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A friend of ours celebrating her birthday in early June rented a house in the Loire Valley and invited her closest friends to visit for a couple of weeks. My husband C. and myself were very glad to be included. When the time came to leave Azay-sur-Cher, it was still only the end of June and we couldn’t remember why we’d ever thought it necessary to return, so early in the summer, to New York City. For what? C. and I followed the academic calendar and at the moment had no responsibilities anywhere. We’d spent a fair amount of time in France but had never visited Languedoc so decided to take the train south to Toulouse. Most of all, we wanted to visit friends we’d known years before in the West African country of Niger at a time when we’d all been living there with our small children. Our combined offspring had families of their own by now, but we snatched at any chance to meet and talk not only of the Niger we’d known in the early ’70s but of our long friendship. Now Vicki and Jean Francois were spending the summer in a village called Le Plan, south of Toulouse, on the old road to Santiago de Compostela.

From Tour, we took the train to Toulouse where Vicki and Jean Francois met us, then drove us to their house along roads lined on either side with plane trees, trunks raw and sun-speckled, green light winking overhead. The heat was intense. These were the foothills of the Pyrenees, Spain just on the other side of them.

Each time the four of us met I found it impossible to resist mentioning—if not recounting in full detail—the story of how we’d all become friends. C and I, who’d been living in eastern Niger, were crossing the country in an autobus with our three little daughters. We intended to buy a car in the capital, Niamey. Before we’d gone far, we’d stopped for the night in Maradi, where Vicki and Jean-Francois lived and where we’d all met briefly. The following day, as we were sitting in the autobus with the girls—waiting for the bus to fill so we could continue our trip over an unpaved road where the sand rose in clouds and floated in the window leaving grit between our teeth—Vicki had suddenly appeared outside the open window. She rapidly passed through it two baguettes and a sack containing a dozen hard-boiled eggs, as well as some toys that belonged to her own little girl. “You’ll need them,” she said. 

These were the gifts we hadn’t known to ask for. Gifts that only later on I recalled as lit by a mysterious radiance.


I remembered it was seven years to the day that my father had died and understood that at last I wanted to write about his death.

Now, at Le Plan—between lengthy meals when Vicki and Jean-Francois told stories of their recent years working in Yemen, and we all talked about our grown children, about people we’d known long ago in Niger—C. and I drove in our rented car to towns in the region that had been way stations for those making the pilgrimage to Compostela. In St. Gaudens we stepped into the cool spaces of the Romanesque church, admired the grace and buoyancy of its apse. We then continued on the road to St. Bertrand-de-Comminges and from a distance saw the cathedral high on a hill and just below it the large hostel where pilgrims fatigued by their travels had found food and shelter and companionship. It occurred to me that pilgrimage was not so much about arriving at a place, as discovering anew what one knows already, the accidental joys the pilgrim is suddenly alive to.

Le Plan had also been a stop on the pilgrims’ road. All night long, the bells of the Église Saint-Pierre, the high crenellated church that shadowed Vicki and Jean-Francois’s house, struck the hours and half-hours, greeted the Angelus at six in the morning with a high bright shower of sound. How strange, I thought one midnight as the clock struck twelve, that we fix a time, an hour, a half hour, in order to say: take notice. Now. 

And with that thought, a sudden imperative took hold. I remembered it was seven years to the day that my father had died and understood that at last I wanted to write about his death. I hadn’t been present when my father died, I’d been crossing the ocean on my way home from elsewhere. I felt some grievous error had been committed but didn’t know whether to blame myself for my late arrival or my father who’d taken his leave so abruptly. But recently I’d come to feel that every new journey ended up as yet another barely disguised return. I hoped that writing about my absence on the day he’d departed might ease my baffled grief.

The next day I wrote a first paragraph and stopped. Then a couple of days later, one hot mid-afternoon, listening to the clock strike two-thirty, I wrote all in a rush the last lines. I didn’t have a middle, didn’t have most of it. To do that, I imagined I would need something I didn’t have. But what that was or where it would come from I had no idea.


We had already stayed with Vicki and Jean Francois nearly a week now, and thought it time to move on. We wondered if there was a monastery nearby and if we could possibly stay there. Vicki said she knew of a Carmelite monastery in Muret, just outside Toulouse. It was the old monastery founded by one of Teresa of Ávila’s nuns rebuilt now in modern times. And then Vicki was on the phone making an appointment for us to meet the prioress the next day.

We met the smiling prioress—or prieure as she was called—in a little room divided by a grille. We sat on one side, she on the other. We asked if we might stay a little longer than their usual guests. Perhaps even a month? She could see no problem in that, she said. And we were a couple—would they be able to accommodate us? There was no problem there, either. All the guests were given their own room and we would be put in rooms next to each other where we could come and go as we pleased. The last question seemed the hardest. We used computers during the day, we said. Would that fit in with the life here? She didn’t see why not. After all, a day in the monastery is an ordinary day like any other, anywhere, but one that tries to put prayer at its center. Besides, computers are silent.

So it was decided. After we’d returned our rented car Vicki drove us the half hour back to the monastery through fields of sunflowers staring west to the sun, fields crossed by lines of Lombardy poplars, trembling leaves throwing off the light. Again we said goodbye to Vicki. Until the next time.


We arrived about six-thirty, and were quickly ushered into a small dining room where the other guests were sitting round a table already eating their evening meal laid out on a yellow tablecloth. I was seated at an empty place facing a large open window that took up one side of the room, shutters thrown back on a garden. The sun streamed in at a golden slant and touched the deep rose hydrangeas at the window ledge, the white laurel blossoms just behind. An orange trumpet vine on a nearby brick wall was all lit up as on the day of revelation. It didn’t seem possible we’d been delivered to such a place. An elderly man who introduced himself as Père René Bel sat at one end of the table, and round it two others who like ourselves were guests of the monastery. Now entirely dependent on our rusty French, we explained ourselves as best we could. But no one seemed to mind and soon the meal was over and we were included in washing the dishes. Before they were dried and put away Père Bel had disappeared to his nearby apartment and returned carrying a nest of wires over his arm to hook us up to the internet. He was sure that would be important to us.

Then we were shown to our rooms. The wall opposite the door of mine was mostly taken up by an enormous window that stood open in the twilight. I didn’t know then that I would spend hours lying on the bed that faced the window watching the long needled pine branches lifting up and down. The scent of pine grew more intense as night fell. As did the sharp smell of lavender that rose from the garden below. I left the shutters open all night so as to breathe in the air.


Père Bel had disappeared to his nearby apartment and returned carrying a nest of wires over his arm to hook us up to the internet. He was sure that would be important to us.

