something of a christmas-y diary (and a book for the soul)
’twas the morn after the morn after the morn that was christmas. not a creature is stirring, ‘cept for me and the first flash of red at the seed trough. the so-called children are nestled all snug in their beds. and so is their papa.
i’m up early because, well, i always am. but amid the cacophony that is christmas, it’s the one sure anchor of silence amid the rivers of boys flowing in and out of the house, and the fridge, and the room in the basement they’ve since dubbed “the boy cave.” it’s a room where who-knows-what goes on by night. loud whoops of boy noise bellowed up through the vents last night, so much so that the young legal scholar (a mere four years out of college himself) wondered if perhaps we could do something to stifle the bellows. (i found this more than mildly ironic.) sounded to me like a vociferous round of ping-pong, albeit one that rattled the clanky old pipes in this rattled old house.
before i turn the page over to the latest in an ongoing and slow-paced series of books for the soul, all courtesy of their original appearance in the chicago tribune, my newspaper home for so many years, i thought i’d share a few entries from the christmas diary: i could tell you about the smoke alarm that bellowed for a good 8.2 minutes on christmas evening, as the young legal scholar “seared” (aka smoked) the long serpentine tenderloin of christmas-y beast. i could tell you how this greatly unnerved the grandmama of said searer, who was certain the beast was being charred to bits right before our wondering smoke-filled eyes (fast forward: it all worked out fine; delicious, in fact).
i could tell you how my heart is wobbling about inside my ribcage. how, on the one hand, it’s bursting with joy at the sweet sounds of falling asleep with the ones i most love all tucked under one roof. and yet, with an eye to the calendar swiftly zipping by, i already know that one of the two is leaving before the last of the leftover beast is snitched from the fridge. so much joy vacuum-packed into a short string of days, and then — poof! — like a flash on the lawn, there’s nothing left but the last blob of toothpaste clung to the sink.
i suppose i’m in the midst of learning to take my motherly joys in oversize gulps, trying hard not to glance forward to the hard edge of the precipice when the house goes quiet, the beds go unrumpled, and i long for a fat load of laundry to wash, fold, and ferry.
this must be yet another tutorial in the fine art of savoring, of pressing each hour deep against my heart, of tucking the textures deep into the crannies of wherever it is that we store those moments we’ll soon want to pull out, like prayer beads, to run our fingers — and hearts — over and over. and over again.
i know these days — and even these short strings of overabundant joy — are numbered. the more these boys grow up, the more criss-crossed the chance of fetching them home, both at the very same time. it’s now down to once, maybe twice, in a year — at very best.
so for now, i’ll merrily dash again and again to the grocery, packing the old red wagon to the brim with cheeses and fruits, and meats by the multiple pounds. i’ll relish the chance to haul bulging sacks of recyclables out to the alley. i’ll marvel at the miracle of mounds of dirty clothes raining down the laundry chute, spilling out of the basket and onto the floor. i won’t even mind trying — over and over and over — to wrench one of the sleepyheads from bed so he gets to work on time these few winter days when he’s flipping burgers, slicing taters into fries, and delighting his boss at five guys (where he’s earning a wee bit of money for college adventures).
i’ll gulp down each of these hours. hold each in the palm of my hand, and press every last one hard against my heart. i’ll savor the joy of the here and the now. and i’ll whisper, amen, a word derived from hebrew, a word that means “certainty, truth, or verily.” amen. yes, amen.
here’s the latest book for the soul, one i truly loved, lugged around with me wherever i traipsed for a few days, because i did not want to put it down, not till the end of timothy egan’s “pilgrimage to eternity,” a trek through ancient monasteries, blister-riddled mountain trails and much of christian history, in search of an elusive certainty.
Timothy Egan’s stirring ‘Pilgrimage to Eternity’ searches for faith
By BARBARA MAHANY
CHICAGO TRIBUNE |DEC 24, 2019
In “A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Timothy Egan offers a stirring account of his struggles with Catholicism. (Handout)
It’s not hard to imagine dead silence on the other end of the line when Timothy Egan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author, dialed up his literary agent and sketched out his proposal for a book-length perambulation through time and the tumultuous terrain of Western Christianity, a months-long trek — by foot in the age of Uber! — from Canterbury to Rome, excavating tales of sinners and saints all along the way. Harder to imagine such a tome would prove impossible to put down.
Mission Accomplished: “A Pilgrimage to Eternity” is, in fact, a glorious, laugh-out-loud, wipe-away-tears, blister-riddled, often rain-soaked, sometimes bone-chilled, desolate and desperate, quietly triumphant walk through church history — every last footfall in search of an elusive modern-day spiritual certitude.
Egan, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, begins as a self-confessed skeptic, an Irish Catholic, who, like many, is “lapsed but listening.” He lays out the stakes of his 1,000-mile quest for any flicker of faith: One member of his family, he writes, “was nearly destroyed by religion,” another “made whole by religion,” after the murder of her teenage son. Rage, he writes, is mixed with redemption.
