Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


Hidden Viriditas

IMG_0949On our hike this past week, my friend and I once again visited Boston Hill. We even took a route we had traversed before—but saw new things this time. One thing that caught my eye was a tiny spot of green in the midst of the rock pictured on the left here. Can you see it?

On the right is a second picture, up close. IMG_0948Hidden within a natural hole in the rock, a pair of tiny green mosses have found a place to thrive in the midst of this desert landscape. I probably would have missed them completely if my eyes had not already been captured by a pair of dynamite or core-sample holes drilled in an adjacent rock.

As it was, I initially wasn’t certain whether I was seeing the green of a growing plant or of a green gemstone, hidden deep within the rock. While the moss is certainly less “valuable” in worldly terms, it’s still a valuable find for me, personally. It led to some ponderings, later that day, on Lent and the nature of the spiritual journey.

Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness after being baptized, and this is the reason there are forty days in Lent. The intention is that this time will be the equivalent of a yearly wilderness sojourn for each of us: a time to reflect upon, and deepen, our relationship with God. Disciplines such as fasting and praying, giving something up or taking something on, are meant to help us focus our awareness in this “wilderness” of our own choosing.

The hope is that each of us will find hidden gems on our Lenten wilderness sojourns. This hidden patch of moss is my gem this week. I’m reminded of the word viriditas, which the medieval abbess and mystic Hildegard of Bingen used to mean vitality, fecundity, lushness, and growth, which were for her the symbols of spiritual and physical health. To have found such a symbol, hidden within the wilderness in my own hometown, is a powerful indicator for me of the importance of the Lenten journey.

Have you found any hidden gems in your own Lenten wilderness? Where is viriditas appearing in your life at this time?

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Lent Becomes Lifestyle

Those of you who have been with me for a while know that I gave up sugar last Lent. This was a huge step for me to take at the time. I knew that I treated sugar the way that others treat alcohol and drugs: I was addicted. Prayer and some nudges from God enabled me to let go of sugar last Lent.

It was easier than I had expected. In fact, when Easter arrived and I decided to give sugar a try again, I had a mini-blackout. You see, 40 weekdays (Sundays are never part of Lent, because each Sunday celebrates Jesus’ resurrection) were enough to establish a “new normal” for my body; it no longer knew how to handle all that sugar. Sugary foods also didn’t taste as good to me as they used to.

In this way, what started as a Lenten discipline has become the way I live my life. This does not mean that no processed sugar has crossed my lips over the last year, but I still avoid it on principle, succeed 99% of the time, and feel better as a result. I also learned that I hadn’t been feeding myself enough calories, and have had to change my eating habits to compensate.

IMG_0936I can honestly say that last year’s Lent became my lifestyle. What started as a desperate cry to God for help in addressing an addiction has become an established way of life. As I contemplated how I wanted to observe Lent this year, it was that “Lent becoming lifestyle” idea that drew me to take on daily prayer for a couple of particular groups of people. I would like for that discipline to become so integrated into who I am and how I live that, long after Easter, this year’s discipline will also become an established part of me.

What is the most meaningful Lenten discipline in which you have engaged? Did it last beyond Easter? Did it change your life?

How are you observing Lent this year? If you haven’t chosen something, it’s not too late to start. Take some time to prayerfully consider where God might be inviting you to let go of, or take on, something in your life. How would doing so bring you closer to God?

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A Memory Walk

My usual hiking partner is on vacation, so I hiked with another friend this past Friday. We went to a spot in the Gila wilderness that is special for this friend because her daughter, who was killed in an accident more than a dozen years ago, used to love visiting this place. My friend hadn’t been out there in a couple of years, and brought along some dried roses as a memorial.

IMG_0864As we walked—often clambering over large rocks—my friend shared stories of her daughter’s life and journey. She also showed me where some other couple had, years ago, marked the pathway with stones and had their wedding in this beautiful spot. Many of the pathway rocks have been dislodged over time, but it’s still pretty easy to see how the path meanders and follow it over the rocks.

It was a beautiful day for a walk, with clear blue skies and a cool breeze. We saw a number of stunning vistas and captivating natural beauty, as well as points where plants were struggling to survive against the odds, or had given up the fight and become elegant skeletons.