C. and I were rapidly included in the little band that sat round the table in the refectoire: for a casual breakfast from seven on, a midday dinner just after twelve. And then supper at six. These included Père Bel, the chaplain of the nuns in the monastery, as well as a friend of his, François, a Congolese priest. He and Père, as we’d begun to call him, had known each other in Rome years before and had stayed in touch. Now François was a parish priest in Northern Italy, from where he’d traveled to visit his old friend. There was also a young woman, Chantal, from Pau, who was taking art classes in Toulouse during this week and staying at the monastery.

During dinner the following evening, Père Bel suggested that afterwards the five of us go to visit a friend of his, the wife of a farmer, several kilometers away. He had a car, and so did Chantal, so we could easily follow one another. We had already learned that Père was a Sulpicien, which meant that he belonged to an order that formed people for the priesthood, and that he’d spent many years working in Togo. He was eighty-three now and retired.

On the way, Chantal and I exclaimed over the fields of sunflowers, the old barns, the lonely farms. We went higher and higher and then we were winding up a steep hill and at the very top reached a house, just above a field of cows. Père’s friend Monique came out of the house and after Père had greeted her with the same radiant smile with which he’d greeted us, he introduced us all to each other. Monique immediately told us she was very isolated up here, their only neighbors had died, there was no one. Beneath a tree she’d prepared a table with cold drinks, she’d set chairs in the grass all round. After she’d taken care of us, she leaned forward and began to talk. I said to Chantal later on, driving down the hill, that it was as if we’d been watching a Bergman film in which a lovely woman talks freely about her life. Everything about Monique was striking, her bright eyes, very blue, her full lips, her dazzling white blouse, bare arms. She spoke of her three daughters, of the middle one, of the school, the problems. They were eleven years old and nine and seven. They were all away, she was without them for the first time since they were born. But no, she didn’t worry, she confessed, she knew they were all right. She asked Chantal about her drawing, where did she go for inspiration. Perhaps she herself might try something similar. Did we think this might happen? François was sitting there at ease, beaming, and later said we’d experienced “la France profonde.” Meanwhile Père sat silent, a little apart, white hair combed neatly above his forehead.

Monique’s husband went by on a tractor and soon after came to join us. An enormous man in overalls, burnt brick red by the sun. Chantal spoke with him and said later that he was bitter that the government didn’t support farmers, that he had to work like a beast to keep the farm he had inherited from his mother going.

The next night, again at Père’s suggestion, we all made an excursion to visit a lonely Romanesque church in what seemed to be a meadow. Having visited several of these Romanesque churches, we talked about how, something slowly begins to emerge, the central window behind the altar streaming light, the faded frescoes appearing like ghostly forms moving into clarity.

Chantal and François made their departures a few days later and it was then that Père and C. and I entered into the days of our intimacy.


We talked about West Africa, of course, Père in his customary place at the head of the table, three times a day, one of us on either side of him. Père had been six years in Burkina Faso, another six in Benin, several in Togo, five in Rome, three in Paris at St. Sulpice, a year in Limoges, a year in Miami. He showed us magazine articles he’d written about his time in Africa, told us his most precious memories were bound up with his years there. We all agreed Africa had been the great gift of our lives. He had grown up not far from where we were now, in Languedoc, in a poor family, had been a seaman during the Second World War, had decided to become a priest as a result of what he’d seen during that terrible time. Sitting at the table, he lifted his arms to indicate the inexpressible. Lowered them. A gesture of surrender. He wanted to know all about us. Yes, he’d learned English during his year in Miami, but we insisted he help us with our French. He proved an exacting teacher, interrupting me in the middle of an impassioned sentence to say the adverb belonged before the adjective, not after. He wanted to know about our children, each one, their names, their inclinations. He listened eagerly to stories, throwing back his head to laugh heartily. He himself was the youngest of four boys: “Ça explique beaucoup,” he said. Did we have sisters? Brothers? And our parents, what of them? We talked about the current state of the church. I told him I thought it a scandal that women were still barred from ordination. I grew heated as I spoke. He listened, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

A new visitor arrived, a man in his early fifties, who moved easily between French, English, and Italian. His wife, whose sister was a Carmelite nun here, had died of cancer three years earlier and her ashes were buried at the monastery. He made a pilgrimage twice a year, he said, to visit the place. And to see his friend, Père Bel. He’d been a member of the commedia dell’arte, sang Don Giavonni at full volume while washing the dishes. Père stood nearby drying them, smiling to himself.


He had decided to become a priest as a result of what he’d seen during that terrible time. Sitting at the table, he lifted his arms to indicate the inexpressible. Lowered them. A gesture of surrender.

Père said Mass every morning at eleven. It was immediately after that we repaired to the refectoire for our midday meal. On one side of the chapel was a wooden statue of a Carmelite saint: St. Teresa, founder of the discalced order, caught with a plume in her hand in the very act of writing her autobiography, perhaps, or one of her books concerning prayer. On the other side stood Teresa’s great friend, St. John of the Cross, holding open a volume that surely contained his poem, The Spiritual Canticle. I learned the Carmelites had been founded on Mt. Carmel outside of Haifa and their patron saint is the prophet Elijah—or Saint Elie, as they call him in France. The one who listened for the voice of God in the storm and in the earthquake and in the fire. And at last heard it in the still small voice. Covered his face with his cloak as God passed by.

The Carmelites not only sing the psalms in community several times a day but also pray in their own cells in solitude. They also silently pray in the company of each other. In the afternoons I sometimes came into the chapel to sit as quietly as I could while behind the grille the nuns knelt or sat in profound silence. Were they listening for the voice of God? Did they, like Elijah, hear it while I heard nothing?

I remembered those fellow travellers crossing Niger long ago who—while we remained on the bus eating Vicki’s hard-boiled eggs—had gotten off and knelt on their goat skins in wide open spaces of wind and stinging sand, bowing in unison. It had been about three in the afternoon, at the third call to prayer. As we tore the baguette into chunks, we’d looked out the window at our companions standing in the immense open landscape: kneeling, bowing, touching their foreheads to the sand. Were they also sustaining the world we all passed through?

I, who knew so little how to pray, sat humbled, remembering the psalmist’s words: Open my lips that I might sing your praise. A prayer for stuck writers, surely.

We met the prieure again, the grille between. She said that the impulse within the community was to react, reagir. But the hope, she continued, is to come into oneself, into one’s fullest self, which I supposed would be precisely a state in which one did not react. Perhaps responded instead. One returns, she said, chaque jour to the same task of loving others. The task is taken up day after day, in the monastery, elsewhere. St. Teresa, she added, had thought that the love of God was discovered through other people, in friendship.


