The grandmother of a friend and parishioner died the other day. This woman liked to say that she was “old and old,” and then laugh in her hoarse, throaty way. She had followed her family to North Carolina from Florida, a move she appreciated because “Florida got to be too much Florida!” More laughter.
As a child, she had lived in the mountains of northern Nevada. On Easter morning, her family would rise before dawn and hike to a little chapel on top of a ridge. I tried to imagine this experience. Awakened by a gentle yet firm shake. Dressing in the dark. A lantern, or maybe the bright moon, guiding the path ahead. Legs growing tired and breath short as the climb became steeper. Pressing on with the awareness that the clock was ticking. And just making the summit as the sun crested the mountain range, the first pinks and oranges heralding the resurrection to new life.
As her health declined over the past several months, she returned to this childhood memory again and again. After sharing the story, she would get a faraway look in her eye and recite from memory: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills.”
This verse is from Psalm 121, which is part of a collection in the Psalter known as the Songs of Ascent. Many scholars posit that these hymns were sung by pilgrims walking up to the Temple in Jerusalem. Christians, including monastic orders, have chanted the same Psalms to symbolize the spiritual ascent to heaven. I’m grateful for these old, old Scriptures. Thanks to my friend, I now understand them with new vision.
As she journeyed from this life, this woman taught me how these psalms are meaningfully paired with the more famous Psalm 23. Health declines into the valley of shadows, yet hope rises in our spirits for the new dawn. We look to the hills. We hope in the One to whom we belong in life and death.
“From whence cometh my help,” she would say. Then, look expectantly at me.
“Our help comes from the Lord,” I reply, “Maker of heaven and earth.”