“Malnutrition of the soul is a plague of modern life,” Egan writes. His is a narrative driven by questions, not iron-clad answers, and one that confronts doubt head-on, never reaching for facile conclusions.
Propelled by truth-seeking, he takes to the Via Francigena, one of the oldest pilgrimage trails in the world that for centuries has led the devout and seekers alike toward Rome, coursing Alpine peaks and medieval monasteries tucked into the folds of storybook hamlets across France, Switzerland and Italy.
A storyteller at heart, Egan populates his trek with a quirky cast of fellow pilgrims, all of whom animate the adventure. He twists and turns from church history — never flinching from the good, the bad or the gruesome — into the deeply personal questions and quandaries that push him onward. His sister-in-law’s terminal cancer, his nephew’s murder, a dear friend’s suicide in the wake of priestly sexual abuse, his mother’s death, and, yes, the 2016 presidential election — all of which ratchet up his need to examine the bare threads of faith.
Egan proves himself to be a prime traveling companion. Someone with whom you’d gladly share your last blister-pak bandage for the sheer delight of his company, intelligence and curiosity.
That he happens to be a beautiful writer — describing Franciscan monks in their “cinnamon-colored robes,” quoting Dom Perignon’s “I am drinking the stars” — is what makes the 33 chapters unspool effortlessly. It’s nothing short of remarkable to find yourself itching to lug around the nearly 400-page book (indispensable appendix and annotated fold-out map included), in hopes of a swatch of time to inhale yet another chapter.
Shortly after telling the story of how his 17-year-old nephew was shot to death by a teenager, Egan sits down with a Benedictine monk in a centuries-old monastery in the Alps. Egan asks the black-robed priest if he believes in miracles, then circles in on a trickier question, one that vexes most anyone who thinks hard about faith: “Do you have doubts?” The priest answers: “About miracles? No. About my faith? Yes. Doubts are allowed by God. Reason can help you come to faith. It’s a bit like training for sports. If you only ride a bicycle with the wind at your back, that’s not going to help you. You need to ride your bike against the wind.”
And so Egan — and any other modern-day pilgrim searching for faith — puts his questions to the wind, walking through ice and snow and rain and brutal heat.
He never gives up. At last standing on a promontory overlooking the city of Rome, Egan beholds the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. As a thunderclap rattles the sky, the pilgrim with whom we’ve shared the long road recalls Michelangelo’s life motto: “the greatest danger, he said, ‘is not that we aim too high and miss it, but that we aim too low and reach it.’ ”
Egan aimed high, and he reached it.
Barbara Mahany is the author of several books, including, “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.”
‘A Pilgrimage to Eternity’
By Timothy Egan, Viking, 384 pages, $28
what one moment from your christmas is already pressed to your heart?
if, perhaps,you’re enticed by this idea of walking from canterbury to rome, this glorious 4-minute peek into its wonders (sent to me by a beautiful friend after reading the review) might have you signing on the dotted line. i’m pretty darn intrigued. the walking meditation that is Via Francigena: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPadwmAaeUg&feature=youtu.be
Oh my! Let’s go!
The book is on hold at the library. Can’t wait!
Lovelovelove all the photos of your boyz! It’s a highwire act, balancing today’s joy with the empty house coming…one breath at a time, friend. We’re all here to hold your hand, virtually or for real.
I have two Christmas moments— my friend of 52 years, Carole, next to me in church Chr Eve; and holding my granddaughter on Chr Day.
Love you. 😘
i love your two moments. something about sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in church or synagogue or mosque and feeling someone you love hard against flesh and muscle and bone…..
i read a beautiful line about just that in a book about islam titled “The Butterfly Mosque,” but since i returned it to library i will have to get it back out to add here. no, wait, i think i copied it down…..well, it’s mostly about praying in the muslim way, cupping hands over face, but it brings in the shoulder-to-shoulder. and it’s lovely, so here tis….
“It’s a strange feeling, praying to your hands, filling the air between them with words. We think of divinity as something infinitely big, but it permeates the infinitely small—the condensation of breath on your palms, the ridges in your fingertips, the warm space between your shoulder and the shoulder next to you.”
–G.Willow Wilson, “The Butterfly Mosque”
I’m so happy you enjoyed time with both of your boys. That is what the holidays mean to me, hours of that precious family time. My best Christmas moment lasted hours. My three grand daughters were here from Texas, and I did all I could to make the best of every minute. The weather was beautiful, so we went to the park to play on Thursday. On Friday, my other son came with his 2 children, and the 5 grands hung out, played, sang songs, and made a glorious mess of my house, hopefully made memories that they will cherish as much as I do. And now my house is quiet again. But those memories make me constantly smile. . . Happy new year to all here. My hope is that 2020 brings much peace and good health to all.
sounds like a glorious cacophonous moment, and the echo of those laughters, now rising out of the silence, will fill your heart over and over and over again.
blessed new year, indeed. this feels like sacred time right in here, as we awake to a snowy morn, and count our blessings and our hopes as we begin a year again.