One evening we were talking about films at dinner and C. mentioned one we’d seen recently: Of Gods and Men. Had Père seen it, he asked? “Mais bien sur!” Père exclaimed. Indeed, he had a DVD of the film in his apartment, in the original French, Des hommes et des dieux, and he immediately invited us to accompany him back after dinner to watch it. Opening the door of his little apartment he bent to pick up his neglected copy of Le Monde delivered that day. Then the three of us sat down in front of his upstanding computer screen and after he’d slipped in the DVD we watched the film, spellbound. When it was over we sat without moving until Père breathed into the long silence a single word: yes. 

Standing on his threshold, we said Merci encore, dors bien, a demain. The last of the summer’s daylight was fading in the west and the bell was ringing to announce the Grand Silence. There would be no talking now in the monastery until tomorrow.

But the next morning when we assembled at the usual breakfast of baguette and coffee we found that the film had broken open whatever was waiting and we talked of it throughout the day. At bottom the film seemed to be about the fear of death and what’s possible in the light of that fear. A couple of nights later Père invited us to watch Carl Dreyer’s Passion of St. Joan. And there again the fear of death. But in each case—the Trappist monks in Algeria, Jeanne herself, la Pucelle—the fear had been accepted and at last faded in the light of a larger understanding.

But something was happening I had no words for and that even in this aftertime I think requires another language altogether. That first evening, dazzled though I was by the sun on the rose hydrangeas resting in the window frame, I’d immediately recognized my own father in Père: his delicate hands, a kind of shrewd attention he gave to each of the people around him. I watched him watching each of us in turn, could see he did not judge easily, was bemused, rather. He was a tolerant man. My hasty temper that had shamed me my entire life I felt he recognized and forgave, just as my father had. And gradually I began to love him deeply because I fancied he loved me, accepted me as I was. And with that love was born a dread of the last day. Although we had almost two weeks remaining in Muret, it seemed that Père was already being taken from us. Or we from him. In no time at all we’d be on a train streaming north to Paris. If I hadn’t been conscious of my father’s death in the moment that it was happening, then I would be conscious now. But had my father returned only to be snatched away again?


We had begun going every night after dinner to Père’s apartment to watch another film from his large collection. Sometimes he chose it, sometimes one of us did. But they all seemed to be about the same thing. Together we watched Cinema Paradiso, Babette’s Feast, Schindler's List, The Seventh Seal. If Père was moved by something, he lifted both his arms, lowered them. Or sometimes lifted only one arm, as if he were about to conduct an orchestra. Or, in the long silence at the end, pronounced the word “yes.” Each night we stood at the doorway as we left, repeating the same words: Merci encore, dors bien, a demain. The poplars were swallowed by darkness a little earlier now. Our summer’s day withers away. Too soon. Too soon. Each of these goodbyes at the doorway was a striking of the clock, a reminder that the days were being counted off, one at a time. The piece I was writing was coming to me easily now, I scarcely knew what I was writing. And then it was finished.

One afternoon, looking out from my window, I saw Père sitting on a bench, an old man in the sun surrounded by moving trees and shadows. When we left the monastery we would be abandoning him to dark November evenings when he would enter the refectoire and eat his dinner alone, to rain-lashed days in December when he could no longer sit outside in the sun. I said to myself that there would be no one to bring him more coffee in the morning, no one at dinner to jump up to offer him more salad, more fish. I could so clearly see his back, slightly stooped, receding down the corridor as he returned to his apartment. Yet he had been fine before we arrived, he wasn’t alone. What could it be that made this separation seem unbearable?

On the last night of all we watched Forbidden Games: Jeux interdits. It is Paris, 1940, and the Germans are entering the city. A little girl about five years old is leaving with her parents in a car, the car stalls, they continue on foot. Crouching on a bridge both parents are killed in an air attack while Paulette holds on to her injured dog, carries him into a field where she encounters a boy, Michel, about ten. Now she is carrying the dead dog, weeping; she is going to stay with Michel’s family who are very poor. Paulette becomes intensely attached to Michel who knows his prayers and says them over the little dog she’s trying to bury. Together they make a cemetery, make graves for a mole, a cockroach, a chick, a robin. They are dearest friends. The Red Cross comes to collect Paulette, she’s taken away, is sitting in some way station in Paris. She hears someone call “Michel,” herself calls out, “Michel, Maman.” Now she is running wildly into the crowd screaming: Michel! Michel! Le fin.

By this time I felt I was present at my own undoing. Was it the loss of Père I feared? Or was it my own death? Or were they the same, was the loss itself a death. I remembered how when I was thirteen I’d gone with my father to the movies to see Roman Holiday and how the parting at the end had seemed to me then beyond what anyone could endure. “I have to leave you now”: words that spell the end. And yet facing it together, the lovers had triumphed. It was what I had not done with my father, I had not been there when he died. And certainly I would not be there when Père died either. I thought how love is always the same: the fear of losing it surpasses everything else.

Had I known before that the greatest gift of the road was the love of another human being? Of course I had. But I had not fully understood that in each love we seek the ghostly image of another. I saw now that the task of love, as the prieure had put it, includes making space inside oneself for one fatal parting after another, each one calling up all the rest. If a pilgrimage means anything, it means that although the road may be long, any one of us is given only a short time to follow it. And despite the rapture of love, our keenest joy, we reach our end in solitude. A fatal parting can happen at any time. And does. If a parting feels like a death that’s because it is.


As it happened, there would be no aftermath, although we pretended there might be. In the last days at Muret we often talked to Père of his coming to visit us in New York, the wonderful visit we’d have. C. said he’d meet him at the airport and bring him directly back to our apartment. We spoke of our return. We remembered all this only afterwards. Then, less than a week before we were to leave, Père had an appointment with his doctor and was laconic when we asked him how it had gone. “Tu sais,” he replied when we asked. “A mon age.” And then: “Je suis pret.” 

It was only in the first days of fall, a month or so after our departure, that we learned through Chantal and la prieure that Père was dying. Early in the new year he was gone. In retrospect we wondered if it was at the appointment we remembered that he’d learned he had pancreatic cancer.

But by then, for me, the drama of departure was over and I took comfort in the thought that we’d shared his final summer and that it had been a radiantly happy one. Père had a gift for friendship and we had become friends at the very end. Perhaps we were like the assassin that the Trappist monk of Des hommes et des dieux addresses in his final letter as “friend of the last minute.” What I hadn’t seen was that his destination was in plain view and would be reached before my own, just as my father’s had been. It wasn’t we who were leaving, it was he who was making a departure. Nor had I understood that the grief I’d felt for what I thought of as my abandonment of him had everything to do with the fact that I, not he, must travel on alone. That my own destination waited for me at some point still unknown. 

