“Levavi oculos” were the first two words on the mural on a wall beside the road that ascended to the town of Malvern. The range of hills above the town are a dramatic intrusion into the landscape of undulating lowland beside the River Severn.
“I lift my eyes to the hills,” I knew the words from the Book of Common Prayer. In the Church of Ireland edition of the Psalter each psalm had its title in Latin: “Levavi oculos” was the title for Psalm 121. The English of Myles Coverdale caused confusion to many who read the psalm, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help,” was a question not a statement, it is “whence” not “thence”. The answer to the question is in the next line, “My help cometh even from the Lord.”
Yet it would not be hard to imagine the dramatic line of hills as a place from which a deity might descend, a deity captured in Latin and Tudor English.
Latin would have been a useful subject to have learned, not just to read murals on walls, or the inscriptions on memorials. Talking to an Italian student at school, whose English is as fluent as his native language and who is proficient in French and Spanish, I asked him if he would have liked to have studied Latin, “Of course, sir, it is the basis for most European languages.”
Latin, for me, would have been like having the lid of the jigsaw puzzle box, it would mean seeing a big picture, being able to put the pieces together.
The nearest I came to studying the classical languages was the New Testament Greek I learned when studying theology. A classics graduate was quick to point out to me that the Koine Greek of the First Century was different from the Greek of classical times.
Nevertheless, the words learned during the study of the New Testament in the 1980s have allowed the recognition of etymologies and allowed the connection of meanings. Teaching Year 7 students, who have a greater tolerance for the occasionally tangential teaching of their religious education teacher than the older cohorts, there is opportunity to point out such things as the meaning of a- as a prefix of atheist and agnostic and amoral.
How much more joining of the dots there might have been if Latin had been part of the syllabus, how many more things might have become apparent.