The Courage of the Pilgrim
Responsorial Psalm for Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016
By Glen Argan
The psalmist is nervous: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will come my help?” (Psalm 121.1)
Just over a year ago, my wife Nora and I walked through the French Pyrenees, the first stage of a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The weather was glorious as was the scenery. Cowbells clanged, and donkeys, sheep and chickens made their homes in the farmyards that ran high up into the mountains.
Danger from robbers or from other threats was the least of our concerns. We relished the pastoral peace that was the foremost quality of this stage of our journey.
Psalm 121 is classified as a psalm of ascent, a psalm of the journey to Mount Zion. Psalms of pilgrimage is, to my mind, a better term for this collection in the Book of Psalms.
Pilgrimages in those days were journeys for the courageous, ones willing to risk danger to make their way to Jerusalem to praise the Lord on his holy hill. The author of Psalm 121 does not deny the danger, but he has trust that all will work out well: “My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”
Six times in this brief eight-verse psalm, the psalmist uses some variant of the word “keep:” “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.” The trust is profound.
Psalm 121 complements the other readings this Sunday, which focus on perseverance in prayer. Jesus tells a parable of a widow who hounds an unrighteous judge (Luke 18.1-8) saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” The judge finally relents because of her pestering.
Concludes Jesus: “Will God not grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” God is to be trusted. He will respond positively to those who call to him.
However, experience makes clear that this is not always the case. One can pray tirelessly for months, years even, for a loved one suffering from cancer, and still one’s beloved dies.
Here we run up against a great mystery. Prayer is not like a vending machine where you drop in a dollar or two and get a drink in return. Prayer opens up a covenant relationship; it is not akin to the signing of a contract.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2737) quotes the counsel of Evagrius Ponticus: “Do not be troubled if you do not immediately receive from God what you ask him; for he desires to do something even greater for you, while you cling to him in prayer.”
At the time of sorrow, little consolation comes from such words. Yet, God’s apparent rebuff of one’s prayer calls for even deeper trust. Do not abandon God when he does not give you what you want. Remember the psalmist who walked through dangerous wilderness, courageously trusting the Lord when he easily could have succumbed to fear.
[Other readings: Exodus 17.8-13; 2 Timothy 3.14—4.2]