Probably if you asked someone to name their favorite Psalm, at least someone who is familiar with the Psalms, they probably come up with Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” For some reason, that one really strikes chords in people’s lives, so much so that it’s almost a given that someone who has planned out their own burial service or celebration of life has already picked Psalm 23 to be read or recited at the event. There are 149 other Psalms, but that seems to be the top choice.
But among the other favorites is Psalm 121, “I will lift up mine eyes into the hills”. Look Prayer Book or some Bibles and you will see that next to the Psalm number is a phrase in italics. That is the Latin phrase for the first line of the Psalm, Levavi oculos. Think about it. You may visit an oculist (an ophthalmologist or optometrist) to have your eyes checked or glasses prescribed. It’s all about the eyes.
There’s something comforting about the phrase of looking up to the hills, especially since we tend to see high places as areas of safety, or areas of particular sanctity because they are closer to heaven than the land around the mountains. Moses went up onto the mountains several times, for safety, to investigate, and to answer a call. Perhaps that’s where we get the idea of mountains being sacred ground, places where we can commune more easily with God since hilltops are, at least atmospherically, closer to God, or so we think. It’s also another reason why people build churches with steeples or great Gothic spires — to reach higher towards God.
Levavi oculus is a Psalm of confidence. The second part of the first verse asks, “…from where is my help to come?” We are taught from childhood that God is there to help us and if God is in heaven, then we are to look up to try to communicate with God. If there happens to be a very big hill, a great mountain, or even a smaller mountain, that stands out from the surrounding area, then it might be a place to see as a possible dwelling place for God.
I think Psalm 121 is a good one for us these days, since it’s a comforting song but it also offers hope. It tells us that God won’t let our feet be moved and that God will never slumber nor sleep. That’s a pretty wide range of expressions of confidence that no matter what happens, all I have to do is remember to look up to God.
Granted, I don’t always get what I ask for. Really, none of us do. We pray for things, but they don’t always work out the way we want them to or the way we think that they should work out. Still, were encouraged to keep believing and this Psalm gives us some pretty decent reasons why we should do that.
Looking up to the hills sometimes gives us the urge to climb those hills. Sir Edmund Hillary once said that the reason he climbed mountains was because they were there. I think Moses would probably take exception to that, because he went up because he was told to go up. He was told to go into a remote place where he would not encounter crowds but rather places of solitude, places of client, places of connection, as well as places where the panorama showed the lands that surrounded the mountain and thus dangerous places could be noted or friendly places could be visualized so that the journey could take the right direction once the leader reached the bottom of the mountain again.
For those who periodically visit the mountains or wish we could visit them, the Psalm often brings to mind those mountain views that we find so inspiring, the rivulets that slowed down over rocks and boulders, the trees that grow either very lushly for quite often rather sparsely, the closer you get to the top. Use these images when we hear the Psalm with think about the opening verse. It’s our way of connecting to a high holy place where one can almost touch God.
A lot of us don’t have the luxury of going to climb a mountain or such when we want to feel connected. Unlike ancient hermits, monastics, and sages, we don’t tend to congregate on top of a mountain, even if we could. We may be able to manage a few days or weeks, and we seem to find some peace and refreshment from the experience. Even a few hours can allow us to catch our breath and find a bit of God’s peace to bring back with us. It’s a welcome relief, and very much a help that came from God.
This week I think I’m going to use that image to try and connect myself a little more than usual. There are things going on in my life that are getting in the way of my spirituality, and I have neither the resources nor the ability to take off for the high country, as dutiful as it would be this time of year. I will take the words of the Psalmist and the image of the eye looking up to God and also the eye of God looking down at me and all of creation. Somehow in there, I think I may find the connection I’m looking for. I certainly hope so anyway.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, a wannabe writer, and a homebody. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is owned by three cats. She is a member of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, North Scottsdale, AZ.
Image: Anna Purna from Wikimedia Commons