On our last afternoon at the monastery I walked outside in the meadow that reached to the gate. It was a bright cloudless day in early August and the grass was high and very green. Stepping carefully, I tried to avoid crushing the pink clover, Queen Anne’s lace, thistle, and little butter-and-eggs flowers, bright yellow. I heard the poplar leaves rustling behind me and looking back saw the pine tree, at four-thirty in the afternoon, half sunlit, the deep blue sky beyond. The lower half rested in shadow. The time had come to leave. The gifts of the day had overflown the banks of the road and flowed off into the meadows where the poplars were standing.


The Gift of Baptism and Our Search for Meaning

As the Church celebrates the feast of the Lord’s Baptism this weekend, my mind returns to a pilgrimage to the Holy Land I made a few years ago. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the banks of the River Jordan, where Jesus was baptized by John all those years ago. During our visit to the Jordan, we renewed our baptismal promises. It was a very memorable and spiritual experience that brought home to me a number of important truths about who I am as a baptized Christian. Here I would like to single out just one of those truths that is truly good news for everyone who has been immersed in the waters of Baptism: because of our Baptism, our lives have meaning. There is broad agreement that a lack of meaning in human lives creates a crisis of identity and purpose. This point was…

The New Abbess

Indulge me in this statement of the obvious: these are difficult days in which to be a Roman Catholic. The tidal wave of secularization and the reconceptualization of freedom as radical autonomy have swamped the citadel of faith. The institutional church is today mired in seemingly permanent crisis. And despite the cheeriness of the current pope, hope is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. That Francis himself may be inadvertently playing into the hands of the church’s adversaries, as some critics charge, is not beyond the realm of possibility. For those of us in the pews, being a Catholic hasn’t been much fun lately.

In my long-ago days as a student attending parochial school, the nuns taught us that faith is a gift. All these years later, I have concluded that, for me at least, it is more than a gift but also less. On the one hand, being Catholic has become central to my identity. It forms an indelible part of who I am, part of my birthright handed down by my parents and grandparents. I would no more abandon the church than I would abandon my country. To do so would be an act of betrayal. The very thought is anathema. On the other hand, remaining a Catholic today is necessarily a choice as well. There are, after all, other options. So I stay because I choose to do so, if only out of sheer stubbornness. I do not reproach the multitudes who bail out or just drift away. But I am sticking. 

Still, sticking hasn’t been easy over the past couple of decades. This has especially been the case for those of us who worship in the once-celebrated Archdiocese of Boston, the very epicenter of the clerical scandals that have rocked the church in the present century. So when some occasion arises to remind an ordinary churchgoer of what the faith can and should be, it is cause for celebration. Recently, my wife and I participated in one such occasion, the installation of a new abbess at Mount St. Mary’s Abbey in Wrentham, Massachusetts.  

Members of this community belong to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, perhaps more familiarly known as Trappistines. My wife’s older sister Maureen, now Sr. Robert, joined the Trappistines more than a half-century ago. Apart from sojourns in India and Rome, she has lived at Mount St. Mary’s ever since. This community of several dozen nuns supports itself by making and selling candy, which you ought to buy. Sr. Robert does not work in the candy factory, however. Instead, well into her seventies, she tends a small flock of sheep. 

The reference to Strict Observance in the order’s formal name is misleading, in my view. Among other things, Trappistine life is not quite as strict as it was when Sr. Robert professed her vows. More to the point, a phrase like strict observance conjures up something akin to my long-ago plebe year at West Point: daily misery inflicted by petty tyrants of sadistic bent. While members of the community do still adhere to a demanding daily routine centered on ora et labora, the dominant attitude that they convey is one of effervescent joy in serving the Lord. That joy rubs off on everyone who encounters them, very much including me.

They do not fret. They do not rush. They are entirely in the moment.

Joy was much in evidence as Mother Sofia Millican, having been duly elected by the community, was formally installed as abbess. Here in the realm where Cardinal Archbishop Bernard Law’s diktats were once indeed law, Sunday Mass can tend to be a bit perfunctory. I don’t mean to suggest that we parishioners are just going through the motions, but the atmosphere can fall well short of electric. The liturgy this day may not have qualified as electric, but it was rich and immensely satisfying.  

The chapel at Mount St. Mary’s is small, simple, and elegant. On this occasion, it was packed, not only with members of the community but with other religious and lay people. The Most Reverend Robert P. Reed, auxiliary bishop of Boston, presided. (When I was in the army long, long ago, I was, as a rule, not particularly fond of generals. There were exceptions, of course. So too today, I find that I am not particularly fond of bishops. In the case of Bishop Reed, I am willing to make an exception. Conveying an appropriate sense of dignity, he also contributed eloquence and self-deprecating humor. I foresee further promotions ahead.) 

The liturgy itself lasted for more than ninety minutes, or almost twice as long as the typical Sunday Mass. While at worship (not necessarily when making candy or shoveling sheep dung), Trappistines move with a singular serenity and grace. They do not fret. They do not rush. They are, to use a cliché that I would otherwise be sure to avoid, entirely in the moment. This was the spirit that permeated the chapel and settled on all in attendance.  

Our nine-year-old grandson attended with us. Gabriel tends to be on the rambunctious side, his life revolving largely around sports. He is the kind of kid who can get restless after four innings watching the Red Sox at Fenway. In this instance, however, he astonished us by remaining raptly attentive throughout the service. He even did his best to participate in the singing, though challenged by Latin texts from the centuries-old Cistercian Gradual.  

The music was beautiful and there was incense in abundance. Bishop Reed’s homily was thoughtful and on point. Yet central to the service was his interrogation of Mother Sofia, asking her to affirm her commitment to leading her sisters in accordance with the laws of the church and the Rule of St. Benedict. To each of several questions, the new abbess—so young that she was not yet born when Sr. Robert entered the order—answered with a reassuringly firm “yes.” Satisfied with her responses, Bishop Reed conferred on her a special blessing and as symbols of her office presented her with a copy of the Rule, a ring, and a pastoral staff. With that, the service proceeded to its conclusion.

Festivities ensued as the community treated its guests to lunch, the menu notably including excellent beer produced by the Trappist monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey in nearby Spencer, Massachusetts. We used the moment to catch up with Sr. Robert, whose guard llama has recently died of old age. The llama protects the sheep from the threat of coyotes. Procuring a replacement has become a priority.  

When we did finally leave the premises, we felt nourished in both soul and body. In his homily, Bishop Reed had quoted from Vita Consecrata, John Paul II’s 1996 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. In that document, the pope credited the men and women who today keep alive the ancient monastic tradition with “endowing history with hidden fruitfulness.” Every time we visit Mount Saint Mary’s we encounter that hidden fruitfulness. In a dark time, the abbey functions as our own guard llama of sorts, protecting us from despair.

“Do not forget the works of the Lord.” Thus did the responsorial psalm that followed the First Reading admonish us during Mother Sofia’s installation. At this small but vibrant abbey, the works of the Lord remain vividly on display.  


