Fifteen Psalms (119-133 [120-134]) are each preceded by the title, “A song of steps” [Canticum graduum in Latin]. As Augustine notes below, these are steps people take to go up, and so most modern translations render the title, “A song of ascents.” Scholars disagree as to the meaning of the phrase. An old tradition, familiar to Augustine, was that they were to be sung as pilgrims ascended the fifteen steps of the temple; another claimed that the phrase referred to a gradual raising of the pitch or the volume of the singing; a third suggested that they were sung as pilgrims walked up toward Jerusalem, and it is this interpretation that is most common today. 

Steps are used either to go up or to go down, but as used in these Psalms they mean going up, ascents. As people who are to ascend, then, let’s try to understand them. Let’s not seek ascents we make on foot, but, as is written in another Psalm, “He has decided on ascents in his heart, in the vale of weeping, toward the place he has set” (Ps 83[84]:6-7). He speaks of “ascents”. Where? “In his heart.” From where? “In the valley of weeping.” As for where he is to ascend to, it’s as if human speech fails--it can’t be explained, perhaps it can’t even be thought. You’ve just heard, when the Apostle was being read, “What eye does not see nor ear hear nor does it ascend into the heart of a man” (1 Cor 2:9). “It does not ascend into the heart of a man”: well then, let the heart of a man ascend there. ...

And where? “In the valley of weeping.” A deep valley symbolizes lowliness, a mountain height. And what is this mountain toward which we are ascending if not the Lord Jesus Christ? By suffering he made for you a valley of weeping; by remaining what he was he made himself a mountain to ascend. What is the valley of weeping? “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” What is the valley of weeping? “He offered his cheek to the one who was striking him, he was filled with reproaches” (Lam 3:30). What is the valley of weeping? He was beaten; he was smeared with spit; he was crowned with thorns; he was crucified. This is the valley of weeping from which you must ascend.

And to where are you ascending? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” For that very “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:1, 14). He descended to you that he might remain in himself; he descended to you in order to become a valley of weeping for you. “In the last days,” says Isaiah, “the mountain of the Lord was be made manifest, prepared on the top of the mountains” (Is 2:2). It’s to there we must ascend.

But don’t think of it as something earthly. When you hear “mountain,” don’t think of some high thing; when you hear “stone” or “rock,” don’t take it to mean something hard; when you hear “lion,” don’t think of fierceness; when you hear of “sheep,” don’t think of some beast. He is none of these in himself; but he became all things for you. This is the point from which we must begin our ascent; that is the point to which we have to ascend: from his example to his divinity. He gave you an example by lowering himself....

And so, brothers and sisters, let us sing this Psalm as people who are to ascend in their hearts, because he descended to us so that we might ascend. (EnPs 119[120], 1-2; Pl 37, 1597)

Is Ps 83[84]:6-7 the source of “this vale of tears” in the Salve, Regina? In the Latin that Augustine used, it’s “in convalle plorationis,” but in another Latin version, it’s “in valle lacrimarum,” on which the hymn may draw: “in hac lacrimarum valle.”

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.