Book: Virgin Trails by Robert Ward

Book: Virgin Trails: A Secular Pilgrimage by Robert Ward


“…open-minded, thought-provoking and, best of all, highly entertaining. This is a notable debut from a writer we’ll hear from again.”
-The Globe and Mail

“…hilarious, moving, thoughtful, and delightfully written…”
-The Georgia Straight

“…a celebration of the power of stories…”
-Winnipeg Free Press


In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, countless humble journeyman painters made their livings depicting the Virgin Mary. Their names have long been erased by time; they are remembered today only as madonnari, madonna painters. In Virgin Trails, Robert Ward sets out to become a modern-day madonnaro, painting a contemporary portrait of the most beloved figure in Catholic theology.

Mary doesn’t say much in the Bible; our image of her has been built piece by piece over two millennia. To discover her, Ward turns to the great Marian cathedrals, shrines and pilgrimages of Christian Europe. From Paris to Lourdes, from the Camino de Santiago to Loreto, his curious, wry and intelligent quest to find the truth of Mary unfolds.

Full of Chaucerian colour, character and conversation, Virgin Trails is as much a portrait of the people Ward meets and the places he visits as it is of Mary. It is at once a thought-provoking examination of the nature of religion and belief, and an affirmation of the beauty of the human spirit.

Robert Ward at the Stone Boat

From the Author:

I may not be the author the Catholic Church would have commissioned to write Virgin Trails. Yet I don’t think you need to be Catholic to feel the attraction of this universal Mother.

My initial plan was to write a general introduction to pilgrimages, but over the course of my travels I kept bumping into Mary, always wearing some new form. She was whoever her people needed her to be; in Lourdes, a figure of light; on the Camino, the Earth Mother with her child in her lap; by the Atlantic shore, Stella Maris, the star of the sea, rescuing sailors from the wild waves. I began to search out the Virgin’s holy places, gathering as I went the beautiful stories that have accrued around her.

What took me by surprise when the book was published was the warm response bestowed on it by many Catholics. Just before my first public reading, a very earnest audience member warned me that she had a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin and if I said anything “wrong” about her, she would “stand up and holler.” Not only did she stay quietly seated through the reading, she picked up a copy of the book afterwards. You can probably guess who I thanked for that.