IMG_0882At one point she found a heart-shaped rock that reminded her of a story. At another point, I captured a number of angles of a tree that had, over the years, been bent perpendicular to the ground. I found myself thinking that it was doing a type of dance with the ground. Since my friend’s daughter was a dancer, that image flowed easily into my mind.

Most of all, this day was a gift of memory. My friend’s stories brought to mind some of my own, and together we wove a new pattern, which we left—invisible but nonetheless present—amongst the rocks. We experienced gratitude and amazement, and sometimes blinked back tears. She brought back her heart-shaped rock, and I brought back a couple dozen photos on my phone.

When in your life has a stroll turned into a memory walk? Did you go with an agenda? What unfolded? What did you find, and share? What did you bring back?

Is there a memory walk you need to take?

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Day by Beautiful Day

We had warm, beautiful, sunny weather much of last week. It got close to 70 degrees on many days, and I couldn’t help reflecting on the stark contrast with New England, where we used to live, as the highs there were in the single digits (not counting the wind chill) and the snow kept piling up. We’ve even had an unusually wet winter here, so—for a change—I’m not jealous this year of all their precipitation!

And yet…it was a struggle to get through some of those days last week. I’ve finished the abbess book, I’m in dialogue with a potential new client about a project, and have a number of other things that need to get done—some of them very soon.

But I just can’t seem to concentrate. Perhaps it’s related to a type of early-spring fever; on Wednesday afternoon I helped take some children out hiking on Boston Hill, and it was great just being out there, noticing what came to mind, making up parables about old mining pits and desert thorns.

In fact, it was so much easier to be out there, in the winter sunshine, exploring with the children. Much easier than sitting with the unknowing that comes during periods of discernment, when doors seem to slam closed on your fingertips and you back away, smarting with the sting and just wanting to be able to see the way forward.

wooden bridge DSC_2410But we can’t always see. There are cycles in our spiritual lives, as there are in the changing seasons and the shape of our work. We can’t always see where we’re heading—perhaps most often when we really want to.

And so, day by beautiful day, I’m “showing up” for my life as best I can. Sometimes I succeed; other times, not much gets “accomplished.” But the one thing I realize is that, as I struggle, I keep turning to God and saying “Please help. I can’t do this on my own.” And that is probably the most important step I’m taking. By keeping my eyes open, having compassion for myself, and reaching out for help, I’m walking my journey as best I can, one day at a time.

Do you have seasons like this—where you can’t tell what is ahead, but you somehow know that things are shifting? Are you perhaps also in one now? If so, you’re not alone. And if you’ve walked through those seasons, but aren’t there now, I invite you to say a prayer for those of us walking this way now….


What is Enough?

Much of this past week has been devoted to my edit of the book about the abbess in seventeenth-century France. One morning I found myself pondering a major struggle in her life, and how it connects with my own developing agenda for 2015.

This abbess was a reformer, in an age when many convents and monasteries were little different from the world outside their walls. She sought to follow the ancient Benedictine rule that had mostly been forgotten or ignored in her day. She made quite an impact during her lifetime, corresponding with the Queen of Poland and transforming the lives of dozens of nuns.

Despite this, however, she longed for most of her life to throw off the mantle of abbess and just be a simple nun. She felt that she would be happier, as well as more able to follow Christ, if she was leading a life more filled with simplicity and humility. She even petitioned the Pope for permission to join a more contemplative order, but he never responded to her request.

I have been in a place of waiting that is both like, and very unlike, that of this abbess. I had been waiting to hear, for a few weeks, whether I had received a major editing job that would determine the shape of my work schedule, and income level, for the months ahead. I also had grand plans to use some of those funds for finally putting together a website, so I can share more spiritual offerings, beginning with Advent at the end of this year.

Then, as I sat in prayer, I realized that I needed to be careful that my agenda did not overtake God’s agenda for my year. The abbess I’ve been reading about is not as well-known as others (such as Hildegard of Bingen). She did not have as much of an impact on the church, and Christians today, as others—but she certainly had more of an impact in her time than she would have if she had retreated from leadership. Her biographer believes that God was behind the Pope’s silence, because God needed the abbess working in a leadership role.

