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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

By Kerry Egan
Doubleday, 230 pages, $22.95
The progress of an uncertain pilgrim


In Fumbling Kerry Egan recounts how as a Harvard divinity student she set out on a pilgrimage to Spain. In 11 segments with such simple subtitles as “Walking,” “Anger,” “Beauty,” “Joy” and “Listening,” she shares her experiences on the Camino de Santiago.

In so far as one absorbs religion through the senses, Ms. Egan was “Catholic to the core.” By the same osmosis, she became “pilgrim to the core.” The account of her five-week journey is a record of sensory stimuli, from the soothing sound of women breathing in a cool, dark Spanish church to the punishing heat, dust and mud along the road to the utterly sensuous raspberries at a roadside stand and finally to the incense permeating the cathedral at the closing ritual of the pilgrimage.

With introspective artfulness, Ms. Egan matches up the landscape of her soul to the landscape of the journey. The idea that pilgrims on the camino traverse both desert and orchard is not symbolically lost on the reader.

At the beginning of the book, Ms. Egan describes herself at emotional and spiritual loose ends. Not even she fully comprehended how close she was to unraveling, but somehow the idea of going on a pilgrimage enticed her.

Ms. Egan was caught off-guard when, at the outset of her travels, she had to state her reason for doing this pilgrimage in order to become a credentialed traveler. She muttered something to the effect that her father had recently died, which, oddly, seemed sufficient to the woman granting certificates. Her companion, Alex, had a much more ready answer: “Her protector.” Neither could have known how truly he spoke. Ms. Egan readily acknowledges that she would not have succeeded on pilgrimage without the patience, presence and support of her boyfriend, now husband, Alex.

The book’s title describes Ms. Egan’s spiritual state prior to going to Spain. Even though her interest in religion had led her to divinity school, her “faith didn’t mature at all,” she confessed. “Sure, God was there, but I didn’t have any real need for God, except maybe to help out during final exams.” Her spiritual nadir occurred when she had to acknowledge, after her father died, “that none of what I believed in, in an unthinking, almost instinctual way, was accurate.”

Her antidote to “fumbling,” then, was to start in Rounceville, France, and walk the Camino de Santiago to the cathedral housing the remains of St. James de Compostela in hopes of attaining some spiritual fulfillment.

If Ms. Egan’s experience is typical, a pilgrim who walks the entire prescribed route, as she and Alex did, goes through several permutations not dissimilar to the stages of grief: There’s denial (she had eschewed grief counseling because clearly, to her way of thinking, she didn’t need it); anger (she kicked the wheat); depression (her meltdown in a village church); acceptance (she ultimately recognized the camino’s gift for what it was to her, no more and no less); and hope. “Hope,” she writes, “is the belief that things can change. Pilgrimage’s emotional center is hope.”

Along the way, readers are treated to eclectic asides on Mariology, occasioned by all the statues of the Madonna situated along the way; indulgences and their abuses; a bit on the Knights Templar, late of DaVinci Code fame; and accounts of various practices of penance, asceticism and meditation.

Although Ms. Egan seems to have had a religious transformation on her pilgrimage, she doesn’t speak much of it. What surprised me was how traditional were her views of God, Mary and the church. As a cradle Catholic like Ms. Egan on my own life’s “pilgrimage” figuring out the God question, I would have welcomed more elaboration on her post-pilgrimage theology.

So, what does a reader take away from this book? Many things, but there are three in particular. Number one, Alex is a saint. Seriously. Second, some interesting minutiae on the industry of pilgrimage and, more important, an understanding of pilgrimage as both wholesomely isolating and deeply communal. Finally, to go looking for God is really misguided. The sacred is everywhere if only we have the sense to be aware. Thus seen, the women breathing in the Spanish church were the breath of God; the raspberries, the largesse of God; and the “holy smoke” of incense was God’s cosmic, mystical nature.

Judith Bromberg writes from Kansas City, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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