Psalms of Ascent

July 1, 2023 by Rev. Canon Jonathan Harris

Since moving to Roanoke, Virginia, 20 years ago, I have come to enjoy hiking the lovely mountains in the area. I enjoy walking the Appalachian Trail in particular, which is just 20 minutes from my house. Exploring, hiking, and backpacking the mountains and ridgelines of the Appalachian chain has impacted my life significantly. To borrow the phrase of another hiker, it has been for me the “ultimate mid-life crisis!”

The Psalms have always captured my attention, but recently they have shaped my prayer life in a new way — especially Psalms 120–134, each of which bears the title “A Song of Ascents.” They are short in length and are understood to have been used by ancient Israelites who went to Jerusalem for annual festival celebrations and who would ascend the mountainous north/south spine of ancient Palestine in order to reach Jerusalem, which sat on top. These short psalms lend themselves well to memorization, reference matters of the daily lives of the ordinary people who made up most of the pilgrim population, and, not surprisingly, often refer to Jerusalem.

On particularly long days of hiking, I end up with a lot of time on my hands and a good bit of monotony between the beautiful vistas. As a result, I’ve found it helpful to have something to occupy my mind as I journey the many miles. At such times, I reach for one of these psalms of ascent to focus on — particularly Psalm 121. Reciting Psalm 121, I can easily recognize it as a psalm of ascent, with phrases such as “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” “He will not let your foot be moved,” and “the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night” (NRSVUE).

Another time that I often recite a psalm of ascent is during the first couple hours of an early morning hike. I’ve developed the habit of keeping my earbuds packed away, not listening to music or an audiobook but embracing the quiet of a new day. I often recite Psalm 130 — one of my dad’s favorites — which begins, “Out of the depths I cry to you,” and has as its central refrain, “My soul waits for the LORD, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning” (NRSVUE). It is poignant to repeat this psalm as the sun rises and the light hits the trees.

As I’ve incorporated this practice of reciting psalms into my hiking, it has become a deepening form of prayer. I’ve been struck by how these psalms seem to function for me in a way remarkably similar to what I imagine they did for the Israelites on their pilgrimage. I can memorize them in short order and take them up the mountain with me. They speak to what I am experiencing in the moment, and they help me to stay focused on why I am out there in the first place.

Activity for Deeper Reflection

Time spent observing creation — whether it’s a few moments gazing out a window, a stroll around the block, or a long hike — can be deeply refreshing. Take some time in nature today and use one of the psalms of ascent or another passage of scripture to deepen your relationship with God.

— Jonathan Harris is an Episcopal priest and serves as canon to the Bishop of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia.

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