Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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Icing on the Rock of Life


icing rockOn a recent hike my friend and I found a rock that reminded me of a cake—a deep rich cake slathered in a contrasting layer of white icing. Thinking about that now, I have to laugh a bit at myself—still seeing sugar in so many places! But another truth is that it’s a fitting image of our lives sometimes—a fluffy, sugar-coated surface hiding something rich and dark underneath…and in the case of the rock, quite hard.

We all hide certain parts of ourselves beneath a contrasting exterior. “Tough boys” can hide vulnerability, bubbly personalities can hide deep loneliness, and any of us can hide parts of ourselves that we believe won’t be acceptable in certain situations. We slather on that icing, nice and thick, so that people won’t see what we think of as “the hard stuff” that lies underneath.

We also experience rock-hard times in our lives. Dreams short-circuit in the face of reality. We make mistakes which have painful consequences. People move away, or move on, or die “on us.” We might be tempted to pile on the sugar coating, “make the best of things,” but the fact remains that life is full of suffering as well as joy—and if we did not experience the suffering, we wouldn’t have a context for appreciating the joy and beauty that appear at other times.

I asked my friend to let me take a picture of this rock, in her hands, for this blog. She asked if I wanted to keep the rock, and I told her the picture was enough. At the time I was thinking of all the rocks I have accumulated along my life’s journey, and how quickly I forget the stories behind particular rocks, leaving me with a pile of past rocks that have no present meaning for me. It is the image in the moment, rather than something enduring, which tends to be the best teacher for me.

Which might be why God keeps putting rocks in my path—so that I can keep learning.

Are there images, metaphors, or items (like rocks) that repeatedly appear on your own life’s journey? Do you remember the life lessons, the images/metaphors/items, or both? If you become still for a few moments now, is there something in particular that comes to mind?


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Beauty in the Miniscule


mullein grasshopper closeupMy friend and I hiked on Boston Hill again a few days ago, and a number of things caught our attention along the way. Some of our discoveries didn’t photograph so well, such as drops of dew shining on the soft leaves of a mullein plant but, in one photo, I was able to capture the tiny face of a grasshopper hiding within the inner leaves of a plant. Judging from the lacy appearance of the leaves on surrounding specimens, this grasshopper, along with its comrades, had been munching on the other mullein plants in the area and was now going to start in on this one.

What I had not expected, until I downloaded the images at home and saw them full-screen, was the unique beauty in each mullein leaf. I found myself thinking of Velcro or fleece as I observed the texture of these mullein leaves close up. In fact, with their coating of damp dew, they felt more like a very soft towel when I touched one during our hike. They also appear fairly weighty in this photograph, yet in person they felt light as the proverbial feather, and while they look almost white in this close-up, they are in fact a lovely pale green which stood out strongly against their red-rock surroundings.photo 1(8)

When did you last take time to really observe something you came across, with more than one of your senses? So often we see something—and keep right on going. Yet every bit of God’s creation, all around us, is full of wonder if we will only take the time to really slow down and investigate. I encourage you to do that this week. Take time to get to know some small thing at a new level.

And then, take time to give thanks to our Creator for the incredible and innumerable gifts we have been given!


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Fungi in the Desert


photo(7)There has been so much rain here in the desert over the past few weeks that my garden mulch (and occasionally my garden itself) is growing mushrooms. While that’s not so surprising, what did surprise me the other morning was finding fungi growing out of the top of a dead yucca!photo(8) I guess it goes to show that anything is possible—under the right conditions.

Of course, we can influence those conditions to some extent. By paying attention to the conditions that make for fungi growth (steady moisture, indirect light, undisturbed soil), I could choose to replicate those conditions (as people do in their basements) and grow even more mushrooms. Or I can let nature take its course and know that these mushrooms will wilt and fade away…or disintegrate?…as the clear, sunny days of fall eventually arrive.

The same is true of our spiritual life. We can cultivate the conditions for growth, for openness to the work of the Spirit in our lives. We can till the soil of our hearts with various spiritual exercises, add compost by taking the time to reflect upon and learn the lessons of our experiences, and plant the seeds for future growth by absorbing scripture and spiritual books, videos, blogs, movies, tweets, etc.

And so I ask you: what are the conditions of your heart? Is it well-tilled, well-composted, fertile soil for the growth of love and compassion, or has it been largely ignored, compacted by the tromp of overactive feet along the pathways of your days?

What would need to happen to make your heart fertile ground for the work of the Spirit?


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Another Face in the Wood


Another thing that caught my attention during our time in California was the number of blackened and scarred trees. We see on television the powerful pictures of fire tearing through the drought-ridden California hillsides, but once the fires are over, they tend to fade from consciousness—at least for those of us in the rest of the country.

DSC_1088However, every time I drive through the Black Range in southern New Mexico, I am reminded of our own Silver Fire, 15 months ago, which left behind many similarly blackened and scarred trees. I usually don’t stop to take pictures, but last fall I did take a few, including this one at Emory Pass.

What caught my attention in California was a huge skeleton of a tree with a hollow center, big enough for me to stand inside if I had wanted to thoroughly blacken my clothing. Thriving nearby trees show that it’s clearly been a few years since this fire, but the occasional remnant remains, and once again (as during my retreat in April) I saw a face in the wood.

DSC_6393It’s rather animistic, and some would say unchristian, to say that I’ve found myself wondering whether these faces represent some element of the spirit of the tree…but I have thought about it. Is there any reason why God would not give a portion of the divine Spirit to other living beings besides humans? Certainly many Americans are convinced that their pets are possessed of a spirit as well as intelligence. Why would God not bless all creation equally, since Genesis tells us that God saw all creation as equally good?

