Skip to main content
31st March 2020 The Reverend Andrew Allen, Exeter College Chaplain

Reflections from the Chaplain: I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills

Thinking about how I might provide the Exeter College community with spiritual support, in my role as chaplain, has proven difficult during the COVID-19 crisis. I propose to offer some reflections along with a piece of music from our choir. Here is my fourth piece, along with a recording, which you can listen to by clicking on the play icon below. If you would like to receive more reflections by email please let me know by emailing me at


I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills

The last couple of days seems to have dragged, and I’ve felt a bit despondent. On the one hand there’s no real reason for this; indeed there are some benefits to this imposed lock down. I get to live with my partner in our home; our village is very pretty, peaceful, and it’s good to slow down. Yet there’s a growing sense of uncertainty, as death rates rise, as more convention centres and halls are turned into makeshift hospitals, as clergy are asked to step in and take some of the many anticipated funerals. Social media and speaking on the telephone are good ways of staying in touch, and I, like many of my colleagues, am beginning to become an expert on Microsoft Teams, but still there is a slight sense of being trapped; of dwelling just within myself. From some of the correspondence I’ve had, it seems that this is not an uncommon feeling at the moment, and one which is completely to be expected. Although Germany doesn’t have the same lock down as the UK, there are huge limitations on what we can do, where we can go, not to mention the limitation of the amount of control we currently have over our lives.

So I thought that for this reflection I’d transport you from the seclusion of your room or home to the heights and wildernesses of the mountains. Where do you imagine? A wind-swept Scottish mountain with mile upon mile of heather; the wind blowing around you as you trudge along a brook, exhilarated by the freshness of the weather; or a mountain in central Europe; crags of rock bursting through forests of beech and fir trees; the scent of recently reintroduced wolves in the air. Or perhaps your imagination of a mountain has fewer trees – in a climate where only scrub and low-lying plants can survive: populated instead by rocks and stones, pulsating heat during the day and shimmering as the sun sets.

From a distance, mountains can seem imposing, secure, protective; yet there are many risks associated with them. Not only the wild wolves, as in the mountains near me in Germany, but other predators, or sudden ravines, surfaces, only experienced climbers with ropes and harnesses, all of these can seem unsafe and challenging. But that sense of adventure, of uncertainty can be exhilarating, it can help us to thrive, can help us understand life in the more mundane moments.

In 1566 Sir Wiliam Petre, Secretary of State to Elizabeth I, endowed Exeter with a significant amount of money. This money was used to create new fellowships and thus extend the College. Petre was a shrewd and wise man: he managed to keep both his head and his wealth during one of England’s most turbulent periods. This is all the more noteworthy as he remained a Roman Catholic through this period of huge religious turmoil. One of the consequences of Petre’s donation were new statutes, replacing Walter de Stapeldon’s Statutes of 1314, and which regulated the expanded and revivified activities of the College. He played a significant role in their drafting, and in them included the rule that every member of College, upon awaking in the morning should recite Psalm 121. This was to happen sometime around 5am, as, perhaps optimistically, he anticipated that lessons in logic would start at 6am. Whether or not this statute was obeyed to the letter is not important, but it associated Psalm 121 with the College.

As Chaplain I am grateful for this psalm – there are many, many sermons to be garnered from it. The Psalter contains the 150 Psalms traditionally attributed to King David, but, in reality were written and collected over several centuries. The psalms are poems; they celebrate the joys of life, and give voice to the darkness of despair in equally elegant and important ways. Every evening at Evensong the choir sings one or more of them, and below is the translation and version of Psalm 121 most often used in the College, from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,
from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh even from the Lord,
who hath made heaven and earth.
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved;
and he that keepeth thee will not sleep.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel
shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord himself is thy keeper,
the Lord is thy defence upon thy right hand;
So that the sun shall not burn thee by day,
neither the moon by night.
The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil
yea, it is even he that shall keep thy soul.
The Lord preserve thy going out, and thy coming in
from this time forth for evermore.

Psalm 121 has its origins in Hebrew liturgy: the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is on the top of a hill, and Psalm 122, sung once in Jerusalem starts ‘I was glad’, glad that the high hill had been ascended! Biblical Hebrew has no question mark, and the first two lines can be seen as a question, suggesting looking upwards to seek help and guidance, so that the question is ‘from whence cometh my help?’

