The passage to eternity begins on the Piccadilly Line to Cockfosters. Contain the snickering, you tell yourself during the gentle forward rocking through London's Tube. By now, you should be purged of the trivial and juvenile. You should be in pilgrim mode. You've prepared for a journey of more than a thousand miles by walking hills and stairs, by breaking in shoes and building calf muscles, by shedding weight and inconvenient thoughts. You've tried to knead doubt into a lump of manageable anxiety. Getting in spiritual shape was much harder. You tidied up your affairs, made a donation to charity. Atoned. You ended a thirty-year feud with a man you've known since college. Although, when you told him all was forgiven, he responded with a quizzical look and said, "Were we in a feud?" You hope the soul has not gone dark. You've given it a scrub, cleaned out the grime from long-held grievances, petty jealousies, and spells of intolerance. The goal is to be fresh, open to possibility.
At Heathrow earlier today, after a nine-hour flight from my home in Seattle, I felt inexplicably cheerful in the grim fluorescence of an international customs barrier, ready to roam.
"Are you alone?" the British officer asked. I wanted to say "Aren't we all," but a sign warned that this was a gate of utter seriousness; it was a crime to joke.
"Why are you alone?"
I explained that I was starting a pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome, the Via Francigena.
Well, surely you've heard of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, I told him. More than a quarter million people walk some part of that dusty path to the tomb of the Apostle Saint James every year. I will follow a less-known trail, once the major medieval route from Canterbury to Rome, the Via Francigena. The name means, roughly, the Way Through France, and is pronounced frahn-chee-jeh-na. More of a braid than a single road, it traces a course described by Sigeric the Serious, archbishop of Canterbury, when he walked through Europe to see the pope in the year 990. My plan is to travel the entire route of the Via, about twelve hundred miles on foot, on two wheels, four wheels, or train-so long as I stay on the ground. The Via Francigena crosses the English Channel to Calais, wends through dark towns still shadowed by King Clovis, Napoleon, and war, to hilltop cathedrals said to hold calcified scraps of saints and proof of miracles. It leaves the cold interiors of northern France for the revitalizing air of the mountains and the Reformation, deep into Switzerland. Up, up, up into the Alps after that. Down, down, down through the Sound of Music hamlets of the Val d'Aosta. Then south into the radiance of Tuscan villages first inhabited in the Etruscan era twenty-five hundred years ago. In the end, it's a straight line to St. Peter's Square over the fabled Roman road, in hopes of meeting a pope with one working lung who is struggling to hold together the world's 1.3 billion Roman Catholics through the worst crisis in half a millennium.
Now here is my first stop, St. Pancras station in central London. It's another curious name, sounding like an homage to an internal organ. The tourist information booth has nothing on the origin. "Some kind of saint." Pancras, it turns out, was a teenage martyr, killed by the Romans in ad 304 for refusing to worship one of their gods. The boy was beheaded. He has a special place in England because some of his relics-body parts and the like-were carried to these shores in the first systematic attempt to bring Christianity to the island, in the sixth century.
The morning is lovely, May sunlight pouring through the big glass walls of the station. I pick up a couple of papers and magazines, happy to be in a city where print journalism is alive and shouting. It's tempting to overstate things in the daily grind of events, but the news of the day seems monumental on all fronts. Britain is cracking up-an existential fight. Having shaped so much history for so many centuries, a fractious former imperial power struggles to find its place in the world, and with how much of that world to open its doors to. No nation is an island-even one that is an island-entire of itself. A shared national narrative, difficult in the best of times, is far out of reach for "this precious stone set in the silver sea," in Shakespeare's perfect tribute.
And something else is running through the national disquiet: the kingdom is fast losing its belief in God. For the first time, more than half of all British say they have no religion at all. Some are looking for answers in the five-thousand-year-old Neolithic mystery of Newgrange in Ireland, a circular mound of tomb passages older than the Great Pyramids at Giza-a fascination of the neo-pagans. Others are dogmatically atheistic, if that isn't oxymoronic. In between are people who haven't given up on the Big Questions, but are checking out of organized religion in droves. The collapse has hit the Church of England hard, with just 15 percent of UK residents now calling themselves Anglican, the faith founded by Henry VIII. To this day, the head of the church, ninety-three-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, is also head of state. For centuries, in order to hold office or even attend college, you had to take an oath of supremacy, swearing to the monarch's absolute power at the top of this nation's established church.
One story predicts the end of British Christianity within fifty years, when the religion brought here with the bones of Saint Pancras will become "statistically invisible." Across the pond, a much slower-moving but similar trend is taking hold in America. There, the fastest-growing segment of belief is no particular belief-the Nones, as they're called. Nearly seven in ten Americans are still Christian. But if White Anglo-Saxon Protestants were indeed the rootstock of the United States, then the mother ground is nearly barren. What's happening is a mass exodus, particularly among the young: 71 percent of people aged eighteen to twenty-four say they have no religion. Since 1980, the Church of England has shuttered a thousand places of worship-great stone heaps, finely masoned and arched to high purpose, now demolished, sold at auction and repurposed, or left to rot.
This news sharpens my purpose. At times, we have trouble seeing history as it slow pivots. But here now is a moment that's been building for a century. Britain-and much of Europe, the theological cradle of Christianity-has never been so removed from belief in God. It's likely that a higher percentage of people once worshipped Odin or Jupiter than those who now regularly pray to the carpenter's son from Nazareth. Elsewhere, the world is becoming more religious, and Christianity is growing, robustly so in China and Africa. With 2.2 billion followers, the faith that began as a small Jewish sect is by far the planet's most popular and diverse religion. But in Europe, where the rules of the spiritual here and hereafter were shaped over centuries of bloodshed, it's all a shrug.
