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.