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The long walk of the Cross

The long walk of the Cross

Nick Spencer reviews ‘The Crossway’ by Guy Stagg, which recounts the author’s 10 month pilgrimage to Jerusalem. 20/11/2018

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You’re 23. You’ve experienced mental illness and a nervous breakdown. You’ve suffered from borderline alcoholism and agoraphobia. You have tried to kill yourself. You are better now, but you are not well. It is unclear where, if anywhere, the future points. So you go on a pilgrimage. This is the unlikely premise of Guy Stagg’s widely–praised first book The Crossway, which charts his 10 month, 4,000 mile journey from Canterbury to Jerusalem.

Stagg is no believer. Raised an Anglican, he lost faith and any idea what faith “felt like.” But he is sympathetic, intrigued and, above all, in need. He tells people he is exploring the collapse of Christianity in Europe. “It was true,” he remarks with a fine distinction, “but it was not the truth.” Having tried it once, from London to Canterbury, he found that walking “made the world wide again.” So he walks because he needs to. “I thought my journey might build me up again. I walked to mend myself.” Somehow, he tells himself, if he can make it to Jerusalem, all will be well.

Stagg’s plan was to stay with believers – in monasteries, convents, churches, halls, or simply with those who will have him – and to cross the entire continent on charity alone. He does so, to his evident surprise. Having thought he was walking into the wreckage of Christianity, his lasting impression was “of how much remained, holding tight to its decayed inheritance.” His journey is eventful. Having set off on New Year’s Day, and crossed the Alps in midwinter, he reaches Rome to welcome a new Pope at Easter. He finds himself amidst mass protests and tear gas in Istanbul. He skirts the civil war in Syria and a terrorist attack in northern Lebanon. He reaches Jerusalem despite being sorely tempted to abandon everything.

He writes well, and sometimes brilliantly. The snow–and–vine covered hillsides he passes through in France, look “like scattered sheets of music,” the snow turning “terraces into pages, strung with wire staves… every vine… a note and every vineyard a melody.” Fishing boats on a lake in Turkey “left tracks… like scratches on stone.” Sunset, when he arrives in Israel, is “burnt pieces of evening hung over the horizon.” The Crossway is eventful, engaging, and often beautiful. But it is the author’s inner journey – how his pilgrimage heals him, or fails to – that hooks the reader.

Stagg’s journey to redemption is no easier or more straightforward than his path to Jerusalem. Hoping for some epiphany in Rome, he is overwhelmed by the crowds and simply needs to escape. By the time he leaves Italy, he feels “more removed than ever from the faith I was trying to understand, but closer… to the depression I was trying to escape.” He relapses into the toxic arms of alcohol in Greece. Jerusalem gives him no obvious deliverance. “Of all the places I’ve visited,” remarks someone he meets there, “Jerusalem must be the least kind. It’s proof of the world’s sickness.”

But the journey is a not failure, in spite of its failings. Pilgrimage does not work like medicine: take ten thousand steps, four times a day, and repeat until better (if symptoms persist, see your priest). It, like faith, is not an achievement, or even a feeling, so much as a different way of seeing and being in the world.

The places where and people with whom he stays – or at least some of them – teach him the virtues of ritual and prayer. During the regular services, he writes towards the end, “I noticed how the minutes slowed and the silence assembled, until the days were worth more than they had been before.” His time at Mount Athos in northern Greece, after his destructive bender in Thessaloniki, showed him “how belief might be built up from practice,” even if it left him unsure about what sustained such discipline.

The act of pilgrimage itself is cathartic. On the road, all tokens of status are left behind, food and shelter are “riches enough,” and possessions are “excess weight.” Having walked 4,000 miles he sees that pilgrimage is not an escape from the world, “but a surrender to something larger than ourselves.” The journey restores his past, “suggesting that these memories need not tend towards tragedy, that this history might yet be redeemed.”

So, there is ritual, and practice, and pilgrimage, but above all there is love: small acts of companionship, hospitality, kindness, self–sacrifice that patch up the soul. As he heads off through the Balkans, at a low point of the journey, he remarks, “I became convinced I was safest alone. This was my mistake.” It is a poignant and pregnant observation. Later, as he reflects on the ten–month trip, he says, “it was not the solitude I remembered, but the charity of so many strangers.” There is a repeated emphasis on emptying of self, but the walk suggests that this needn’t be in an impressive act of religious sacrifice, so much as in ordinary habits and practices of generosity and love.

The Crossway defies easy summary because it refuses easy consolation. Stagg sets off looking for answers, and for certainty, and finds neither. Indeed certainty, he comes to realise, is more or less the opposite of faith. Pilgrimage solves nothing. But it can reframe much. Having hoped to heal himself, he ends, standing above the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem, “thankful for these wounds, [and] thankful for the mistakes the brought me to this place.”

The Crossway by Guy Stagg is published by Picador

Image by by everst under a Shutterstock licence, edited by Theos. 

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Nick Spencer

Posted 20 November 2018

Faith, Identity, Mental Health, Review, Spirituality


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