Sunday, January 22, 2012

Not My Road to Santiago

Preparing for my own Spanish pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, I have just finished Kathryn Harrison’s 2003 travelogue, The Road to Santiago, evidently written on commission for a National Geographic book series and to a strict word count. The arty, perfunctory little volume combines three incomplete Caminos, two by Harrison alone and one aborted trek with her twelve-year-old daughter. These three jaunts add up to just 50 percent of the classic 800-kilometer Camino from St. Jean Port-de-Pied in France to Santigo de Compostela—all in 10 years.

Combined with my dubious memories of Harrison’s short 2003 biography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, in which she treats the Little Flower as a sexually repressed neurotic, her Road to Santiago makes me nervous about her upcoming biography of Joan of Arc.

But maybe Harrison is just the sort of “Catholic” writer the New York publishing world loves best: a Catholic who doesn’t believe in Catholicism.

The Road to Santiago begins in 2002, with Harrison setting out in the company of her daughter. And it begins with weighty questions. After laying out the history and legend of St. James (Sant’Iago) the Apostle—who caught his own head in his arms when he was executed and whose remains helped Christendom expel the Moors from Spain—Harrison asks:

Why does the legend persist, told and retold through the centuries? Why do we cling to it unreasonably, as the saint did his severed head? During a holy year, when St. James’s day, July 25, falls on a Sunday, over one hundred thousand people . . . walk the road to Santiago. . . . Even now, we walk, making slow progress toward the invisible, the improbable, the ridiculous. No matter our faith, or lack thereof, we must travel away from reason to reach a state we hold in greater esteem: enlightenment.

While this may seem an open question from a sincere pilgrim, the book finds Harrison coming down on the side of faith as “unreasonable” and even “ridiculous.” She is apparently the most dangerous kind of Catholic—one who loves prayer and even Jesus, one who says she is “usually ravenous for every church and font,” one who can write “I am more Catholic than I am anything else”—but also one who has an intransigent gripe against the Church.

We learn that her husband is a Quaker and that therefore her marriage has not been recognized by the Church. Her own religious history is further confused. Before joining her mother in a Catholic confirmation class at age 12, she was “raised by Jewish grandparents and thoroughly indoctrinated by ten years of Christian Science Sunday school.” Is that Mary Baker Eddy I hear muttering, Oy vey?

All this confusion would be fine and even endearing if Harrison offered even the semblance of sincere searching, but she does not. When her daughter grouses after five footsore days and 120 kilometers, mom all too readily abandons the Camino and heads home. Her questions are not religious or spiritual, or even particularly motherly. They are the self-analytical psychologizing of big-time memoir:

I ask myself if, in fact, part of the decision to bring Sarah with me was to acknowledge my fear of her, to walk with it. To admit that perhaps I will never learn how not to impose my history with my mother onto my love for my children. With her shining dark hair and blue eyes, her long legs and unconscious slender grace, Sarah is the girl my mother wanted, exactly so. This frightens me sometimes, as if my longing to be desired has finally found this profound expression: I could not make myself into the daughter of my mother’s fantasies, not in her lifetime. But then, after she died, mysteriously and unexpectedly, I did make a girl in that image.

Later, still with Sarah, she wonders:

Am I guilty of projecting my psychic agenda onto everyone around me, even onto my child, to whom I owe protection?

Big question after big question…

Flash back to 1992—Seven months pregnant with her second child, Harrison is in Burgos, a city on the Camino, researching a historical novel. At one o’clock in the afternoon, she heads west “to walk a little of this old route.” At three o’clock, she heads back to Burgos. By supper time, she has completed her mini-Camino, no more than 10 kilometers in length.

Flash forward  to 1999, or flash back from 2002 if you look at it that way, but by this point, 53 percent of the way through the book, according to my Kindle, I was wondering why I had set out on the journey in the first place—Harrison walks alone the final 283 kilometers of the Camino, from Oviedo to Santiago de Compostela. The operative word is alone. In stark contrast to Martin Sheen’s character in the recent film The Way, who gathers a company of friends about him as he treks west, Harrison’s is a journey of me, myself, and I. Unconsoled even by her visit to the Cathedral in Santiago, she ends by making a list of her accomplishments:

I walked 283 kilometers in seven days.
I limped 100 of those kilometers. 
I ended each day in tears. 
I fell twice, once on the first day and once on the last. 
I went to Mass twice. 
I had sun every day and rain for four days. 
I was barked at every day. 
I worried about wolves. 
I kissed a stone cross, and I stole some holy oil, received stamps and stamped myself. 
I thought of [my family] and my friends—books I’ve written and those I hope to write. The baby I want to have, not yet even the proverbial twinkle, and yet she exists, exists as desire. 

In case it slipped your notice, the same pronoun starts each item on the list. And the final sentence of the book brings Harrison back to where she began, herself. Drinking wine and watching CNN in an airport on the way home, she writes,

I close my eyes and see everyone I love, as I did on the road, luminous and exalted and mine.

Maybe I’m unfair. Harrison may be just what she wants us to believe she is—a tortured soul seeking a path, possibly even back to the Church.

But her publishing record suggests that she’s an author with a New York pedigree who will stop at nothing to keep the word mill turning. Kathryn Harrison is the only Catholic novelist I know of who wrote a best-selling memoir (The Kiss) about an incestuous relationship with her father while she was an adult. It seems that no secret is sacred with her.

Is nothing sacred?


  1. Webster,

    Thanks for sharing this review. It never ceases to amaze me the number of "Catholic" authors or celebrities who enjoy nothing quite as much as bashing on their church. I always wondered why they continued to call themselves Catholic if they had so many problems with the church.

    I have not started reading or planning yet but I too hope to someday make the trip you and your daughter are planning. I am hoping the Navy will send me to Europe for a 3 year tour and while I am there I can take some time off to make this journey.

    You and your daughter will be in my prayers as you continue making your plans. Thanks for the continually good daily blog.


  2. Matthew, Thanks for your comment and for your question. I imagine that the answer to why she continues to call herself Catholic is that, despite all of the antics of her brilliant adult mind, her little girl's heart is still moved by the Christian event. That's true of many collapsed Catholics I've encountered.


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