going to church.

Nothing else changed in their external lives. They didn't announce anything to anyone. They just quit, cold turkey. No more services, no more donations, no more social events. Nothing. Finally, when their families asked them why they don't go to church anymore these two women — who never met each other, who never even knew the other existed — would only say they couldn't stop thinking about "the children."

Everyone knows what they mean, of course. The Catholic Church covered up the sexual abuse of thousands of children by priests and other church authority figures. We all know this to be true. But the details of the story keep rolling out, piece by piece, in news reports from around the country — and now, the world. For the women I've just told you about — for two different people, at two different times — they reached their own personal breaking point, the moment when they realized that the sex abuse scandal wasn't the fault of a few rogue actors. I suspect that breaking point has been reached by thousands of Catholics around the world, a quiet collapse of faith taking place all around us.

Seattle author (and New York Times columnist) Timothy Egan wasn't destroyed, exactly, by the Catholic Church's disgrace and subsequent collapse. He wasn't a devout Catholic, but he was a lifelong cultural Catholic. As he notes in his new travelogue/spiritual memoir, A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith, he went to Gonzaga, a famed Catholic high school in Spokane, and he's long appreciated the Jesuits and their thoughtful approach to faith.

Egan won't self-identify as an agnostic — he quotes Stephen Colbert's line about an agnostic being "just an atheist without balls" — but he's not an unbeliever, either. And as he gets older and people around him begin to succumb to ailments and death, he finds himself wanting to believe in something. He writes:

I'm looking for something stronger: a stiff shot of no-bullshit spirituality. I have no idea what that is. I've never been "saved" or visited by an apparition or even had a prayer answered, that I know of. I'm a skeptic by profession, an Irish Catholic by baptism, culture, and upbringing — lapsed but listening, like half of all Americans of my family's faith.

The quest that Egan's search for the spiritual takes is a squarely literal one: he decides to follow the Via Francigena, a famous pilgrim's path through Europe to Rome, with the goal of seeing (and hopefully interviewing) Pope Francis on his arrival.

Egan's turmoil isn't just an internal one, of course — the world is on fire, including much of Europe. Some of the funniest moments in the book are the ones that wrestle with current events, as with Egan's conversation with an abbott as he tries to demonstrate his credentials as a pilgrim:

"How are things in America?"


"Why is that?"


"What's wrong with him?"


"I'll show you to your room."

Egan has never written a book quite so personal as this, and some fans of his more sweeping historical nonfiction texts — The Worst Hard Time and The Big Burn especially — might be surprised to see his authorial scope turn inward. Parts of Pilgrimage are outright memoir: a passage, in particular, about his mother's miscarriage and resulting depression, feels as intimate as anything he's ever written.

But Egan is using this fine and intimate detail as a way to reflect on the biggest questions of all: Who are we and what are we doing here? And in Pilgrimage, he reflects on the quirky history of others who have walked the pilgrim's path before him as an example of the lengths that we will go for our faith.

The quest for divinity, it turns out, is a remarkably human pursuit. Egan examines a manuscript handwritten by monks and preserved in a scriptorium. He notes that the monks, while writing out the holy gospel, found time to scribble some more earthly sentiments in the margins:

"I am very cold."

"Thank God, it will soon be dark."

"Writing is drudgery."

"The parchment is hairy."

"I am exhausted."

"It sounds dreadful, this life," Egan notes. "But the daily grind of writing was also a form of prayer, and so, another passage for eternity."

Faith has served as the motivation for so many through the millennia that virtually all of human history can be described as a pilgrim's progress. Egan writes that while Napoleon used religion as a way to keep the masses in line, he also preserved Christianity in part as a tribute to his mother. And he reflects on the obsession of (mostly male) authors over Joan of Arc's canonical virginity — as though her recorded actions weren't interesting enough.

In his travels, Egan finds saints in unlikely places. He notices a shrine at a church which doesn't get as much attention as the everyday band of celebrated saints, but which provides a story that is just as interesting as any icon you'll see memorialized in a stained-glass window:

Near the exit is a small side shrine to a thirteenth-century juggler named Jo, who scandalized clerics of the cathedral with his bawdy sayings while performing before a statue of the Virgin. They banished him from [the cathedral]. But then the mother of Christ appeared, shaming the men of the church for ousting Mary's entertainment. Jo now has his own place in the church.

You can't get mad at Egan for not presenting answers, here: these questions about faith and mortality have existed for at least as long as the human brain, and the quest is the whole point of the journey. Fans of Kathleen Norris's splendid The Cloister Walk or Lesley Hazleton's breathtaking menagerie of religious biographies will find a lot to enjoy in Pilgrimage, even if Egan doesn't quite reach as deeply as either.

Egan's quest to comprehend the divine transforms into a celebration of humanity in all its complexity. Though we are often profane, and though our feet may blister after a too-long hike in unsuitable footwear, and though we may think too much about questions that have no satisfactory answers, we all have something of the sacred in us.

I'm not going to spoil here if Egan does manage to find audience with Pope Francis. But I will close with this passage in which Egan wrestles with the legacy of another inspirational Pope:

Pope John Paul II, leader of the faith when it became clear that clerical abuse of children was thick in the ranks of Catholicism, was slow to take any action during his twenty-seven years as a pontiff. He never ordered a deep inquiry into how church culture allowed so many criminals to avoid justice, the catastrophic failures in accountability.

And what kind of justice has been delivered on that Pope for his wrongdoings?

"Since his death," Egan writes, John Paul II "has been elevated to sainthood."

Books in this review:
  • A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith
    by Timothy Egan
    October 15, 2019
    384 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston’s grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle’s own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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