Earlier this year, my wife and I shared a long-planned and even longer discussed trip to London. This was my first visit to the city—the epicenter of art, culture, and literature for this particular writer. While sipping ale at a quintessential British pub, I imagined man of letters Samuel Johnson regaling his biographer, James Boswell. Stopping in front of 10 Downing Street, I pictured Winston Churchill rousing the spirits of a war-weary population. Wandering through London’s alleys and byways, I wondered what paths cut by famous and forgotten painters and poets I was accidentally following.
A plethora of must-see sites and can’t-miss experiences filled our itinerary, including the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, photographs with Big Ben in the background, and a leisurely Sunday roast. At the top of this list was Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Designed in the English Baroque style by the architect and great church-builder Christopher Wren, the current St. Paul’s was consecrated in 1697 as the seat of the Bishop of London. Today, it stands as one of the most iconic structures in the city. Its dome dominates the skyline and it appears in countless films and television episodes. Every day, St. Paul’s welcomes both members of the Church of England and curious visitors to its Evensong services.
Evensong always occurs near sunset to observe the passing of another day in this world. During the service itself, a choir sings canticles, Psalms, and responses. This form of worship allows believers and unbelievers alike a chance to lose themselves in the beauty of music and temporarily forget their worries and woes. Although Evensong developed during the British Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century, its origins arguably exist among the early Christians.
On our first day in London after an overnight flight and full afternoon, my wife and I attended Evensong. While waiting for the service to begin, we were invited to sit in the choir stalls near St. Paul’s high altar. This is where royalty, church leaders, and important men and women of state would sit during Anglican Mass or ceremonies. Although we couldn’t see the choir procession approaching, we could hear its collective voice drawing nearer and reverberating throughout St. Paul’s interior. Then, a choir of boys and men filed in, and Evensong began. The service itself was an enchanting marriage of music and readings, drawing us into a tradition both specifically British and universally human. When we left the Cathedral, we were silent for a moment wanting to savor the profound beauty of what we had just experienced.
Since then, I’ve been haunted by my memory of Evensong. Neary every Wednesday, I listen to Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3, hoping to discover a trace of that first encounter. Recently, I learned that I did not need to schedule another trip across the Atlantic or search through old recordings to possibly achieve this.
One evening early this month after work, I walked twenty or so minutes from my office at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus to Saint Thomas Church on Fifty-Third Street and Fifth Avenue. An Episcopal church built in the Gothic Revival style with lovely stained glass and an intricately sculptured reredos behind its altar, Saint Thomas offers Evensong several times each week.
With the sounds of Manhattan—traffic, people, and construction—in the background, I settled into a pew in anticipation. The service did not disappoint. While listening to the music and the readings, I found myself focusing not only on the words and notes but on the scent of incense lingering in the church, the feel of the stained wooden pews, and the sight of the high buttressed ceiling. Absent was any rumination of my own life or the state of American society.
Near the conclusion of Evensong, the presider expressed gratitude for the service as an opportunity from God for “reflection and rest.” As I lingered in the church, not wanting to immediately immerse myself in the frenetic movement of the city outside, I dwelled on those words. That is what I found in my first experience with Evensong in a majestic London cathedral and later what I sought in a Manhattan church.
The best traditions might provide us with the intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual support to weather the vagaries and tragedies of life. They assure us that we belong to a consistent lineage—a past, a present, and a future. Evensong is such a tradition. Its perpetual music and prayers were first sung before we gave our first breath and they will certainly continue long after our time on this Earth. As a tradition, Evensong has much to teach and give us. We just need to pause and listen.