In the Midst of Miracle, Christ Jesus Asks Us an Important Question

Last week, I wrote about the mystery of Christ telling the healed paralytic to pick up his mat—his stretcher—and take it home with him. The passage had become a long lectio for me, lasting more than a day. In fact, this week, I am still focused on this passage, though this time on a different line. Because every line of Scripture—every single line—is there for a purpose, and has something to teach us. So, if you don’t mind re-reading the passage with me . . . When the scribes and Pharisees began to ask themselves, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them in reply, “What are you thinking in your hearts?” (Luke 5:21-22) It’s the question that can indict us at any moment of any…

How Francis Plays in Peoria

Figuring out just what’s going on with Catholics in the United States is a complex task. How significant is the increasing, if still relatively small, number of young men and women drawn to more traditional forms of religious life? What is the real impact of Nuns on the Bus, and does the ministry challenge or reinforce stereotypes? What about the persistent vitality of Marian devotion, from the streets of Little Italy to the Vietnamese Americans gathered in the fields of Carthage, Missouri, to the Guadalupe processions in Brownsville? The total number of U.S. Catholics keeps going up, so why are the rates of baptism and marriage falling?

The ongoing sex-abuse crisis in the church looms over all this, of course, and further complicates matters. Is the drip-drip-drip of sexual abuse and clerical cover-up the reason going to Mass or staying involved with the church now seems optional for so many—or were these revelations simply what pushed away for good those who already had one foot out the door?

These questions provide the backdrop to the one posed in the title of a recent book by Thomas Sweetser, SJ, Can Francis Change the Church? It’s a slightly misleading way to frame what Sweetser is up to, suggesting that the pope might be able to bend a sprawling global church to his will. But Francis seems to know that’s not the case, as when he invoked John XXIII’s oft-cited motto in an interview he gave not long after becoming pope: “See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.” Instead, Francis’s real impact on U.S. Catholics, as Sweetser shows in a series of interviews, has more to do with the style of his papacy; indeed, the book’s subtitle, How American Catholics Are Responding to His Leadership, is closer to its actual focus.

For many Catholics, especially those committed to the church but conflicted about it, the figure of “Pope Francis” has emerged as a beacon. He radiates an authentic and humble faith, and his compassionate face and emphasis on mercy serve as the ultimate counter-narrative for an institution that, in the public mind, seems to be mired in outmoded thinking, hypocrisy, and even bigotry. But even here the “response” of the faithful is not due to Francis’s decisions as pope, such as who he appointed to key positions or what institutional reforms he’s executed; little of that is followed closely by those in the pews. They are responding to his image and message, communicated via social media and television to an interconnected world. 

Francis was seriously considered for the papacy during the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict XVI, giving him time to think about the job and strategize his approach. His first gestures as pope—setting aside the trappings that usually accompany the assumption of the office and asking the assembled crowd to pray for him—were tailor-made for a media hungry to understand a figure little known to U.S. Catholics. It takes nothing away from his sincerity to recognize that these gestures had to have been planned in advance. They were not so much a renunciation of power as a new way of assuming it. To the extent Francis is trying to change the church, he is doing so by modeling a much more humble “way of proceeding,” one that begins with the Gospel. 

Has it made a difference among U.S. Catholics? Sweetser tries to provide an answer by reporting on a series of in-depth interviews he did with fifty-five Catholic adults: first in 2011–2012; then again in 2017, four years after Francis’s 2013 election; and finally a short follow-up in 2018 given the re-emergence of the sex-abuse crisis. These Catholics were asked to reflect on their faith, selecting one of six themes to organize their response: “authority, liturgy, women’s issues, sexuality, justice, spirituality or parish life.”

The selection process, which drew on Sweetser’s own contacts with parishion-ers, resulted in a fairly “inside” group. The core of this group is made up of the types of people who are adult-education regulars at many lively parishes in the Northeast or Midwest, but it is not exactly representative of today’s diverse U.S. church. They tend to be older, white, college-educated, and middle-class. Several work, or have worked, for the church; with few exceptions they have served as teachers, parish staff, or pastoral ministers, as spiritual directors, former priests, or religious. They also tend to be mainstream-to-liberal Catholics and even former Catholics. Sweetser recognizes that there were few traditionalists among them.

Perhaps the question is not whether Francis can change the church, but if we can.

On the one hand, as a skilled pastor and longtime observer of parish life, Sweetser is well positioned to hear these voices. The dynamics of these conversations are familiar to him, and his task is to lift up what he has heard and present it in a useful way. He portrays his interlocutors in a sympathetic manner, often describing them as “intelligent” or “thoughtful.”

Sweetser’s approach, however, left this reader fidgety after a few entries, wishing he would press his friends a bit. He treats the process more as an election-season focus group than a searching conversation with adult Catholics: there are no targeted follow-up questions, no hints that an observation might be shortsighted or unfair, overly generous or ill-informed. Statements that could be challenged or more carefully parsed—“the unjust way women are treated in the Church”—are simply recorded. It made me wish for the “outtakes” from these sessions, the more direct exchanges that would happen in a genuine dialogue.

Which points to a broader question: the survey framework itself. The average adult in the pew may not be thinking according to the themes Sweetser chose. “Spirituality” would make sense to many, but “liturgy” as a concept (other than “going to Mass”) might not be all that clear. The more telling points seep in, then, around the edges: a deep sense of alienation from a rigid and uncaring institution (a defining moment for several interviewees is a change, with no parish input, from a beloved pastor to one perceived as distant and authoritarian); a generational disconnect from parish life; and moral revulsion at the pervasive hypocrisy of the clergy on human sexuality.

It is to these sensibilities that Pope Francis appeals. But will any of this make a difference, drawing people to the church either for the first time or the first time in a long time? It depends. One interesting observation from Sweetser points to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey that describes the U.S. population as 21 percent Catholic, 9 percent ex-Catholic, and 9 percent “cultural Catholic,” with another 8 percent having “other connections” to Catholicism. Rather than focusing on convincing ex-Catholics to return, he perceptively suggests that “cultural Catholics”—those raised as Catholic or married to a Catholic—are a group that might become more deeply engaged with, and committed to, the church during the Francis era. This insight recognizes the importance of social forces in these situations; it is unwise to hope for many static conversions. One of the hallmarks of those who remained affiliated with the church over the span of his own survey is a distinctly social affirmation: they are “proud to be Catholic.”

And yet. Even the claim “proud to be Catholic” is increasingly under stress as polarization continues to escalate in all areas of American life. Proud of what, exactly? The heroic work of Catholic sisters? The firing of gay teachers at Catholic high schools? The words and witness of Pope Francis have not been enough to bridge such divides in an increasingly politicized U.S. church. In a short chapter on parish life since Francis’s election, another dimension of this emerges: Francis’s impact is seen happening to “the church,” not the local parish. He might be offering a new vision for Catholics “at large,” but several respondents noted that this didn’t seem to matter in their own parishes. As one admitted, “The weird thing is that it has gotten worse.”

