A Modern Day Pilgrim

Best-selling author and New York Times columnist, Timothy Egan’s latest book is called A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From to Canterbuy to Rome in Search of Faith. He talks to Tom Deignan about all that and more.

Can you start by telling us why you wanted to write a book like this? And it’s been out for a little while now. It’s only just out in paperback. Can you tell us what you’ve been hearing from readers? What’s been the response?

The response has been amazing. I’ve heard from a lot of people who say I’ve let my faith lapse. Fifty percent of American Catholics maybe lapsed, which means, you know, you haven’t left the church. You’re still culturally Catholic. There’s a line that I believe in that says a lapsed Catholic is someone who doesn’t believe in hell but is pretty sure he’s going there.

Tim, can you tell us a little bit more about your upbringing and maybe how that relates to the writing that you do?

We were a classic classic Irish American family. First Communion was a very big deal. The priest lived across the street. You know, my the families that I hung out with had like 12 kids. The Flynns had 12 kids. Another family had 14 kids. You know, our seven kids, making a family of nine, was relatively normal. This is in the 60s and 70s. And so I had a relatively happy Irish American childhood. And then I went to a Jesuit school, Gonzaga Prep, and that, you know, there it was sort of drilled in to me be the sort of logic [of] don’t believe in God unless you can come to it logically, unless you arrive at it.

You know, they said don’t believe because we’re telling you to believe in it. Believe it. Because you’ve done it. You’ve done the sort of calisthenics and arrived at it. But along with the good, there was some tyrannical bad. I mean, there was something like a lot of Jesuits were familiar with JUGG, Justice Under God. And it basically was a rock pile. You know, you go out and you pound away at rocks at if you were in prison. This is for, you know, talking loud in class or something like that.

But what religion was really important part of our upbringing. It was not just because of the Irish Catholicism, part of it that the Irish had clung to Catholicism as a way to defy the British when they try to strip them of their their ethnicity and their faith. That was an important thing that was drilled into me, that in America they couldn’t take away this faith of yours. So the cultural part of it was a big deal, but also the sort of magic, ritual, wonder. So it was an important part of my life and it really shaped me.

There’s a lot of ways you could have explored these questions. Tim, can you tell us why and how you settled on this idea of a pilgrimage?

I’d stopped thinking about these big questions. I had gotten to a point in my life where my spiritual thinking had become sort of lazy. You know, it’s like being out of shape physically. I was out of shape spiritually. I had just stopped thinking about some of these big questions. And I’m at a stage in my life where I’m still in pretty good shape. So I thought, what can I do to get these engines started, to provoke an internal discussion, to test my faith to to get rid of my agnosticism and see where I could go.

So I found this fabulous pilgrimage, older and more popular during the medieval ages than the one that everybody knows about, which is the Camino de Santiago in Spain, this is the Via Francigena, which goes from Canterbury in England all the way to Rome and was once used by a million people a year. It’s 1100 miles. It’s now a European cultural route. And so I went the entire distance of the Via Francigena as a way to push my buttons and to test my own faith and to, you know, they have this thing called deep walking, where when you’re going along, instead of being distracted by [questions like] did the Mariners’ win today; where is Trump in the polls; what’s the stock market doing? What are my kids saying to me, etcetera. I had these steep blocks of time where I could just think about some of these bigger questions that, you know, our sort of ephemeral life doesn’t allow us to think about. So that was the prompting. The other thing was that I’d heard from a lot of people who feel similar stirring inside themselves to answer some of these questions. And I mean, these are big, important questions that human beings have always ask themselves.

And if you stop asking them, I think you’re doing a disservice to your own humanity and your own spirituality. No matter where you are on the spiritual spectrum, I think you owe it to yourself to to try to ask and answer some of these questions. And the other thing was my mother, who was a very literate and progressive Catholic, on her deathbed, I held her hand and she was slipping away and she said, I don’t know what to believe anymore. I’m not feeling it.

She wasn’t certain where she was passing on to after a lifetime of being fairly certain of her faith. So I thought at the very least I owe her this journey. So some of those questions prompted me to do it, and then the third thing is the Via Francigena is spectacular. It’s just beautiful. It goes through some of the most gorgeous country in the world, French countryside, the Alps of Switzerland and then the Italian Alps and then down through Tuscany and then winding its way all the way to Rome, where I was hoping to get an audience with the pope of some sort. So all that prompted it.

Now, on the one hand, this trip sounds amazing. You went to see all these amazing sights and you got paid to write a book about it. But some other people Tim might say that these places are ancient and that they’re just simply not relevant anymore. What would you say about that. In 2020 what can we still learn from the places you visited?