When I look at the face at the top of this gnarled, scarred trunk, I sense a spirit crying out in anguish at the lick of flames and the heat of fire. It reminds me of the cries that I also imagine are emanating from Mother Earth as we continue to abuse her to feed our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels, dig deep for precious stones and metals, and carelessly discard trash wherever we please. Surely this is not what God meant in Genesis 2:15 by “cultivate and care for it.”

Where in your own life to you see God’s creation crying out? What are you being called to do in response? What is your prayer for “this fragile earth, our island home”?


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Living Together


DSC_5567While in San Diego, Henry and I spent an enjoyable morning photographing the wildlife in Point Loma. This image in particular has stuck with me—how these two very different creatures are able to coexist on the same stretch of rocks. In fact, entire communities of seals and cormorants, along with pelicans and seagulls, clearly return to the same rocks, day after day (the smell will tell you that if nothing else does!).

But they appear to do more than coexist; it might be my imagination, but I can easily see these two engaged in a conversation of sorts. Perhaps they do not understand each other’s language, but at some level there is acknowledgment and acceptance of the other. They have some major things in common after all; both fish for their food, and bask in the sun to warm up and dry off once their bellies are full.

We humans also have some important things in common, but in the rush to the top (whatever that might mean for each of us) we tend to forget how much we share. There are species-level urges, such as the need for food and shelter, to reproduce, and to raise our children to adulthood. There are social norms which we hold in common, ranging from the rules of the road to our intricate economic exchanges. There are also those ways of being together that each family and social group has created to help build cohesiveness, including the types of food we cook and the sports teams we follow.

And then there is our faith—an element that sometimes brings us together, but at other times tears us apart. Like our very basic needs for food and shelter, we need the divine—at a deep, primal level which appears to be coded into our very DNA. While our individual expressions of that desire for the divine often vary widely—and at their worst, come in overt conflict with each other—we all hold that desire in common, and when we can live together, different though we may be, our world is a fuller, richer place.

Where in your life are you called to live together with those who are different from you—humans and other creatures? How can you more intentionally seek for what we all hold in common, rather than those things which tear us apart? What does it mean for you, like the seals and cormorants, to truly share common ground—common rocks—with those who are different?


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Trips and Typos


photo 2(7)An editor may go on vacation, but her brain never does. This past week Henry and I enjoyed some time away, in San Diego and its environs. In a small town in southern California I came across this sign, and couldn’t help noticing that the adjacent parking lot must belong to a famished group of Christians!

Henry suggested that perhaps the misspelling was intentional, and went along with their plea for parking payments to offset their debt. But I doubt that is the case, and imagine that the sign printer just didn’t know about the country called Hungary on the other side of the world, or the Saint Elizabeth whose nationality has become part of her name.

Regardless of the intentionality, the typo caught my attention and tickled my funny bone. It also got me thinking about the fact that we Christians are generally a hungry bunch. For many branches of Christianity, a meal—even if symbolic in nature—is a major element in our weekly worship services. We also tend to have gatherings for fellowship and food after the liturgy, and gather at other times during the week for Bible study, discussion—and more food.

But it is our spiritual need that is at the root of so much of our hunger. We hunger for love in a world that cheapens the meaning of love (see my blog last week for more on that topic). We hunger for meaning in a nation that substitutes activity and achievement for purpose and progress. We hunger to connect with each other in a culture that idolizes individualism at the expense of community and the environment.

In light of all this hunger, I find myself wanting to take advantage of this typo, and add “St. Elizabeth of the Hungry” to the saintly lexicon—that spiritual support network which is the Communion of Saints.

And so today I ask you: for what do you hunger, spiritually? What might this new St. Elizabeth, patroness of the hungry Christian, have to say to you, at this time in your life?


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Never Stop Loving


stop signI came across this altered stop sign a few days ago and it definitely spoke to where I was at that moment. I’d had a rough few days, and allowed some hurtful emails to get to me, such that I responded with anger instead of taking time to step back and let go of my initial reactions. I’m human. We all have our breaking points; this week I found some more. And then I came across this sign.

So much of our culture has cheapened the concept of love, making it into an easy, everyday phrase, as in “I love ice cream” or “Don’t you just love that dress?” True love—what Christians call agape—is a different story altogether, at least the way I’ve been taught to understand it from a spiritual perspective. This love is not about really liking something, or someone. It’s not infatuation, either; I think infatuation is a genetic disposition toward attachment to another for procreation and the survival of the species. It can lead to love, but it is not the same thing.

To my mind, true love is the ability to recognize the innate goodness in another person, despite their imperfections, shortcomings, and breaking points. It’s the willingness to look beyond what we like, or don’t like, about another person, and find the spark of the Spirit which dwells within them. We all have that spark; we all have particular gifts and graces which make us unique, make us valuable, indeed make us irreplaceable in the grand, Divine scheme of things.

Later that same day, as I was editing, I came across this phrase from St. Teresa of Avila: “think less and love more.” It was another good invitation for me, as I have been pondering how to step back, let go of initial reactions, and make healthy choices about how to love people who send hateful emails. I need to get out of my head and into my heart in order to find the path to loving people whom, in the heat of the moment, I struggle to like or understand.

Where in your life do you need to embrace the message to Never Stop Loving? In what situations do you need to think less and love more?

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