From Evensong to Prime

From Evensong to Prime April 9, 2024

a tree with no leaves and another tree with spring buds, black against a blue and white sky, with the sun half obscured by a solar eclipse behind it
image by Mary Pezzulo


There are those who say that learning about nature freed them of the belief in God, and I’m not better than those people. For me, though, it’s the opposite. The more I learn, the more I see, the more I believe.

Yesterday was the solar eclipse. Here in Steubenville, we were to get 97.7% of totality. There wouldn’t be a few minutes of night, only a few minutes of twilight, but we’d see the sun go almost completely behind the moon.

I’d been excited for the eclipse for months. The last time I was in Columbus, friends gave me two packages of those awkward coated glasses so we could see it, and I hoarded them in the pantry cupboard. Last month, while grocery shopping, I’d picked up three more pairs of glasses just in case. Those went into my glove compartment, just in case I somehow was outside and couldn’t get home to get my glasses during the eclipse. When I found out that it would begin a bit before Adrienne got out of school and reach totality about twenty minutes after she got home, I was sad. I wanted to drive out to a state park and see what it was like to witness an eclipse in the woods. But there’s an old Civil War graveyard in Steubenville, behind the grocery store and right by the school, and that graveyard has a fantastic overlook at the top of the hill. You can see all the way to the mountains of West Virginia from there. That would be the second best place in the world.

I haven’t missed homeschooling in a few months, but my heart broke anew just then. I wanted a suitably wonderstruck child to watch the whole eclipse with.

I agreed to go to the graveyard earlier in the day, rush out at 2:30 and get her from school, and then rush out to the graveyard to see totality.

 When the day came, I went out by myself, awash in wonder and awe, but also sad to have no one to share my wonder and awe.

They said it was going to be cloudy, but the clouds were far up in the atmosphere and there was plenty of light. By the time I got to the graveyard, the white cirrus cloud cover was dissipating. There were patches of blue everywhere. Steubenville was bright, something that doesn’t happen very often. Up the hill, past the ornate hundred-year-old graves to the boxy fifty-year-old graves and then the granite mausoleums, past venerable old forest trees to the slim ornamental trees that were planted twenty tears ago, past wildflowers to the new prickly sod, and then to the overlook. It was almost two o’clock when I arrived.

I slipped on my silly glasses and there it was: a tiny little bite taken out of the sun.

I took off my glasses and saw a man sitting on a bench with his daughter, who was a little younger than Adrienne. The man had no eye protection at all. The daughter was trying to look at the sun through three pairs of sunglasses stacked together.

“Do you need eclipse glasses?” I offered.

Yes, they did. They hadn’t heard about this event until a few days ago and the library had run out of free pairs to give away.

I gave them the other two pairs from the glove compartment.

We went to the overlook and watched together. I found myself babbling about all the facts I’d learned about eclipses, the way the local animals might react, the fact that this wouldn’t happen again on this spot for twenty years. We kept slipping on our glasses to look at the bite in the sun getting bigger and bigger and bigger, then slipping them off to gaze out over the city. I could see the elderly people at the nursing home, sitting in their wheelchairs in the parking lot, looking up. I could see the yellow school buses arriving at the middle school. All around, the shadows of the trees were eerie and strange.

The light was dimming.

It wasn’t stretching out and changing color as it does when the sun gets dim and low; it was only dimming. There wasn’t any orange or vermillion cast to the light. It was ordinary, daytime light, white light, dimming.

The dim sun went behind a white cloud.

I ran to the car and drove to the middle school as quickly as I could. We rushed to get Michael. I yelled at him to grab the glasses in the pantry, because I’d given the glove compartment glasses away.

As I waited for them in the front yard, I heard the birds begin singing Evensong.

Did you know that birds can sing Evensong?

There’s a song birds sing when the sun dims, and it’s different than the one that they sing when it’s daytime. It’s louder, more insistent. I don’t know how else to describe it. But when I hear monks chanting Evensong or Jewish people saying prayers as Shabbat begins, or any other prayer or blessing which is sung or recited at sunset, I think about the way birds sing in the evening. And when the birds start singing in the evening, I say that they’re singing Evensong. And I am certain that if I went back in time and met the very first human beings who ever cried out to the Creator when it was getting dark, they would say that they got the idea from birds.

A great fat pigeon swept low over the porch, almost hitting the gutter. Birds fly low at twilight. They dip down in the sky like that when it’s getting dark, and I don’t know why.

I’ve never driven to the graveyard so quickly in my life.

Michael, Adrienne and I piled out of the car at ten minutes before the event. The man and girl were still there, along with the girl’s mother, who had just gotten off work. I handed her one of the glasses from the packet in my pantry cupboard. Adrienne slipped on her glasses from school. Michael slipped on his pair. And we all looked up at the sun.

The sky dimmed, and dimmed, and dimmed.

Then it was twilight, but not twilight. Twilight is viridian green fading to deep shades of blue. This was the duskiness of twilight, but with the color of day.

The birds in the graveyard sang Evensong.

I sang as well, silently to myself, since I was around strangers. Domine labia mea aperies et os meum adnuntiabit laudem tuam. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise.

O Gladsome Light of the holy glory of the immortal Father, Heavenly, Holy, Blessed Jesus Christ! Now that we have come to the setting of the sun and behold the light of evening, we praise God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, for meet it is at all times to glorify thee!

And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad, even my body shall rest in safety, for You will not leave my soul among the dead, nor let your beloved know decay.

Recessit pastor noster fons aquae vivae ad cuius transitum sol obscuratus est: Nam et ille captus est, qui captivum tenebat primum hominem: hodie portas mortis et seras pariter Salvator noster disrupit. Our Shepherd is departed, the fount of living water, At whose passing the sun was darkened, For even he was made captive who was holding captive the first man. Today the gates of death and their bars as well our Savior has destroyed.

Magnificat anima mea Dominum;et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo. My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Lord, I believe, help my unbelief. 

The sun was a tiny hair, wound tightly around a black circle.

The shadows all around were impossibly strange, defined like the shadows at sunset but not stretched out like the shadows at sunset.

And then morning came, without it having been night.

Little by little, the light came back– as with twilight, not the rich colors of dawn, but the gradual brightening of dawn.

And then the birds began singing Prime, the hymnody for sunrise, without the silent Matins of night.

Birds singing Prime sounds different from birds singing Evensong, but I couldn’t tell you how.

We left our new friends standing on the overlook, still holding those silly glasses.

We drove home in the brightening of the sun.

Father, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness comes from you through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit. From age to age you gather a people to yourself, so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name.
The birds were singing their daytime song, the one that goes from sometime after dawn to just before twilight.
I haven’t stopped praying since.

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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