While Sweetser doesn’t solve this and other problems, his short, lively book is an ideal starting point for a thoughtful program of parish renewal. Many churchgoers will recognize their own questions and reservations, and symptoms evident in their own parishes. Even those working in places and with people not represented in Sweetser’s book will find much to consider. It makes this much clear: real solutions to the challenges facing the church will not come from “above,” but will have to emerge from the types of conversations that Sweetser had with parishioners. Perhaps the question is not whether Francis can change the church, but if we can. 

Can Francis Change the Church? 
Thomas P. Sweetser 
Crossroad, $16.95, 176 pp.


Why the World’s Most Popular YouTuber Hates Twitter

One of the world’s biggest social media stars has publicly declared his hatred for Twitter. Recently, Felix Kjellberg—known online as PewDiePie—released a YouTube video in which he explained his contempt for Twitter as a “cesspool of opinion” where even lies and falsehoods get rewarded. Staying true to his word, that very day Kjellberg deleted his twitter account which, at the time of its deletion, had amassed over nineteen million followers. Kjellberg’s chief concern is, first, the excessive moral posturing that takes place on Twitter (and other similar social media networks) and second, the arbitrary reward system tied into it. In the Twitterverse, for instance, little pats on the back in the forms of “Likes” and “Retweets” are a dime a dozen. Rewards come easy—even for the most blasphemous of sophists—whether one is right or wrong, good or bad, true or false. Talk is cheap, the old adage goes.

Ends that Justify the Means

“The ends don’t justify the means.” We are all familiar with this saying. We cannot use evil means just because the end or goal that we are aiming at is good. The end of a little peace and quiet does not justify locking my brother outside in the cold. No matter how good the ultimate goal that we intend, this doesn’t permit us to do something that is wrong in order to accomplish it. But what if the means is actually good or neutral? Upon further consideration we might say that not every good end justifies good means—they may not be proportionate. When we see desirable ends and begin to consider the means by which we may attain these ends, we enter into an internal process of what economists call a cost-benefit analysis. We want to be sure that the “cost” involved in whatever means we select is proportionate to…

Rethinking Religious Liberty

Melissa Rogers was executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Barack Obama. She is visiting professor at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Commonweal contributor John Gehring spoke to Rogers about religious liberty, LGBTQ equality, the Trump administration, and her new book, Faith in American Public Life.

John Gehring: Why did you want to write this book?

Melissa Rogers: A few reasons. The legal rules that apply to the role of religion in American public life have often been mischaracterized and misunderstood. I hope the book will help dispel some of those misunderstandings, which include the idea that the Supreme Court kicked religion out of the public square, or that public schools have to be religion-free zones. That is just not true.

I also wrote it as a call to action regarding certain threats to religious freedom and pluralism. The most serious and urgent threat is hostility and attacks against minorities in this country, including religious minorities. I hope more Americans will move from the sidelines to solidarity with individuals and groups being targeted.

JG: You start the book with Pope Francis’s visit to the White House in 2015, and note that President Obama didn’t want that visit just to be a photo-op, but to help inspire tangible policy. One way that happened, you write, was the Obama administration significantly increased the number of refugees the United States accepted. Why was that such an important victory?

MR: We face a global refugee crisis. Every nation has a moral obligation to do its part to address that crisis. President Obama believed the United States could and should do better. So we wanted to find a way for the nation to be both compassionate and secure. A lot of work happened in the administration to ensure we could welcome more refugees. We were able to do that with an eye toward Pope Francis’s visit. And with those moves, I think we were able to exert moral leadership and make a significant contribution to the global refugee crisis.

When we participate in global refugee resettlement we not only help advance human rights, but also prevent crisis and conflicts around the world, and strengthen our diplomatic toolkit. It was also a very proud moment for the kind of partnerships the government has with faith-based humanitarian organizations. These organizations demanded we do more, and then once we said we would, they came right along and said, “We’re going to help you do this.” It illustrated how partnerships with religious and other civil-society communities can contribute powerfully to the common good.

JG: The Trump administration is doing everything it can to end refugee resettlement. The administration’s Muslim ban specifically targeted a religious group. Attacks on synagogues and mosques have increased. You write that these types of challenges are “the most serious and urgent threat” to religious freedom today. Can you talk about that?

MR: Until President Trump took office, the United States was on track to reach President Obama’s goals on refugee resettlement, which would have been the highest number of refugees admitted to the country since 1994. But refugee admissions have dropped dramatically. In fact, zero refugees were admitted to the United States in October 2019, and an evangelical refugee-resettlement organization reports that that is the first time that’s happened in thirty years. In 2017, we had the second highest number of religion-based hate crimes in the United States ever, after only 2001 in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. My Muslim friends tell me hostility toward them increases during the election season. It’s especially important for those of us who are not being targeted to hold our leaders accountable. There should be zero tolerance for fear-mongering, and an expectation that our leaders should be speaking out for religious liberty and security for all. We have government officials, including the person who has the bully pulpit, our president, engaging in fear-mongering on race, religion and ethnicity, and engaged in dehumanizing rhetoric and violent imagery.

JG: A major theme in your book is how the bedrock principle of religious liberty has become a deeply polarized, culture-war issue. Not long ago, under the Clinton administration, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed with bipartisan support. Today, discussions about religious liberty and conscience trigger very intense and different reactions from people on the left and right. How did religious liberty become so explosive?


MR: There are multiple factors, but RFRA laws and similar laws at the state and local level have sometimes been seen less as positive bipartisan measures as they were when they were first adopted, and more as an effort to stall or thwart civil and human rights such as LGBTQ equality. At the same time, we’ve seen increased polarization on a number of issues, and that has weakened our charitable impulses toward others who see key issues differently. To some extent that has also weakened our ability to even understand what the other side is saying and to have relationships across political or ideological lines.

JG: You noted recently on Twitter that Attorney General William Barr, a Catholic who often speaks about religious liberty, also prosecuted Scott Warren for his faith-based efforts to aid migrants on the border, and that the Trump administration has also tried to take land from a Catholic diocese for the border wall despite the diocese’s objections. Are these examples of hypocrisy or a different understanding of religious liberty?

Government officials err when they assume a religious belief or expression is insincere or merely a cloak for hate. That is wrong.

