It is the image of the steps in Canterbury Cathedral that still resonates with me – a tutorial in faithfulness from my pilgrimage to England several years ago. Canterbury Cathedral of course is incomparable. The soaring architecture. The incredible carvings at the hands of master craftsmen. The small altar marking the spot on the floor where Thomas Becket was murdered.
But it was the steps – the ordinary cement steps leading from the main-floor nave down to the undercroft – that forced me to my knees. Perceptibly worn down and indented at the center, the steps gave evidence of the thousands of feet that had trod that way: Those who relentlessly guarded the faith. Those for whom God’s law was above man’s law. Kings and saints and poets and ordinary people carrying the faith.
In his book that captures that same sense of faithful journey – A Long Obedience in the Same Direction – Eugene Peterson examines 15 particular psalms the Hebrews sang as they made their way to Jerusalem for the great worship festivals. They are known as the Psalms of Ascent, psalms 120 through 134.
Jerusalem was topographically the highest city in Palestine, so the journey was literally uphill. But the history of the Hebrew people also had been a pilgrimage, frequently uphill metaphorically. Beginning with the call of Abraham out of the land of Ur to travel to a place unknown, the Israelites knew the pilgrimage way. “The Hebrews,” writes Peterson, “were a people whose salvation had been accomplished in the exodus, whose identity had been defined at Sinai, and whose preservation had been assured in the 40 years of wilderness wandering.”
Peterson says, “They refreshed their memories of God’s saving ways at the Feast of the Passover in the spring; they renewed their commitments as God’s covenanted people at the Feast of Pentecost in early summer; they responded as a blessed community to the best that God had for them at the Feast of Tabernacles in the autumn.”
It could be said that a pilgrim is one who acknowledges and accepts that the spiritual life is a journey. One never arrives but is always moving forward, always deepening the relationship with God, and sometimes running into hostile territory. The psalms remind us that even when the path is thorny, our God walks with us and protects us.
One way to read Psalms 120 through 134 is as a guidebook for the journey. The psalms call the faithful to worship, extol the virtues of community, and warn against the barrenness of worldy ways. They remind believers that the call to follow God is a call to servanthood – both servanthood to God and to one’s neighbors. They lean on the covenant God made with his people and assure God’s forgiveness. They offer comfort as one is comforted by a caring parent. They are laments and history and praise.
Most of the 15 psalms are short and pithy, reminiscent of the wisdom of Proverbs. They invite us to add our own voices, to sing the melody of our journey. They are not monuments, said William Faulkner, but footprints. And footprints, says Peterson, show us where we were when we began to move again. They tell the journey my heart acknowledged in the worn steps of Canterbury Cathedral.
Read the 15 Psalms of Ascent, slowly and prayerfully, appropriating what seems right for your journey.
For an introduction to the psalms with previous posts and a bibliography, click here.
Marjorie George serves the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas as a consultant in Adult Christian Formation. Reach her at email@example.com. Or leave a comment below.