Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Pupil of the Eye

A friend's apple tree in late September

The antiphon for last week's Mass was Psalm 17:
I call on you, my God, for you will answer me;
turn your ear to me and hear my prayer.
... Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings
 In the missal, "apple" was rendered "pupil", and that made me curious.  And indeed, according to this site, that is what the phrase originally referred to: 
This evocative phrase turns up both in the King James Bible: “He kept him as the apple of his eye” (Deuteronomy), and in Shakespeare: “Flower of this purple dye, / Hit with Cupid’s archery, / Sink in apple of his eye”, (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). But it’s older than either of these, almost as old as the language, since the first recorded examples can be found in the works of King Alfred at the end of the ninth century.

At this time, the pupil of the eye was thought to be a solid object and was actually called the apple...
 When I read the antiphon in the missal, I suddenly had an image of a hand flying up to protect one's valuable sight, and of a bird instinctively hiding its precious young under its wing to protect it.   Those are really deeply felt metaphors.   Having heard the Psalm so many times, I tend to take it for granted, just as a child might take it for granted that his mother and father work to provide for him.

But really, it is extraordinary that the Psalmist would be inspired to ask for this level of care.  I'm reading Quo Vadis right now; I don't assume that fiction is reality, but in the book, the Romans offer sacrifices to their gods to get what they are asking for.  There is a kind of cynicism, as if the gods were slightly corrupt officials who could be persuaded to accept a bribe if the price and circumstances were right.

How different it is with the Psalmist's God! 

As Christians two millenia after the Resurrection, we are used to hearing that God loves us, but how touching and unusual for those ancient times, that image of sheltering as one would shelter one's own eyes or one's young: one's vision and one's hope of the future.

A picture Aidan took after Mass


  1. Thank you! That "apple of my eye" phrase has been niggling at me for a long time but I wasn't able to find anything that explained it. Clearly I was looking in the wrong places. A very satisfactory answer, especially the image of a hand flying up to protect one's valuable sight.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!