Homer's Travels: Book: Richard Ward's "Virgin Trails: A Secular Pilgrimage"

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Book: Richard Ward's "Virgin Trails: A Secular Pilgrimage"

The Best Man loaned us my latest read, Richard Ward's "Virgin Trails: A Secular Pilgrimage".  He thought the Wife and I might find it interesting and he was right.

The book follows the author as he visits various European sites with connections to Mary (mother of Jesus).  He gets the idea while visiting a chapel near Finisterre, a place I may visit after the Way of Saint James (haven't decided if I will walk the extra 60 miles or use some other mode of transportation).

He then travels to Paris, Lourdes, Fatima, Rome, and other places including walking the Way of Saint James (the Camino).  I have to say that I was most interested in the chapter about the Camino.  He has an internal debate that I have had many times while on a trail: Is it better to walk alone or with a group.  Alone gives you time to think, to contemplate the scenery along the trail, and, especially true concerning a pilgrimage, to consider why you are putting yourself through this particular ordeal.  Hiking with a group gives you someone to share the experience and you can often glean information that you may not know from one of your companions.  Ward notes that when he walked with people he was distracted from the Camino and that the conversations tended to be about things completely unrelated to the Camino like their lives back home and their jobs.  In the end he walked mostly alone, saving the social interaction for the towns, albergues, and bars.

He also separated the racers from the true pilgrims.  The racers just want to get to the next stopping point.  The walk is just that , a long walk.  The pilgrim, even the secular ones, stop along the way to study their surroundings.  They visit churches, monasteries, old roman bridges, and other interesting things along the Camino.  I can often be a racer.  Who knows what I've missed on the trail.  I often have to remind myself to look up and notice the world around me.  When I do the Camino, a want to be a pilgrim.

The subtitle of the book implies that Ward is an atheist.  He says so several times in the book but not excessively though.  As I read the book, I wondered just how much of an atheist he was.  He seemed a little too interested in Mary to be completely secular.  Maybe it was just a cultural fascination but I wonder if there was a spark of 'I want to believe' in there.

The book is interesting though, as a study of Mary sites, it seems rather limited.  I suppose a comprehensive book about places dedicated to Mary would span several tomes.  But even with the necessity to limit it to a hand full of places, the book was still interesting.  I would recommend it.


  1. Traveling alone except for bars - I think that may be my new travel mantra!

  2. If I remember the title when I am near books I think I'd like reading this one.

  3. JaG: It was interesting. Most of the book is about Lourdes and the Camino (Those are the longest chapters). He's got a conventional travelogue 'voice' that is easy to read. The book doesn't stand out in my opinion but it is an adequate read.