MR: One thing that troubles me is that administration officials such as William Barr never mention claims like these [Scott Warren] when they are talking about religious liberty. They mention claims about contraception, abortion, and LGBTQ rights that they are concerned about, but to my knowledge they have not mentioned religious freedom claims that would cut against policies that they endorse. We haven’t seen the administration make any effort to reconsider its positions in the face of strong religious objections. When the Obama administration’s agencies came out with a rule on the contraception mandate (the first religious exemption from that mandate), I and others raised concerns because we thought that exemption was too narrow. And that’s not because I have any objection to contraception. It was about the fact that some Catholic and even evangelical groups had objections to providing this as part of their healthcare plan. President Obama insisted that the policy be changed. The policy didn’t ultimately satisfy all those who objected, but it was a genuine effort to listen. I have not seen any similar effort by the Trump administration.

JG: While you’re critical of the Trump administration and how many on the right view religious-liberty issues, you also argue that sometimes liberals can get it wrong. You cite as an example language that the chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission used in a 2016 report, where he talked about religious freedom as merely a code word for discrimination, intolerance, and homophobia. In your view, how do some progressives fail to appreciate the importance of religious liberty and conscience rights?

MR: Government officials err when they assume a religious belief or expression is insincere or merely a cloak for hate. That is wrong. At times, government officials will tell people their religious beliefs need to change. That is wrong too. Government officials are, of course, free to advocate for policies that conflict with certain religious beliefs, and they may and sometimes must deny certain requests for religious exemptions, but it’s emphatically not the place of the government to say that faith must change. It’s also a mistake for government officials to give the impression that they are calling into question or maligning an entire First Amendment right. There is room for everyone to do better here.

JG: Douglas Laycock, a scholar of religious-liberty law, told me we’ve reached a stalemate in trying to strike a balance between respect for religious liberty and LGBTQ equality. In his reading, religious institutions and LGBTQ advocacy groups have both become “deeply intolerant and have no respect for the rights of the other side. Both sides are dug in.” If that’s true, how do we hold out hope for common ground?

MR: There is no question it has become more difficult to find common ground on many important questions. At the same time, I tend to agree with Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who recently said that we can still often find common ground if we reframe the question or split off a smaller question. When I was in the Obama administration, we did that on some issues related to partnerships between government and faith-based organizations. We couldn’t agree on some important issues like religious exemptions from certain civil-rights protections that apply to the use of taxpayer funds, but we looked at some other issues regarding protections for religious-liberty beneficiaries, and we found much more to agree about there. I agree it has become much harder, but we shouldn’t give up hope of finding common ground.

JG: One of the thorniest religious-liberty issues in the Catholic context is the question of whether adoption agencies run by the church should be required to place children with same-sex couples. In several states, Catholic agencies that receive government funding have pulled out of the adoption business after being told that they have to abide by state equality laws and place children with same-sex couples. The Catholic agencies say they are simply practicing what is consistent with the teachings of their faith and shouldn’t be penalized for that. Where do you come down on this question?

MR: First, when non-discrimination conditions require government grantees or contractors to serve beneficiaries and clients without regards to certain protected personal traits, my basic view is the government ought to apply those conditions uniformly. Second, so long as policies are neutral toward religion, and not targeting it and generally applicable, I don’t believe that they penalize faith; they simply insist that those who choose to accept taxpayer money to carry out certain tasks on behalf of the state comply with certain rules. The government does not substantially burden religious exercise when it insists, for example, that organizations that choose to accept government grants or contracts serve clients in accordance with such non-discrimination principles.

Third, having said those things, I think we should keep exploring a range of ways for governmental and non-governmental entities to help children who need foster and adoptive parents. I continue to believe there is a lot of common ground here if we’re willing to look for it and even think about how we can cooperate in this area in new ways.

JG: You’re a Baptist, and before joining the Obama administration you worked for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. How does coming from a Baptist tradition and perspective impact how you view these issues?

MR: I definitely think about it both as a Baptist and as a lawyer. The Baptist tradition, as a theological matter, strongly supports religious freedom for all, including the First Amendment prohibition on the governmental promotion of faith, and protections for free religious exercise. Our belief is that commitments of a religious nature have to be made voluntarily and without coercion, especially coercion by the state. Baptists in this country were once a persecuted minority and that experience remains with us. Our tradition also teaches that governmental promotion of religion harms everybody’s conscience, results in de-facto preferences for certain faiths, and undermines the faith that is favored.

JG: For all the complexities and tensions, your book makes a compelling case that religion has a vital role to play in public life. Encourage us in these difficult times and explain why we should continue to fight for that vision.

MN: We have a lot of polarization now, but every day we have people of different faiths and beliefs coming together on issues of shared concern, whether efforts to overcome poverty, seek racial justice, combat climate change, or welcome refugees. That work continues under the radar largely. It doesn’t get much attention, but it changes lives for the better and it makes our country a stronger one. I feel comforted and encouraged by that, and I think there can be more progress made in the future when we deal with some of the threats we’re facing on the national scene right now. This collaboration is due in part because of this remarkable system of religious freedom where people can come together from different faiths and beliefs and not just coexist but make common cause. To some extent, I think the threats we face, particularly because they are so bold and bald right now, have gotten our attention, and it may be making us appreciate something we might have taken for granted without these threats.

Holy (Unchosen) Family

You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t. —Harper Lee December 29 was the Feast of the Holy Family. The family is a place of life, fidelity, love, and warm intimacy. The family is a place of death, infidelity, hatred, and cold alienation. At least that’s how Scripture describes it. How astounding it is that our God of the Impossible has chosen the messy and marvelous family as ground zero of his rescue plan for the human race. The late Francis Cardinal George often spoke of the immense social and redemptive significance of relationships that cannot be “unchosen,” like marriage and family, or those relationships we find ourselves in by virtue of…

No-Bullshit Spirituality

Hiking somewhere near the Italian mountain town of Aosta, about five hundred miles from Rome, Timothy Egan’s feet began to hurt. “The toes on my right foot are a throbbing mess of bubbled blisters.” He can barely move. “The best I can do is wrap them in tape and treat the skin later with antiseptic and cushions.” That won’t be much help. Fifty miles later, near Piverone, he reports: “a bloody mess of skin, gauze, blood and pus.” Further down, in Pavia, Egan’s feet are “hamburger.” While numbering the lessons he learned from completing, mostly by foot, the Via Francigena—a thousand-mile religious pilgrimage spanning four European countries—Egan writes: “I will never hike without blister medication.”

A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith is a lofty title, and this book, a travelogue with essayistic interludes, addresses lofty themes in theology, philosophy, history, and politics. But the wince-inducing foot-related asides make the book what it is: a personal story of pilgrimage. Foot-talk is a central part of pilgrimage, and any modern pilgrim will relate to Egan’s agony. What can I do to avoid blisters? Should I buy waterproof boots? When do I switch to sandals? Waxy plaster or gauze? To pop or not to pop? Disgusting, no doubt. But the stinging pain, along with the apparent lack of medical consensus on foot care, helps the pilgrim abandon any illusions of having things all figured out and under control. A months-long pilgrimage isn’t a pleasant stroll accompanied by intellectual contemplation. It is a physical as well as a spiritual project.

