(Brazos Press, 2016)
Conquering a thousand-mile trek in only 70 days is quite a feat, but to write a 229-page book about it is even more impressive. Andrew L. Wilson has done both, and, in my opinion, done the latter quite well.
Wilson takes us on he and his wife’s pilgrimage from Erfurt, Germany, to Rome, Italy along the supposed route that Martin Luther took five hundred years before, which many historians point to as the trip that began the Protestant Reformation. I was particularly excited to see this book on the shelf, because, witty title aside, I am myself gearing up for the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. My wife is of Lutheran heritage and we will be making our own pilgrimage to Germany this fall to celebrate.
One of the stated goals of the Wilson’s pilgrimage was to have ecumenical discussions and spend time redeeming both Protestantism and Catholicism for the others. He notes how indigenous people began to turn to the saints in many areas because the Church had downplayed the incarnation, as displayed in The Divine Comedy, which the Wilsons read as they approach Rome. The Reformation reminded people of where to look for God and showed that Jesus came down to us. He warns both Catholics and Protestants to not let the way they try to identify themselves to replace the substance of who they are.
A unique and charming aspect of this travelogue was the stories Wilson includes from encounters with fellow humans along the road – the hosts, co-pilgrims, his parents (who traveled in an RV to provide the pilgrims relief at night), or chance encounters with others who were exceptionally hospitable. One of the most moving stories is of Hans the organist who teaches the Wilsons that you can use the knowledge of your own mortality to push you towards life. Through his encounters, Wilson teaches us to recognizes the humanity in each other, even when differences abound.
Something Wilson frequently returns to in his frustration is the growth and advance of civilization and industry to a point where walking is not a valid option, because sometimes it means crossing a six-lane highway. He laments that people don’t slow down anymore to experience life in the way of a pilgrim. One can’t help but reflect on their own life and recognize the need to slow down, too.
Wilson exceptionally weaves in historical details wherever possible to provide helpful background. Whether he was talking about which cities were bombed in World War II, giving a brief overview of the tiny (and rich) country of Liechtenstein, or providing the high points in the bitter rivalry between Guelphs and Ghibellines, he brought readers in deeper on the journey. He even provides gastronomic history, especially when he gets into Italian wine country, that makes you want to eat (which is probably why he includes a recipe for Pilgrims’ Vegetable Stew in the back of the book).
By the time they reach Rome, Wilson’s reflections get deeper and more meaningful. In chapter ten, easily the best chapter of the book, Wilson reflects on Christianity as a historical religion based in historical places. He ultimately recognizes that “an earthly place can carry heavenly significance” while holding that in balance with the knowledge that “the body and blood of Christ can travel anywhere on earth with equal merit and effect,” (208).
Wilson’s wife, Sarah, writes an afterword that captures so well the spirit of the narrative that Andrew has written, encouraging others to make themselves vulnerable to other ways of seeing the world, whether by walking, having an unexpected conversation, or worshiping in another context. As she says, “If you can walk at all, you can walk to Rome.”
This book read like a pilgrimage: reading the introduction and the first couple of days on the road took some getting used to, but as you caught Wilson’s rhythm, you got a good pace and in a whirl, didn’t realize you were just a few miles (or pages) from your final destination. The significance of the journey makes so much more sense when you reach Rome (or the end of the book) that you can’t help but get reflective and introspective.
I highly recommend this book to those on their own pilgrimage, whether physical or spiritual. To those who journey with Wilson on this book, the destination is worth it.
Rory Jones is a student at George W. Truett Theological Seminary and a co-editor at Words About God. He enjoys cooking with his wife, Elise, and playing board games.