by guy stagg,
picador, 400pp, £16.99/$20
Guy Stagg’s book is about a long walk he made from Canterbury to Jerusalem in 2013 when he was 25. As a cure for the severe depression from which he was suffering, it proved effective. The act of walking eight hours a day, six days a week, and “sleeping wherever a room was offered”, gave a purpose and structure to his days. It was not exactly a conventional pilgrimage but it did provide a goal and a radical way of overcoming inner demons.
Stagg spent nights in convents, monasteries, church halls, in his tent, or with kind-hearted strangers. His encounters with the random types he met on his way, including religious-minded nomads, hippies and oddballs, give colour to his narrative and bring it alive. His recounting the history of the places he passes through is tedious though, an attempt to stitch together a story that could have stood on its own: a young man’s struggles with identity and belief, and his conviction that “if I made it to Jerusalem, then I would be well”.
Stagg is honest about his attitude towards religious belief, writing “I do not believe in God, do not believe in miracles and do not believe that a sacrament can cure a sickness.” Yet despite the fact that, as he confesses, “the inner lives of [saints] remained a mystery to me”, his natural curiosity and reflectiveness often impels him into serious conversations with those offering him hospitality, notably an Italian novice called Giulia in a convent south of Rome. She shares her own faith journey, moving the author to comment: “It sounded hopeful and full of humility.”
More than in Rome or Jerusalem, a stay at Mount Athos provides valuable insights. “How little we need to be happy. How little we need to survive,” Stagg muses after a conversation with Fr Constantine, a Greek Orthodox monk. At the end, looking back over his formidable 10-month trek, what remains is “the charity of so many strangers”. Time, physical endurance and openness to new experiences have brought about a kind of healing.
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