You know, I think of something that Chief Seattle said. He said, ‘the stones of this of this land will always be alive with my people.’ And I think that’s what I found on the Via Francigena. The Stones themselves were alive with history and alive with spirit. I mean, you can’t walk on the Via Francigena without touching some place where an epoch shaping Clash of Worlds happened or some miracle that changed many lives happened or some monastery where an apparition appeared. So this place, this trail is not dead at all. It is just alive with ghosts. And, you know, once you stir that history, you realize we are where we are right now, because of things in part that happened, you know, in places along the Via Francigena.

The flip side of that though, and this is the one of the things I tried to explore. Is Catholicism in its modern state, just a sort of museum past, you know, is it a bunch of cathedrals and statues and burial grounds and miracle sites or is it a living thing? And I was in addition to trying to find the history, I was trying to find the living part of Catholicism.

You know, my wife is Jewish. And she accompanied me on the second part of the Via Francigena. And I’m Irish Catholic. So we raise our kids sort of in this what I call it Confusionism. We didn’t really . . . we wanted them to know of their cultural backgrounds. But what I found when my kids join me on parts of the Via Francigena was that they were sort of religiously illiterate, that they didn’t understand some of these things that are touchstones for how we talk about the world. And I point out in the book something that the Archbishop of Canterbury, who we meet in the first chapter, said, ‘You can’t understand the world today if you don’t understand religion.’

For a long time, immigrants in America have been told essentially to leave their old ways, their old religions behind, leave that stuff in Europe. But, Tim, what would you say, Catholics in particular, lose if they do that, if they leave their faith in the past?

There have always been these secular disputes. You brought up the gender issue. You know, like women can’t be priests in the Catholic Church, which I think is a travesty. And it’s not based on anything in the Bible. The pedophile sexual abuse thing is horrible and it’s the existential crisis. It touched my family. I talk about it a lot in the book. I say it’s the greatest crisis in Catholicism since Martin Luther five hundred years ago.

They’ve always had those things under that layer. And this is what I try to strip away, like by walking the Via Francigena is a simple message of this gospel. Christianity, no matter what you think of it, is the largest religion in the world. How did this thing that was a struggling spiritual startup . . . . Fifty years after the death of Christ, the Roman Empire did a census and they found there were only two thousand Christians, two thousand Christians in all of the Roman Empire, fifty years after the death of Christ. So this thing should have faded away. I mean, there were a lot of phony messiahs – there was a messiah racket going on at the time of Christ. So a question I ask in this book, and I hopefully answered without giving it away, is how did the struggling spiritual startup become the world’s dominant religion? And I think it’s because the message of Christianity at its core is pretty enlightening and pretty simple. You know, love of neighbor treat the least among you as you would treat yourself and treat the poor as you would treat family members.

And this is the message of this pope. That message gets through all the political issues, I think, or at least I was trying to trying to find that. This book is not just a physical journey, it’s a spiritual journey. And I would say at my low ebb spiritually in this trail, I am going through a place in France where the so-called Wars of Religion happened. Now, most people aren’t familiar with the Wars of Religion. I certainly wasn’t.

This was Christian on Christian violence. People who professed to believe in the prince of peace and more people were killed in the Wars of Religion, as a percentage, than were killed in World War Two. I mean, this figure blew me away. I had to triple check it. If you had the Wars of Religion going on the United States today, you would have 48 million Americans killed. So there are these huge murderous conflicts of people who profess to follow this humble figure who says do no violence, you know, turn the other cheek and the hypocrisy of that.

And then they started whacking off the heads of infidels. I mean, as soon as Christianity got took root, it became a state religion, which I think was its great, great capital crime, joining Church and State. And also the great strength of America is that we kept Church and State separate. The worst of the atrocities happened with Church and State joined. And that is when they start murdering people, slaughtering thousands of people in the name. You cannot reconcile that. But what you could say is that has nothing to do with the philosophy of Christ. It has more to do with the corruption of organized religion.

As you point out in the book, and rightfully so, the Catholic Church has gotten a lot of bad press, been the subject of a lot of negative attention. But it’s interesting to note that a lot of selfless priests, a lot of nuns and other people associated with the church are also doing amazing work with the needy and the desperate. We lose a lot when we don’t acknowledge that, don’t we?

For me one of the driving lures coming out of my last book, was the current pope – the only pope to take the name of Francis, the pauper who changed the world in the 12th century – and his leading by example on climate change, on charitable actions towards your fellow human beings, washing the feet of the lame and the poor, people who live in the shadows. I found him very inspiring, and people trying to live a more truer Christianity versus the image we see every day in the news, which is the pedophilia crisis.

And I found them along the Via Francigena. In eastern France, I found this Franciscan priest, a wonderful Franciscan priest who’s trying to live by the cradle of Saint Francis, which was this wonderful line, preach the gospel and an occasionally use words, you know, basically preach it by example. He’s working with homeless people in that area. There was a priest I met on the highest point of the Via Francigena, the eight thousand foot Great Saint Bernard Pass, high up in the Swiss Italian Alps, who goes there every summer and just helps people to try to discuss these things.

