We continue our journey in the morning prayer psalms of the Liturgy of the Hours. We have just heard Psalm 84, which Jewish tradition attributes to the “Korahites,” a priestly family that looked after the liturgical services and guarded the threshold to the tent of the Ark of the Covenant (see 1 Chronicles 9:19).
This is a very charming psalm permeated with a mystical longing for the God of life, who is repeatedly exalted (see Psalm 84: 2-4, 9, 13) with the TITLE of “Lord of hosts” — the Lord of the heavenly hosts and therefore the Lord of the universe. Moreover, this TITLE was specially connected with the ark that was kept in the Temple, which was called “the ark of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned upon the cherubim” (1 Samuel 4:4; see Psalm 80:2). In fact, it was considered to be a sign of God's protection during times of danger and war (see 1 Samuel 4:3-5; 2 Samuel 11:11).
The background for the entire psalm is the Temple to which the faithful are making a pilgrimage. It seems to be autumn because the psalm speaks about the “early rain” that soothes the scorching heat of summer (see Psalm 84:7). For this reason, it might be referring to a pilgrimage to Zion for the third main feast of the Jewish year — the Feast of Tabernacles — that commemorates Israel's wanderings in the desert.
Our Spiritual Happiness
Let us walk, therefore, even when we are in the ‘valley of tears,’ keeping our eyes fixed on that shining goal of peace and communion.
The Temple, which is the special attraction, is present at the beginning and at the end of the psalm. In the opening verses (verses 2-4), we find the wonderful yet delicate image of some birds that have had the enviable privilege of building their nests in the sanctuary. This image portrays the happiness of all those — like the priests at the Temple — who permanently reside in the house of God, enjoying its intimacy and peace. In fact, the believer's entire being stretches out toward the Lord, driven by an almost physical and instinctive desire: “My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the Lord, my heart and flesh cry out for the living God” (verse 3). The Temple appears again at the end of the psalm (see verses 11-13). The pilgrim expresses his great happiness at spending some time in the courts of the house of his God and contrasts this spiritual happiness with the delusion of idols that drives people to the “tents of the wicked,” namely those infamous temples of injustice and perversion.
There is light, life and joy only in the sanctuary of the living God, and “happy are those who trust” in the Lord and choose the path of righteousness (see verses 12-13). The image of a journey brings us to the heart of the psalm (see verses 5-9), where another more significant pilgrimage is taking place. If those who reside permanently in the Temple are happy, those who decide to make a journey of faith to Jerusalem are even happier.
A Mystical Ascent
In their commentaries on Psalm 84, the Fathers of the Church also attached particular importance to verse 6: “Happy are those who find refuge in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrim roads.” Ancient translations of the Psalms speak about this decision to make the “ascent” to the Holy City. Therefore, the pilgrimage to Zion was for the Fathers of the Church a symbol of the just man's continuous progress toward the “eternal dwelling,” where God welcomes his friends full of joy (see Luke 16:9). Let us reflect for a moment on this mystical “ascent,” for which earthly pilgrimages are an image and a sign. We will do so through the words of a Christian writer from the seventh century who was an abbot at the monastery in Sinai.
He is John Climacus, who wrote an entire treatise — The Ladder of Divine Ascent — in order to illustrate the many steps in the spiritual life. At the end of his work, he lets love itself speak, which is placed at the top of the ladder of spiritual progress. It is love that invites and exhorts us by expounding on the feelings and attitudes of which we have already found hints in our psalm:
“Climb up, brothers, ascend. Cultivate, brothers, in your hearts a burning desire to always climb upward (see Psalm 84:6). Heed Scripture's invitation: ‘Come, let us climb the Lord's mountain, to the house of our God’ (see Isaiah 2:3), who made our feet swift as a deer's and set the heights as our goal, so that by following his ways we will be victorious (see Psalm 18:33). Let us hasten, therefore, as it is written, until we all find the face of God in the unity of faith, and recognizing him, we attain the perfect manhood to the extent of the full stature of Christ (see Ephesians 4:13)” (La Scala del Paradiso, Rome 1989, p. 355).
Trust in the Lord
The psalmist is thinking first of all of the concrete pilgrimage that leads to Zion from various towns in the Holy Land. The rain that is falling seems to be a foretaste of the joyful blessing that will envelop him like a mantle (see Psalm 84:7) when he is before the Lord in the Temple (see verse 8). The exhausting trip through the “Baca valley,” also known as the “valley of tears” (see verse 7), is transfigured by the certainty that the goal is God, the one who gives life (see verse 8), who listens to the cry of the believer (see verse 9) and who is his protective “shield” (see verse 10).
It is in this light that the pilgrimage is concretely transformed — as the Fathers of the Church had understood — into a parable on life itself, which is torn between separation from God and intimacy with God, between mystery and revelation. Even in the desert of daily life, the six days of the working week are made fruitful, enlightened and sanctified by our meeting with God during the seventh day through the liturgy and through prayer.
Let us walk, therefore, even when we are in the “valley of tears,” keeping our eyes fixed on that shining goal of peace and communion. Let us also repeat in our hearts the last beatitude, which is so similar to the antiphon that closes this psalm: “O Lord of hosts, happy are those who trust in you!” (verse 13).