One reason I want to follow the Via Francigena is to experience layers of time on consecrated ground. There's barely a village along the way that has not played host to some life-changing event, a cathedral stairway that has not been trod by martyrs, madmen, or monarchs. Would there come a day when all those shrines and reliquaries would be nothing but Michelin-starred curiosities-left behind, like the great rock faces of Easter Island or Stonehenge? What was that all about, we may ask, looking at haloed humans fronting an oversized edifice in marble. In that sense, this adventure is an attempt to find God in Europe before God is gone.
But I have another motive to get moving over this sanctified pathway. For the enfeebled Church of England, the figure of Jesus is almost an afterthought; he is "sometimes compelling," as the Anglican bishop of Buckingham recently put it. 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. I'm no longer comfortable in the squishy middle; it's too easy. I've come to believe that an agnostic, as the Catholic comedian Stephen Colbert put it, "is just an atheist without balls." It's time to force the issue, to decide what I believe or admit what I don't.
I'm clearly not a theologian. Others can fight over doctrine, as they have for centuries. Others can see grave peril in something as simple as allowing a divorced Catholic to receive communion. The dancing-angel-counting on that head of a pin will continue until end times, preferably far out of sight. But if there are a small number of hardened truths to be found on this trail, let the path reveal itself. I feel driven by something I read from Saint Augustine during my prep work: "Men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tide of rivers, the vast compass of the ocean, the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought." We are spiritual beings. But for many of us, malnutrition of the soul is a plague of modern life.
One member of my family was nearly destroyed by religion. The men of faith in our diocese committed a monstrous crime. Another sibling was made whole by religion, after losing a son to murder and finding that no one but God could salve her wounds. There are no clean lines in our clan, only a muddle-rage mixed with redemption. I'm still haunted by the last hours of my mom's life. She was a well-read, progressive Catholic, a mother of seven. "I'm not feeling it, Timmy," she said, the color fading from her face, the strangling tendrils of her brain cancer closing it, that lethal glioblastoma. "I'm not sure anymore. I don't know what to believe or what's ahead. I don't . . . know."
I arrived on a Boeing 747 that is nearly twice as long as the Wright brothers' first flight. I begin my passage with all the world's known knowledge in the palm of my hand. And yet, I feel that so much is still unknown-the unquantifiable, my mother's doubts on her deathbed. At the depth of this year's dreary winter, I went to a "Search for Meaning" festival at Seattle University. I assumed it would be just a handful of the usual search-for-meaning suspects lamenting the meaninglessness of it all. But the major events were sold out, demand much greater than supply. At the same time, I started looking at pictures of the enchanting Via Francigena, this magnificent curiosity through the heart of secular Europe. The tug-and yes, the light, particularly in Italy-was irresistible. Here was a chance to consider two thousand years of theological thinking, refined by some of the best minds and tortured souls, all the opinionated ghosts of the Via Francigena.
Rome, by plane, is less than three hours away. My camino will take months, depending on dogs encountered, feet blistered, bad water ingested, and the wondrous distractions in between. Sigeric's route gained prominence at the height of the medieval era, when upward of two million people journeyed south along this way every year. They took to the road to escape miserable lives, to look for plunder, to find a miracle cure for the everyday diseases that killed adults in their prime. And many thousands slogged through forests and bogs, past dens of thieves, renegade knights, and redoubts of rabid dogs, in searing heat and mortal cold, as a way to cinch a place in heaven. During a papal jubilee-a holy year-the church offered this pact: make an epic journey to Rome and receive a plenary indulgence in return, the slate of sin wiped clean. And no doubt, thousands more went out of a genuine desire to connect to God. It's the same feeling today that motivates the 200 million people worldwide who make some form of spiritual pilgrimage every year. But among the 40,000 who stride over part of the modern V.F., most are not on a religious journey. They are seeking space to think, to reflect, to "learn how to waste time," as the European keepers of the trail reported in their most recent analysis.
In Canterbury, I walk from the train station to the cathedral, with one task ahead of me before I do anything else. I find my way to an office inside the medieval compound of the church and present my blank credential, the official record of anyone who attempts the Via Francigena. This is a personal record more than anything else, though the Catholic Church requires that certain stages be completed in order to receive the Vatican seal of the Testimonium at the end. I get my first stamp, the emblem of a cross on a shield, imprinted on a square of the page, marking a beginning. I start as a father, a husband, an American deeply troubled by the empty drift of our country. And for the next thousand miles or so, I will try to be a pilgrim.
A Canterbury Tale
The altar where Archbishop Thomas Becket was hacked to death by a quartet of knights on a December evening in 1170 was always a reason to come to Canterbury. You would want to kneel on the cold floor where the most powerful man of God in the kingdom fell. You might be lucky enough to get a drop of his diluted blood, the most precious commodity of the most visited site in a cathedral so crowded with history it is called England in Stone. You would, at the least, start a proper pilgrimage to Rome by leaving something of value behind at the place where church and state clashed with the shattering of a skull. And so today you study the bronze sculpture of two swords in the cathedral, and wonder why an 850-year-old crime scene is still one of the most sacred sites in all Christendom. It's the first question a pilgrim confronts on the Via Francigena.
"Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" The exact phrase of King Henry II may be less Shakespearean. He might have said "turbulent" priest. Or some other variant. No matter: the intent was the same. And so on December 29, nearly six centuries after the first archbishop of Canterbury had built a palace of worship on this ground, Henry's knights butchered Thomas Becket. That should have been the end of it. But to still the heart of a nation's highest-ranking ambassador of Christ, at a time when the church held sway over nearly every aspect of life and death in Europe, was not just a shocking affront; it was a declaration of war against the world order, undertaken to change the balance of power.