This is a man who could have been a medical doctor. He went to medical school and he had a spiritual awakening, you know, and he’s talking about, you know, he knows that he gets painted with pedophile brush. He said he’s had people throw rocks at him. He’s had people cursing. He said it just comes with the territory. But, you know, I would never, never underplay the pedophile crisis. It is a horrible thing with lots of victims.

But on the other hand, the majority of people who have taken those vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, are living monastic lives, doing things that you would find very hard to do, very hard to do, living lives of poverty devoted to others.

How are you feeling about the prospects of a post Francis Church?

Francis, the individual has changed the view of the pope, he’s the most popular man in the world right now. Michelle Obama ranks, I think, third. But when you look at these polls of who people all over the world believe in, Pope Francis comes in number one. And so I find him an inspiring figure, but his time is short. And, you know, you can’t change an institution that’s 2000 years old and moves at a sluggish you know, they move in centuries. It took them like two centuries just to pardon Galileo, you know, who was under house arrest for believing what every third grader now knows to be true. It’s taken them two centuries to come around on some of those basic elements of science. They will eventually, I predict, do two things. They will come around on gay marriage, which most Catholics, by the way, at least in the United States, are in favor of.

And they will come around and letting women become priests. Why would they do that? Well, because it’s not just because it’s an inevitable idea, but because I challenge anyone listening to this to find in the New Testament a quote from Christ where he condemns homosexuality. Find me the quote, Just find it, OK? They spent hundreds and hundreds of years in this church condemning it – there’s nothing. There is zero. I looked. I know I tested it with all the scholars. There’s nothing zero.

Find me a quote where Christ says that women cannot be a part of the church. They were part of the early church. So if you want to go to the source material, you’re not going to find that stuff. So I think this church will eventually change, perhaps not in our lifetime, given how slow the church moves.

In the book, you use the phrase lapsed. But listening Catholic, can you tell us a little bit more about what you mean by that?

When you walk the Via Francigena, you see these places –  the sites of supposed miracles. I sort of came around to the view of Saint Augustine, who said that ‘miracles are not unknown to nature. They’re unknown to what we know about nature.’ And there are some cures that physicians have tried to understand at Lourdes where people have been cured of certain things and they haven’t been able to explain them. So, you know, I mean, if you’re open, if you’re lapsed, but listening, you could be open to all those possibilities. The realm of the mind, the realm of the spirit. It doesn’t have to be within a dogmatic profile. That’s one of the things I stress this a lot. That’s one of the reasons why I took this journey, was to be alive again, to feel some things, you know, not to have you a holy roller or to be reciting Bible verses or any of that, but just to be alive to the spiritual side and alive to a possibility that a totally lapsed person would not have.  Because there’s a real struggle back and forth here between the history of the church, which is in some cases really dark and really awful and the uplifting side of this current pope. There’s a real back and forth between that. And I was gratified that the priests who I spent some time with, the priests who’d helped me try to get my Roger and me interview with the Pope, they were not at all upset by some of the things I said about this church and its challenges. You know, so it’s been really rewarding. This is a very different book for me.

It’s very personal. I had to open up a vein and let myself I did not like doing it. A lot of artists like to do that. I did not like doing it. I had to share some really awful family history and our family being touched by the sexual abuse scandal that’s rocking the church. And I had to tell some sad stories that I was really uncomfortable telling. And people who were reading the first draft said, no, Tim, you’ve got to go deeper with this.

It was very difficult for me. But I thought if I’m not honest with the reader about where I am on these questions, you know, I’m not doing a very good service. So I thought I had to open up and get my own background.

Now, the main reason we’re not able to meet and talk about this stuff in person, of course, is because we’re entering what feels like the 60th year of the covid pandemic. In point of fact, it’s been over six months now. Tim, can you tell us a little bit about where you’re talking to us from and how have you and your family been dealing with this covid crisis?

As we speak, we just crossed one hundred and ninety thousand Americans have died and six million Americans, one in four. In all the cases in the world, we have four percent of the population and 20 plus percent of the cases are sick. So I’m coming to you from my home in Seattle. I’m a Seattle native, third generation, my grandparents were raised here. My mother was raised here. My father came Chicago Irish. But, you know, we had a third we had three families here during Covid.

And personally, two of my siblings have had covid, two of my brothers. One of them was in really bad shape, he was in the hospital on a respirator and there was a touch and go moment. He’s home now. My younger brother, our youngest brother Danny, had it as well. So it’s really touched me personally. I lost a very good friend who lives down the lake from me here where I live on Lake Washington.

You’ve written about a lot of tragedies from the past, the forest fires of the 1910s and the environmental roots of the Dust Bowl. Can you talk about how this particular moment compares to some of those other great historical challenges that America faced?

