Visiting Historical Religious Sites: Two Gentle Pleas

I hesitate to post this article because anyone who is interested enough in history to visit a website devoted to historical fiction probably doesn’t need to hear this message. You are sensitive to the debt of gratitude we have to those who came before us and are therefore inclined in general to be sensitive to the world around you.

However, just in case this message does reach eyes and ears less in tune with the past and the past’s role in the present, I wish to share a couple of thoughts. (My particular lines of historical inquiry currently focus on Christian churches in Europe, but these sentiments obviously apply to the sacred buildings of any faith anywhere in the world.)

First, when you exit any aged church, turn right around and look at the condition of the stonework on the outside of the building. If it is in dire need of cleaning or repair from the ravages of time and weather and air pollution—and just about every old church I have ever seen is—please walk back inside and find the collection box marked for building maintenance or preservation. I honestly have no idea how important these visitor contributions are in the overall maintenance budgets of a church, but I do know it is important to contribute to the preservation of our shared heritage. I look at it this way: The admission fee for being enchanted by the past is shouldering some of the responsibility for the future.

Second, please remember that these old churches are in fact functioning churches, each with a complicated web of public and private meaning. Most churches do a good job of signposting service times and in some cases cordoning off areas reserved for worship during those times. However, my particular concern here is not with formal, public services, but with the individual people who seek solace in churches at any hour of the day. In recent visits to churches from Normandy down to Languedoc, I noticed people in several churches who were clearly in states of personal anxiety, heartbreakingly so in a couple of instances. It was dispiriting to watch tourists crowd right up near them, chatting and snapping photos of whatever architectural details caught their attention, as though the anguished soul in their midst was one more piece of statuary.

This can be a difficult request, I realize, because the interiors of churches are shared spaces. However, a few seconds of thought and planning can ensure a visit that is both rewarding and respectful. Upon entering, a quick look up and down the pews will indicate where you might want to plan your path. And when walking around the inside perimeter, pay particular attention in any small chapels off the side aisles and around the apse beyond the altar. These chapels sometimes have seating or kneeling arrangements specifically for prayer, and some have signs asking that visitors refrain from talking or taking photos. It’s really just a matter of being aware of one’s surroundings and making small detours if needed to give people some peace and some space.

Regardless of one’s spiritual persuasion, visiting a historically and architecturally significant church can be a wondrous, ennobling experience. If each of us approaches it with a bit of care and foresight, everyone can have the most fulfilling experience possible.

OK, end of sermon. Thank you.

There Might Be a Reason That Writing Feels Like Exercising

An hour and forty-five minutes after my computer nagged at me to get up and do some exercise, I am struck by the parallels between writing and exercising. I’m thinking specifically here of the first-draft phase of writing. For me, anyway, research is fascinating, outlining varies from pleasant to exhilarating, and revising is often where the deep joy of writing lies. But the initial drafting, when one is really just hoisting the clay up onto the workbench, can be, well, work.

These parallels come to mind as I sit a few minutes longer, continuing to avoid exercise:

  • Some days, the first step seems insurmountable, and the body and the mind will find every excuse to do anything else. (You should see how well organized my refrigerator is.)
  • Fortunately, both can be sneaked up on, wherein you engage in a related activity (warming up, fiddling with the equipment, researching, revising a bit of yesterday’s writing), and before you know it, you’ve tricked yourself into doing the real work.
  • Even more fortunately, once the work is in motion, both activities present the opportunity to “get in the zone” or to achieve flow, to use Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s term. This is that almost-magical state in which work becomes not-work and changes from something you do to something you are. In this state, even high-intensity cardio and first drafts become pleasurable.
  • Done well, both writing and exercising are good for you. Done poorly, they can be a waste of time. Or worse.
  • Both activities have to be kept at regularly just to maintain your current level of fitness—and must be hounded after with great diligence to see real improvement.
  • In both activities, there is the endless temptation to focus on strengths, which is usually enjoyable, rather than addressing weaknesses, which generally is not.
  • They have a similar effort-payoff curve: New exercises and new sorts of writing are difficult at first, then become easier as your body and mind develop the specific capabilities required by the task, and then they can become too easy when you’re so specifically proficient that a task no longer presents a significant challenge. The exercise doesn’t do as much for you as it used to, and the writing doesn’t help you grow as a writer or as a person.
  • With both exercising and writing, no matter how much you do and how well you do it, you are going to die anyway. But only by recognizing and making peace with this fact do we become free to live and to write with real meaning.1

And living with meaning does require, at a minimum, that one continues to live.

I have to go now. I need want to exercise.


1. I must credit Bruce Holland Rogers for opening my eyes to this. See the chapter “Death and the Day Job” in his highly recommended Word Work for a thoughtful discussion of this issue. He makes a compelling argument that we can’t write seriously without first facing our own mortality.