This led me to wonder: what is enough for me? What is my leadership role? I cannot see myself having as much of an impact as Hildegard of Bingen or Thomas Merton (who was born 100 years ago yesterday, and has certainly impacted millions through his writings). Is it enough that I write this blog, lead Embodied Prayer sessions in my local community, and offer a few local retreats each year? Am I seeking a role beyond my calling—and my energy level?—if I expand my presence on the web, and then have to work to keep it up?

Or am I, perhaps like this abbess, running away from my calling if I seek to hide in the religious shadows as a simple Christian? Even if I never have the stature of other contemporary spiritual leaders, is my work not of value? Somehow I doubt that God keeps count of how many lives we’ve impacted, but instead about our willingness to be available to whomever God puts in our path.

DSC_0832 labyrinth walkWhat is your leadership role? Have you ever struggled with these questions? Did you ever come to a conclusion, or did you find yourself just seeking to live in the best way possible, one day at a time?

(By the way, I didn’t get the job. But I have been given some more invitations to discernment about other possibilities this week, and continue to step forward, one day at a time.)

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Paella and People

IMG_0855Last night Henry and I tried our hand at making paella for the first time. Paella is a destination dish for Henry; we’ve had it in Spain, Puerto Rico, and San Diego, as well as numerous places in between. But this was our first time to try making it ourselves—out in the middle of the desert.

If I do say so myself, we did a pretty good job for first-timers. We splurged on real Spanish chorizo and found mussels, scallops, and shrimp at our local market. We used the genuine saffron that’s been sitting in our cupboard for a while—and the rice ended up with the rich, yellow color it was supposed to.

I’ve found myself thinking about first-timers because of today’s gospel lesson. In it we hear about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The first people he explicitly called into service were fishermen. These were people who spent their days catching seafood at the place where the desert meets the Galilean Sea—although they caught sardines and tilapia (also called St. Peter’s Fish), not scallops, mussels, and shrimp (which were considered unclean).

Out on the water, harvesting fish, these fishermen saw the full spectrum of life, in all its rich beauty. They were secure in their place in the economic food chain—until Jesus called them from the sea and invited them to participate instead in the spiritual food chain that he was putting into place.

That spiritual food chain would be focused on a hunger for God in the people around them, rather than the people’s need for physical nourishment. Fishing for people would require Jesus’ disciples to learn a different set of skills—and a different perspective on “catching” something. When they said “yes” to Jesus’ call to cast their nets elsewhere, they became first-timers, entering new waters, with little idea of what lay ahead.

Fortunately, Jesus provided for his new followers a roadmap, or a recipe of sorts. We call it the Sermon on the Mount, and it includes such classic lines as “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “You are the light of the world.” Listening to Jesus, those fishermen must have felt like fish out of water—at the same time that their hearts were catching fire.

Have there been times in your life when you’ve felt like a fish out of water, called into new experiences, becoming first-timers…again? How did you cope? What did you learn?

When we follow the recipe of the gospels, we learn how to catch people in the net of God’s love, and share God’s abundant riches of mercy and grace. I invite you to read the Sermon on the Mount this week and ponder Jesus’ recipe for the spiritual life. What elements are new to you? What elements can you live out in your sleep? What is in this sermon that might be missing from your personal recipe?

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The Web of Love

I want to share what happened one day last week. I learned via a church prayer request email that a preteen member of the congregation, who had a tonsillectomy two weeks prior, was rushed to “the big city” two hours away because of bleeding. That day was filled with conversations and prayers with various people, and ended with the gift of an email that said in part, “she stopped bleeding spontaneously and…the doctors told her mother, ‘This just doesn’t happen.’”

Well, it does happen, in a world where love abounds and prayers are answered.

That evening I was conversing with someone else, who wondered how God could possibly pay attention to the individual prayers of over seven billion people around the world. This is how I found myself responding (inspired by the Spirit, I believe):

IMG_1106We are increasingly aware that we live within an intricately interconnected web of life here on earth. Everything is interwoven, and every choice we make determines not just our own path, but those of others. It’s like when we tug on the edge of a spider web and the entire web moves. I believe that, as we all talked about and prayed for that young woman, the web of connection vibrated with love, drawing God’s attention to the situation and opening the way for healing.

Exactly how it all works, I wouldn’t presume to know. But I do know that prayer brings healing, and love can indeed transform the world.

What do you think? Have you seen this happen? Do you believe in this web of love, through which God acts in the world?


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