Merton on the Psalms of Pilgrimage

Many years ago, my wife picked up the small volume Praying the Psalms by Thomas Merton. In it, he singles out Psalms 120 through 134, used for Israelite pilgrimages to Jerusalem, as worthy of a “special love.”

Perhaps these short, joyful songs are the most beautiful in the whole Psalter. They are full of light and confidence. They bring God very close to us. They open our hearts to the secret action of his peace and to his silent grace. St Augustine calls them the Psalms of our journey to the heavenly Jerusalem.

Merton then singles out the psalm from the past two Sundays of our Lectionary.

When I was in eighth grade, I made my third attempt to read the Bible cover to cover. After the cool stories of Genesis and the Exodus from Egypt, I remember plodding through many long sections of law and history that year. After Job, what a joy it was to arrive at the next stage of my pilgrimage–the Psalms. And then I hit that 176-verse manifesto meditation on God’s law. Shades of Leviticus and Numbers! Like Merton, I found the psalms that followed to be “light.” And short, too.

I’m spending the first half of Advent with the letter to the Colossians as my source of Lectio. Thanks to my Advent spiritual director, I think I’ve found my source of Lectio for the second half of my December pilgrimage. My own favorite is this one:

I raise my eyes toward the mountains. From where will my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.
God will not allow your foot to slip; your guardian does not sleep.
Truly, the guardian of Israel never slumbers nor sleeps.
The LORD is your guardian; the LORD is your shade at your righthand.
By day the sun cannot harm you, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will guard you from all evil, will always guard your life.
The LORD will guard your coming and going both now and forever.

As a pastoral musician, I’m drawn first to the liturgical psalms of the season, 25 and 85. Then there are the secondary psalms 80, 24, and the canticles of Mary and Zechariah and Isaiah 12. But as a body, perhaps no set of psalms is more fitting for the Advent journey than these pilgrimage/gradual psalms. Within these short offerings, we find a wide expanse of reflections: our reliance on God, the need for a penitential spirit, the human longing for God, and praying at all times of day and in all circumstances. And especially that confidence of which Merton speaks.

Our approach to Advent should be informed by the reality of Christ’s first coming, and the mission with which we have been charged because of that. Jesus came once. We should be emboldened with the thought of his coming again. And within the human experience, we sing so many different songs. All point to God. All orient us to the most important journey we make. And in this Advent pilgrimage, we need the very best of orientations.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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