My book, The Worst Hard Time was called that, because that was a horrible time. And it truly, it was a melancholy time, there was a lot of suicide. Again, it was the lowest birth rate we’d ever had in no time. So I put that in perspective to the current time. Then people were hungry. I mean, they were eating roadkill in some of the towns in the Midwest I describe. But at least they had community. You could get together and play ball or have a Sunday gathering or go to church or have a family get together.

Now we have a psychological depression with Covid we can’t gather. So there’s the loneliness part of it. I think we’re better off physically than certainly we were in the nineteen thirties. There’s more safety nets. There was no Social Security then, no sort of welfare and things to help people who were really poor. They just eat scraps. But now you have this pandemic with the loneliness part of it, and that’s what makes it so unique.

Tim, we can’t let you go without talking a little bit about your last book, which was called The Immortal Irishman. It was about the famed Irish rebel, Thomas Meagher. Can you tell us why he was such an important and unique figure that you felt the need to write a book about him?

The reason I was drawn to Thomas Francis Meagher, the 19th century revolutionary, this Civil War general, this first territorial governor in Montana, this escapee from Tasmania, was because you see in his short life, he only lived to be forty three, almost the entire arc of 19th century Irish Americanism.

All the stuff that you see coursing through our low points of history, thrown at the Irish and thrown at people like Meagher. Now Meagher was special. He spoke seven languages. He was a Victorian. He was very well-educated. He came from a very good family in County Waterford. He wasn’t some, you know, like my great great grandfather, some poor guy with two bucks in his pocket who fled the famine. That’s on my father’s side. There were famine, Irish.

He came, he escaped. He was a world renowned figure. He was the best known Irish American until John F. Kennedy came along. But he still took up the cause of the poor. He still took up the cause of new immigrants, and he took up the cause of anti slavery, saying that the way for the Irish to become a part of this country was to prove it by blood itself. And they fought, I mean, some of the greatest battles of the civil war.

Some of the greatest warriors were new immigrants. And it was tough for Meagher to lose so many of those people. So, I mean, he’s a wonderful figure. And the book made me feel sad in that I saw so much of our history is now repeating itself in the way some people talk about immigrants, because really I mean, most Irish Americans right now are not treated badly, but they were treated horribly 150 years ago. They passed all these laws to try to prevent them from becoming citizens.

And that history is important to know and that history is important to understand. As we look at the present day.

What else are you working on these days? Tim, what’s the next book we can see? What kind of research are you doing these days?

So I’m working on a book about when the Ku Klux Klan, basically took over America in the 1920s. So most people don’t know about the 20s period. But the Klan had five million members. They were actually at their peak in the 1920s. And I based this in the state of Indiana where there were three hundred thousand Klan members. They are Klan governor, a Klan senator and the entire congressional delegation. And again, the Irish story sort of appears in this book quite a bit too, because the Klan’s focus in the 20s was anti-Catholicism.

They hated Catholics, particularly Irish Catholics. And, you know, they said that, once again here. By this point, a lot of Irish Catholics had assimilated, but their religion was under attack by the Klan. They actually were in the north more virulently anti Catholic than they were anti black. I mean, that, of course, they were into black white supremacists. They took an oath to that. The book is called A Fever in the Heartland.

And it’s basically about how these average Americans could could learn to hate. Klan parades were fifty thousand people would turn out their Klan Fourth of July in Kokomo, Indiana, attracted more than a hundred thousand people. So it’s a dark, interesting chapter of our history, but it’s revealing, too. And there’s a good hero in the book. So it doesn’t end on an entirely dark note. And I think goodness prevails, I should say.

The pilgrimage you write about in this book did not actually take you to Ireland. But there is an Irish angle to this journey right Tim?

I should say, on behalf of all my fellow Irish, and the great Irish diaspora. They say that wandering is an ineradicable part of the Irish race. And certainly I found lots of traces of these Irish monks all over Europe. You know that how the Irish save civilization, school of thought is basically that when Europe was plundered and fell into barbarism in the early, early, early, early Middle Ages, Irish monks gave them civilisation again.

They gave them the written word. They gave literature. They gave him storytelling. They preserved a lot of these. And it’s funny for a tiny little nation, I found the influence of these Irish monks all over the Via Francigena. And that alone, I mean, just pick out that alone has someone who values his heritage to that tiny island. My tracing my people to that island, that alone was worth it for me.

And of course, this has been worthwhile for all of us. We have been talking to Timothy Egan, New York Times columnist and best selling author. His latest book just out in paperback is The Pilgrimage to Eternity. My name is Tom Degnan. Timothy Egan, thanks so much for joining us today here at Irish America magazine.

Thanks a lot. Great interview. Appreciate it. Hello to everyone in Irish America.

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