Sorting by

Skip to main content

The rain hadn’t let up at all that day. But then, this was England—wasn’t it supposed to be this way?

The morning had dictated soggy squelching as we tromped around Stonehenge; the afternoon brought out the umbrellas, a problem when touring Highclere Castle (aka “Downton Abbey”), where an officious tour guide—every bit as daunting as Mr. Carson—barred anyone from toting their dripping “brollies” into the house.

By late afternoon in Salisbury, the group was ready for a warm meal, a roaring fire, and some liquid sustenance.

That sounded good to me, too, but for one thing: I was in a cathedral city. And second, I’m a sucker for Evensong. There really wasn’t a choice.

Maybe it’s because of the quiet beauty of the service, one that closes out the day and asks for protection for the hours of the night. Maybe it’s that the whole concept of Evensong was foreign to a girl growing up in a Christian Reformed congregation in a small Midwest town. Whatever the reason, as an adult, I attend Evensong wherever and whenever I can.

I couldn’t get anyone in the group to join me; the lure of a cozy pub was too strong. So I entered the church, feeling instantly minuscule as I stood under the vaulted ceilings and among the effigies of long-buried knights and their ladies. Ahead of me, the cathedral choir, divided between men and boys, sat facing each other. The boys’ white cassocks cast shadows as the candlelight danced in front of them; the men’s vestments glowed ruby in the low lights. Perpendicular to the choir were several rows of chairs for worshippers, an optimistic setup for the dozen or so of us who huddled in damp clothes, waiting for the service to begin.

A man in a black robe stepped forward, facing the worshippers. I’ve never gotten the hang of Anglican church titles, so I wasn’t sure if he was a pastor, a vicar, a canon, a rector, a dean, or what. But he appeared to have some authority.

“Sometimes, when we have a small turnout, we invite those of you who would like to join us in the choir,” the man said, unfastening the gate that separated the two areas. He didn’t have to ask twice.

I parked myself, along with my bulging purse and day’s shopping, into a narrow wooden pew-type seat, next to one of the choir boys. At each singer’s place, the candlesticks with the funny little shades that I love were throwing a diffused light onto the choristers’ music. A persistent misty rain pinged softly against stained glass windows set high in the walls. Darkness was just creeping in, and the overall effect was as if I were in a fairy tale.

Earlier that day, in a booklet about the cathedral, I had read that Evensong at Salisbury had continued uninterrupted for more than 700 years, and for another 200 years before that at Old Sarum, the predecessor to the 13th-century place of worship.

I sat there taking it in—through the Black Death, the War of the Roses, the Reformation, the English Civil War, fires and floods, renovations and restorations, world wars and wayward kings, a group had met seven days a week to close out the day.

An odd feeling swept over me: nostalgia, relief, an “uplift of the spirit,” as writers of the past dubbed it.

No doubt about it: the world has always been a mess in one way, shape, or form. There are no “good old days.” Surely there were Evensong participants 500 years ago who despaired of their times, who felt as if nothing this wicked, this bad, this divisive, had ever happened before. And maybe they were right—maybe their tribulations would stand up to be some of the worst in human history.

But they kept meeting. Every evening at 5:30 pm they gathered, whether there were many or few, to thank God for the day behind them and to ask for protection for the night ahead, a continuum that can help us keep our collective head above troubled waters.

Indeed, it may be the only weapon we have.

Header photo by Finnbarr Webster

Valerie Van Kooten

Valerie Van Kooten is the Administrator of the State Historical Museum of Iowa. She and her husband Kent live in Pella, Iowa.".


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended,
    The shadows fall at thy behest. . . .

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Thank you. You made the right choice.
    “And by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night . . .”

  • Cathy Smith says:

    My spirit was “uplifted” reading this. Thank you.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you, especially on this day after I heard of a dear loved one betrayed by her spouse and the morning of predictable, but ever sadder news of the ongoing diminishment of the CRC. That reminds me so necessarily that two days are not as a thousand years (or 700) to the One who holds all.

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    Beautifully written, poignantly evocative, and a testimony to the quiet strength that may be found in persistent ritual in darkening hours. Thank you, Valerie.

  • David Meyer says:

    Thank you. I need this today, and all days.

  • Lori Witt says:

    Thanks, Val! And how awesome is it that you got to join the choir!!🙂

  • Henry Baron says:

    I was inspired by the descriptive finesse of your writing and your choice of Evensong vs pub!

  • Mary VanderVennen says:

    I have also enjoyed evensong wherever I can, also in Salisbury Cathedral. Is it too fanciful to think that maybe the monarchy in England has lasted as long as it has because it has been prayed for every day for a thousand years?

  • Dennis Holtrop says:

    Thank you for this. I was in the UK for 3 months earlier this year and tried to attend choral evensong nearly every day. Salisbury Cathedral stands out as one of my favorites; I will never forget my first glimpse of that magnificent spire while arriving by train from Southampton. Keeping the daily office while back in the US has been challenging, but my time among Anglicans in the UK was incredibly restorative. I am glad that your experience would seem to mirror my own.

  • Diane Dykgraaf says:

    Beautiful! So encouraging to be reminded that God always gives a song – no matter what. And someone is singing, even on days when we cannot.

  • Sherril Graham says:

    I would have gladly joined you. Thank you for sharing this story.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    Having not been raised in the church, Evensong was new to me. Your poetic and descriptive writing of your experience brought me there and left me in profound tears yet lifting me up at the same time. What a comfort in times such as these internationally, nationally, locally and of course bottom line personally—as Diane previously said: and someone is singing even on the days when we cannot.

  • Diana Walker says:

    Thank you for taking us there with you. How small I feel realizing that folks have gathered to sing at 5:30 every evening for over 700+ years.
    Commitment at its finest.
    I am humbled.

  • Susan says:

    Thank you for this beautiful setting to evoke the spiritual experience of Evensong. We have attended many in Anglican churches and others. Westminster Abby is memorable along with churches in many cities including beautiful services at The Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. The choir, hymns, scripture and maybe a short homily. Always best when it gets dark outside. Maybe CRC evening services would still be around if they did that.

  • Sharon says:


  • Wesley Westmaas says:

    My first evensong experience was at Kings College Chapel in Cambridge where the choirs of Kings and St. John’s sang the final evensong of the school term. I thought I was in heaven. We were also invited to sit in the choir at an evensong service at St. Paul’s in London. It was devine. I have sung evensong services for many years until my retirement from singing at St. Michaels and St. George in Saint Louis. It is my favorite service. Thanks for the article.

Leave a Reply