At times of danger and uncertainly; at times of unrest, despondency it is worth asking ‘where does my help come?’ For each of us that will have a different answer, and some sources of help will only be effective in certain circumstances. But in days of lock down, I think it’s important to think about what sustains us and helps out outside of our own being. So, where does your help come from? Is it from friends, family? Or work, hobbies? Booze?

The psalmist makes it clear that help comes from God; and these assertions can be made because God, in the psalmist’s view, is the maker of heaven and earth. God neither slumbers nor sleeps, and God is our keeper and defender, protecting from the sun and moon – whose rays were thought to make people mad (hence lunacy from the Latin for moon, lunar).

But putting trust in God isn’t like some kind of safety blanket that will give you a good life: horrid things do happen to all. In addressing this, Martin Luther once preached that ‘now and again it may appear that God has forgotten us: that when life is difficult we’ve been abandoned.’ But, the great reformer preaches ‘we should remain steadfast in faith and await God’s help and protection. Because even though it appears that God is sleeping or snoring…this is certainly not so, despite the way we feel and think. He is surely awake and watching over us…Eventually we’ll learn that.’

Of course, not everyone reading this can, or wants to trust in God, and equally, trusting in God is not an easy solution to this situation. But, for me, trusting in God helps me, because, apart from anything else, it gives context to my problems and situations; for me God is timeless, eternal, ever present. That my worries and problems can be seen in this context is reassuring. It’s also comforting to know, in the light of an eternal and timeless God, that God takes seriously my concerns; this is what we commemorate and celebrate in Passiontide and Easter – the love that God has for humanity – that goes beyond death and is sealed by the resurrection. And, there is a sense of companionship for me, that even when I’ve felt utterly alone and rejected, that God has been a constant in my life. It is this sense of companionship that appeals to me in a modern, and free interpretation of Psalm 121 by Jim Cotter, a priest-poet who died in 2014 (and which is printed below).

Unsurprisingly, today’s music (available to listen to towards the top of this web page) is a setting of Psalm 121 sung by the Choir. It was commissioned in 2009 by the College to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the dedication of our current chapel, and is by the composer Jonathan Dove. As you listen to it, perhaps you might want to read Cotter’s interpretation of the psalm, and ponder for yourself the question ‘from where does my help come?’

I look towards the mountain ranges,
and fear their lurking terrors.
The pilgrim path takes me through them,
by rocks and ravines, ambush and vultures.

Stormy winds swirl round the summits,
avalanches threaten across trackless screes.
The hills themselves give no courage or strength,
and I turn once again to my God.

Companion on my journey, protector at my side.
I venture on the way in simple, childlike trust.

The God who draws me is urging me on,
and discovering my faltering Yes.
I stumble along the rough pathways,
surprised by a hand that is grasping my own.

To and fro, back and forth,
on the twists of the journey,
courage moves me onwards,
faith trusts in the future:
wisdom makes me pause.
I rest by the stream;
taking time to delve deep,
I listen for a voice.

I reach for the unknown mountain,
to the summit where God speaks anew,
on the boundary of earth and heaven,
the frontier of time and eternity,
the place of special revealing,
marked by the stones of a cairn.
As I ponder the codes of my dreaming
I am surprised by the mystery of God.

Companion on my journey, protector at my side.
I venture on the way in simple, childlike trust.

The hills themselves slowly change,
never as firm as they seem;
shrouded, brooding, and dark,
their rocks splintered by frost,
worn away by the lashing of storms,
no strength in themselves to support me,
only from God comes my help.

Companion on my journey, protector at my side.
I venture on the way in simple, childlike trust.

Keep watch, do not slumber, guardian of your people,
shade from heat, healer and guide.
Nourish the life of my truest self,
from this moment on and for ever.

Exonians no longer are obligated to say Psalm 121 every morning, but, every service in the chapel ends with an extract from the end of the psalm, and these words are my prayer for us all at this time:

The Lord preserve your going out and your coming in:
From this time forth, forever more. Amen.

Reverend Andrew Allen 30.iii.20

Share this article