Psalm 121 was the first psalm I read, in my grandmother’s King James version of the Bible. I sat on the prickly carpet by the bookcase in my parents’ bedroom, turning the thin pages with care. I had opened the delicate book, its leather cover cracked with age, to these words: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”
Much later, I would learn that this psalm is the second of the poems known as Psalms of Ascent, numbered 120 through 134—likely the words that pilgrims sang as they traveled up to Jerusalem on Mt. Zion.
The Illinois prairie where I grew up on was flat and abounded in corn, soybeans and corn. When I was nearly six, our family had taken a long car trip to Alberta, where my Canadian mother and her siblings had grown up, and to British Columbia, where one of my aunts lived. We traveled through flat corn and wheat fields to the Black Hills and on to the West. For the first time, I saw mountains, and for the first time, I fell in love — or perhaps “in awe” would be more accurate — as we passed though the U.S. Rockies and into Canada and the Canadian Rockies. When I first read Psalm 121, I was seven and that journey through the mountains was still fresh in my mind.
The idea that help might come from the hills seemed very possible. They seemed closer to God — more like heavenly beings than features of geography. Later translations of the Bible have made the statement into a question: “…from where is my help to come?” However, it made sense to me to state that help comes from mountains and later readings of the psalms confirmed that sense. Another says, “I call aloud upon the Lord, and he answers me from his holy hill.” (Psalm 3, verse 4) In my studies for the priesthood, I learned that “Lord God Almighty” is a paraphrase of the Hebrew words “El Shaddai,” which means literally, “God of the Mountains.”
The Hebrew scriptures are full of references to mountains: Noah’s ark comes to safety on Mount Ararat; Moses goes to the mountains to speak with God and receives the Law there; Jerusalem, the Holy City, is built on Mt. Zion. Not long after Jesus begins his ministry, surrounded by great crowds of people, he goes up a mountain to a more secluded place, where his disciples come to hear what he has to say to them about living lives fully connected with the Divine and fully respectful of God and one another. This unworldly wisdom, known as the Sermon on the Mount, is found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters five through seven.
It has become a tradition that each year, after the intensity of preparation and devotion that leads through Holy Week to Easter, my husband and I go away to the mountains to spend some very quiet time. The computer stays at home. We bring books, writing materials, oil pastels for drawings, a staff for walking (“mature” ankles and knees need some assistance in the mountains) and some music and a CD player. We find a quiet little cabin or lodge in the Potomac Highlands somewhere, and for three days all we do is wonder at, and wander in, the marvelous heights, now gentled by time and wind and rain and ice and sun and flowing water, of the Appalachian mountains.
Once these mountains were high as the Rockies are today; they were formed by vast upheavals during the Ordovician period, 480 million years ago. Now, the awe these mountains inspire comes, not from their great heights, but from the sense that they were there long ago when the world was a very different place, when fish and invertebrates filled the oceans, and there was little animal life on the land. To stand at the top of Spruce Knob, the tallest mountain in West Virginia, or Bickle Knob, at 4,008 feet only 800 feet lower in elevation, allows some perspective. To see Route 33 from that height, with the cars moving along like ants, gives one a different, detached view of humans and all their various busy purposes. To find a rock with an ancient fossil is to see the vast range of creation.
In the mountains, we sit quietly and absorb the sorrows and joys of Holy Week and Easter. We look closely at plants, trees, rocks, water and sky. We follow unfamiliar paths and look at the world from a different point of view. At bedtime, as we pray the daily office of Compline, the prayers to “complete” the day, we say, in the words of Psalm 31, “Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you are my crag, and my stronghold; for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.” We soak up the quiet peace and we return to our busy lives, refreshed.
—The Rev. Georgia DuBose is the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Harpers Ferry.