The Via Francigena (“the road that comes from France”) dates at least as far back as the ninth century. It is a series of interconnecting paths, starting in Canterbury, that leads pilgrims all the way to the seat of the bishop of Rome, crossing through France and Switzerland. In his mid-sixties Timothy Egan, the author of several commercially successful books and a New York Times columnist, found himself lost in a dark wood, ruminating over various experiences of suffering, needing “a stiff shot of no-bullshit spirituality.” At the beginning of his book he considers himself “an Irish Catholic by baptism, culture, and upbringing,” one who is “lapsed but listening,” though still a “skeptic.”

In search of answers, he chooses not only to read and think but also to walk a pilgrim path that has been trodden by centuries’ worth of fellow seekers. He is also inspired by the rise of Pope Francis, which Egan considers a sign of rebirth in Christianity. He hopes to get an audience with the pope once he reaches Rome.

Most chapters in this book focus on different sites along the Via and the historical figures associated with them. Rich in detail and anecdote, many of these pieces could stand alone as magazine articles. At Canterbury Cathedral, Egan ruminates on the life of the martyr Thomas Becket and Justin Welby, the current leader of the Anglican Communion. He connects a small monastery near the French village of Wisques with thoughts about Benedict of Nursia. In Corbény, he reflects on Joan of Arc and the role of women in the church. Langres makes him think of Denis Diderot; Lausanne, of Martin Luther; Geneva, of Michael Servetus (the Unitarian beheaded by John Calvin).


Augustine’s theory doesn’t answer all questions about evil. But it isn’t stupid.

These historical portraits serve as a point of departure for big moral questions. Egan grapples with the Wars of Religion, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and other occasions when Christian leaders declared it to be “no longer a sin to take the life of a fellow human, so long as that human was a declared enemy of the church.” Egan is interested in church history because one of the main questions motivating his pilgrimage is whether it is reasonable to believe in the claims of the Christian faith when so many crimes have been committed by Christians. After all, “a higher percentage of Europeans died in intra-Christian wars than in the industrial carnage of the Great War.”

The sins of the Catholic Church are, in this regard, also the sins of its Protestant critics, and even of the modern trailblazers who want to completely replace the church with secular institutions. Luther translated the Bible and stood up to clerical tyranny, but also wrote malicious anti-Semitic tracts that incited violence. Calvin set up a Christian utopia that beheaded dissenters. Secular French revolutionaries sacked monasteries and killed peasants. Egan writes about all these things. Ultimately, it seems that evil itself—rather than just the evils done by Christians—poses a problem for Egan’s search for faith. It is an old problem: Why would a good God allow so much suffering in the world?

Unfortunately, Egan rejects the best resource that his own tradition has for tackling this problem. Twice he takes up the topic of Augustine of Hippo, one of the most penetrating thinkers on the problem of evil, only to dismiss him as “a very confused man” who “hated” sex. He “embraced the philosophy of dualism” and came close to calling the human body an evil thing. Augustine squares the existence of evil in history with the existence of an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful God by placing all the blame on human agency, thus giving God “a pass.” But Augustine’s “philosophy of shit happens” does not absolve God, Egan argues, because if God is truly all-knowing, then he must see all evil deeds “unspooling in advance.”

Reading Egan on Augustine, you wouldn’t guess the extent of this “very confused” man’s influence—not only for Christian theology, but also for philosophy and literature. To cite some random, post-1900 examples: Edmund Husserl began his lectures on time and consciousness by declaring: “our modern age, so proud of its knowledge, has failed to surpass or even to match the splendid achievement of [Augustine] who grappled so earnestly with the problem of time.” Ludwig Wittgenstein opens his Philosophical Investigations with a passage from Augustine concerning language. Memoirist and biographer Francine du Plessix Gray called Augustine “the first great autobiographer.” Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben found in Augustine useful ideas with which to critique the current political order. Augustine has his shortcomings, especially with regard to sexuality. But a thinker who has inspired such a diverse array of people should not be so lightly dismissed.

On the problem of evil, Augustine’s response begins with the notion that God is absolute Being, lacking nothing, outside of time, unchanging, and perfectly good. The universe and humans along with it are separated from God and are in time, which is another way of saying that we are subject to constant change. The human self is fragmented by time and desire, never whole and at peace, and looking for satisfaction in the wrong places: power, lust, money. “Our heart is restless until it rests in you,” Augustine writes. In our restlessness, we act rashly and harshly, vying to dominate our fellow human beings. The universe itself fragments into disorder, manifesting itself as disease and natural disasters. That’s why “shit happens.”

In his Confessions, Augustine records a consoling thought that came to him after his conversion: “I no longer wished individual things to be better, because I considered the totality.” “The totality” is history as it is seen by God from his timeless perch. It includes all the crimes that Egan contemplates in his book, but it fits them into a larger story in which the universe itself is made new at the end of time. Augustine’s theory doesn’t answer all questions about evil, and not everyone finds it consoling. But it isn’t stupid.


Egan’s epiphany comes as a result not of theological argument, nor of meeting the pope, but of a gradual accumulation of experiences.

Egan’s meditations on historical themes, along with engrossing descriptions of ancient vineyards, alpine trails, and local cuisine, eventually give way to more intimate reflections. Egan is suffering more than just foot pain. His sister-in-law is dying of cancer. A friend who was a victim of an abusive Catholic priest committed suicide (the same priest abused untold numbers of people). On top of these sorrows, there is the normal parental anxiety over a young adult son and daughter, both of whom join Egan at different stages of his pilgrimage, as does his wife. In view of all these personal concerns, I can understand why Egan might have grown impatient with the heady abstractions of Augustine’s theology.

Egan’s epiphany—described in a section titled “Answers”—comes as a result not of theological argument, nor of meeting the pope, but of a gradual accumulation of experiences: a mystical encounter with the incorrupt corpse of St. Lucia Filippini; moving words from a priest in Switzerland; an Etruscan sarcophagus bearing husband and wife, which gives Egan “the small proof I need, another affirmation of the joyful defiance of linear time.” This last event suggests that Egan’s desire is close to Augustine’s: our hearts are restless until they can somehow transcend linear time, in which all things pass away.

 “You cross the finish line when you link your tenuous existence with the perpetual past,” Egan writes. What is this past? Many of us know it, or think we know it, “by baptism, culture, and upbringing.” Some of us don’t know it at all. Regardless, as this beautiful book makes clear, if we wish to discover it, or rediscover it, we must go on pilgrimage.

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

Timothy Egan
Viking, $28, 384 pp.