Picador 2018 | 400pp Hardback | ISBN: 9781509844579
Review by Canon Adrian Ling CMP
At a pilgrim hostel in Radicofani, in Tuscany, Guy Stagg is faced with a visitors book. He does not know what to write. He is too embarrassed to put that the reason behind his pilgrimage is that he is ‘a non-believer hoping that a ritual will heal him.’ After suffering a mental breakdown at the age of 23, Stagg set out to walk to Canterbury and realised that whereas during the breakdown his world had grown ever smaller, ‘walking made the world wide again.’
Stagg decides to carry on walking, along the Via Francigena, the old pilgrim way to Rome, the Via Egnatia, the route taken by St Paul across the Balkans, and then down from Istanbul to Jerusalem. He is impetuous, some might say foolish, in setting off in January, which means crossing the Alps in the thick of winter. At the outset, he imagines that he will be ‘walking into the wreckage of Christianity’ but instead he is surprised by how much remained ‘holding tight to its decayed inheritance.’
The book is redolent of the travel writing of Patrick Leigh Fermor, who in 1933 set out to walk to Constantinople, relying on the hospitality of strangers. The Crossway remarkably shows that it is still possible to cross the continent like a medieval pilgrim, visiting shrines and being supported by charity.
Along the way, Stagg meets many characters, who share with him the benefit of their experience and wisdom, such as Sister Marie-Bertille at Clairvaux, who tells him monks and pilgrims are the same, ‘they want to learn what they believe.’
Stagg himself is a source of wise insights, he perceives in a fellow guest in Thessaloniki, ‘the stunned shyness of one still wounded and the quiet mania of the unconsoled.’ He wants to understand the nature of his own breakdown, and the narrative refers back to that black period, which culminated in attempted suicide, with incisive honesty.
The Crossway is a frank insight into the arduous nature of pilgrimage, the eight day passage through the Apennines in constant rain being particularly grim. Yet even though he walks through difficult places like Albania, where he is told no-one hikes, and Lebanon, he never appears afraid or in danger. However he is tear-gassed in protests in Istanbul, comes close to a bombblast in Tripoli and Holy Week in Rome brings about a dramatic reaction.
Though not a believer, Stagg writes respectfully about his hosts and those whom he encounters. He enters into well-researched asides of Christian history. He enjoys privileged visits to places such as Mount Athos and spends the night in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The Crossway is a mature work, a gripping tale and is beautifully written. One cannot help but rejoice that looking back on his journey it is not the solitude that Stagg remembers but ‘the charity of so many strangers’. And furthermore that staying in those holy places ‘calmed what was restless within me, and during the regular services I noticed how the minutes slowed and the silence assembled, until the days were worth more than they had been before.’
The Crossway is available from the Shrine Shop. Priced £16.99