Robert Ward

The Catholic Register, October 6, 2002
Interview with Kathy Shaidle

Bob Ward’s family was “more or less comfortable with the idea” that he was writing a book about pilgrimages.

“They could see me walking across Spain. It was weird enough to be in character,” he said, “but the whole Virgin Mary thing… I don’t think anyone knew what to make of it. They all just politely waited for the book to come out to see whether I wasn’t making it up.”

“The book” is Virgin Trails: a Secular Pilgrimage, the finely crafted tale of Ward’s journey across Europe to explore shrines to the Virgin Mary, and learn more about her role in Catholic belief and culture. “Secular” because, surprisingly, Ward (although a graduate of literature and religion from Toronto University’s St. Michael’s College) is an atheist.

The 39-year-old’s atheism isn’t of the snarky, militant variety, however. He didn’t set out to debunk Marian apparitions and shrines, but to explore the immate human drive to visit holy places. The result is a wryly humourous, Chaucerian tale of sleeping rough in lousy weather, serendipitous twists of fate, and of course, colourful encounters with fellow pilgrims – made possible thanks to Ward’s command of five languages.

“I can manage in the languages of the places I visited, and this permitted me not only to speak to people but to access a wealth of books, newspapers, religious tracts, et cetera, without which the book would have been a very slim volume indeed.”

Ward initially set out to write a “grab-bag-of-pilgrimages book,” that would include visits to Jim Morrison’s grave, Pamplona during the running of the bulls, war memorials, truly secular pilgrimage sites,” like Elvis’s Graceland. But Ward also felt there was a need for a book by a non-believer about Mary, arguably the most famous woman in history.

So, “I just set myself an itinerary and tried to keep to it. My one fixed goal was to be in Rome in time for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and Loreto for the night of the Venuta, and for the rest I just tried to give Paris, Chartres, Lourdes, Fatima and Zaragoza the time they seemed to require. Remarkably, it all worked out.

“My favourite places were the ones that were pulsing with pilgrims. So Lourdes, the Camino de Santiago, Loreto, the Chapel of the Miraculous Medallion in Paris: those are all places where you just feel the religious spirit blazing away. Lourdes is astounding. It’s more an organism than a shrine. It’s just so complete unto itself.”

The vivid chapter about Lourdes in Virgin Trails is a highlight of the book. Ward is deeply respectful and engaged in the entire enterprise, despite his lack of faith. Judging by Ward’s reports, the real miracle of Lourdes is that such a chaotic, earthy, seat-of-the-pants, polyglot place functions at all, let alone at such a high spiritual voltage.

“And the Camino, of course, is unforgettable. The characters you meet, the landscapes you pass through, the bottle of wine they plop down on your table with dinner every night… I met another Camino veteran at a party a few weeks ago, and when I told him I had done it twice, he asked, ‘So when’s the third time?’ It really is an addiction.”

So, have Ward’s religious peregrinations created a crack or two in his atheism?

“My knee-jerk answer is ‘no’. And that’s not really a defensive ‘no’, that’s a ‘no’ to the idea that just by virtue of going through certain motions one scores epiphanies or wins redemption or vaults to a higher spiritual plane. When it comes to spirituality, I’m suspicious of anything that looks easy.

“And yet if I think about the question, I suppose that, yes, my religious philosophy or spirituality has changed. One sign of that being the simple fact that now I can say the word spirituality without putting quotation marks around it. To be honest, I don’t believe in God any more now than I ever did or ever expect to, but I think I recognize more clearly the centrality to life of spiritual questing and questioning.

“The point was never to find God. God is not who or what I was looking for. I was just looking. And the beauty of looking – looking, I mean, with real openness and curiosity – is that you never know what you’ll find.”