Quis ascendet in montem Domini / aut quis stabit in loco sancto suo? Innocens manibus et mundo corde / qui non levavit ad vana animam suam, nec iuravit in dolum. Ps 23 : 3-4
Notam fac mihi viam, in qua ambulam/ quia ad te levavi animam meam. Ps 142 : 8
The translation of ‘levavit ad vana animam suam’ I usually read renders it, ‘desires not worthless things’. So I have always thought of this quality—of the one who does not desire them—as a kind of non-distraction by useless stuff: trinkets, frippery, junk. But Psalm 142 puts it in a different light. ‘Ad te [Domini] levavi animam meam’: ‘to you [Lord] I lift up my soul’. If the soul is meant (as of course it is) to be ‘lifted up’ to God, then ‘levavit ad vana animam suam’—[having] lifted up the soul to worthless things—is nothing short of idolatry. It is not simply distraction by shiny trinkets but displacing the proper object of the soul’s desire: God. Then these are not just any worthless things. Whether or not the things mentioned are idols crafted of wood or stone, once the soul has been lifted up to them, they become idols. For that is what idolatry is: putting something else in the place of God. Compared to God, anything we desire is vain, useless. That is, nothing we desire will satisfy our soul. So the psalmist longs for God like a person in a desert yearns for water. Only God can quench that thirst. So the psalmist calls on God when his heart is numb within him. Only God saves all those who are crushed in spirit. To expect things—any things—to heal a broken heart or satisfy a thirsty soul is to try to fill a cracked jar with water: vain.
Idolatry is not a sin because God gets angry at being replaced, as if we are thereby depriving God of some necessary accolades. Idolatry is a sin because it stops us calling on God in the day of trouble, which is our only hope of rescue. And it isn’t only things that appear worthless that can be idols, of course. The most pious-seeming sacrifices can become idols if they are not offered up to God with a humble and grateful heart. All the burnt offerings continually before God (in Psalm 49 ) are worthless compared to ‘a sacrifice of thanksgiving’. God does not need the things we offer up. God lacks nothing: ‘if I were hungry, I would not tell you’ (Psalm 49. 12). No: what God asks is this: ‘Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me’ (v. 15).
All the practices of abstinence, fasting and almsgiving, prayer and penance, can become idols if we do them out of a desire for anything but God. The lack of food on days of fasting is a tiny taste of the ‘day of trouble’—a self-induced lack to train the soul for the real thing: a hunger we have not chosen and cannot satisfy; an emptiness not of our own making.
How will my soul know what to do in the day of trouble? Practice, practice, practice: ad te levavi animam meam, ad te levavi animam meam. In all the small wants that irk me during Lent, let me lift up my soul to the One who alone can satisfy.