Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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Night on the Roof of a Cathedral


Henry recently found an article online about a tourist who was accidentally locked in Milan’s cathedral, called the Duomo, overnight. The American tourist chose to take advantage of his unexpected lock-in and spent the night “among the cathedral’s rooftop spires.”

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Photo from Duomo di Milano website

Henry shared the article with my sister and brother-in-law, who lived in Milan for two years. It was interesting to see what each of them noticed. My sister commented on the fact that the same firm has handled the Duomo’s security for the entire six hundred years of its existence. My brother-in-law commented that he would have contacted police to say that he was locked in, despite the ruckus that would have caused.

And I? I found myself thinking of books I have read over the years that discussed the medieval passion for building cathedrals. One of the goals for cathedral builders was to get closer to God—for they believed that God’s home in Heaven existed just above the sky. In those days, cathedrals were the tallest buildings ever constructed, and those fortunate roofers who set the final spires in place could indeed say that they had climbed closer to Heaven than anyone around them.

It’s kind of hard for us to imagine having that kind of passion—and risking that level of danger—just to get closer to the heavens. We fly much higher than those cathedral builders ever dreamed possible each time we get on an airplane. Others amongst us have not found a literal Heaven on their way to the moon—although for many it was nonetheless a profoundly spiritual experience.

I have walked among the Duomo’s spires; it was one of the many places we toured with my sister and brother-in-law when we visited Milan almost twenty years ago. I can certainly see myself taking advantage of a spontaneous “retreat night” among the spires, staring at the heavens. I also find myself imagining those medieval masons and roofers, pausing toward the end of a busy workday to glance upward. What went through their heads when they looked up? Did they tremble in fear of the God who would judge their every thought and action, or did they stand in awe and wonder at their fortune in finding themselves so much closer to the God who created them?

Today many of us believe that God is not “out there,” far away, but “closer than our very breath.” Perhaps that is because we have explored the heavens and not discovered a literal Heaven, comprised of streets paved with gold. Nonetheless, our desire to draw closer to God remains unchanged. Whether we look up, within, or around us, we still seek God.

Where and in what ways do you seek God? What might cathedrals have to teach you about your own spiritual journey?


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Spiritual Role Models: Granddaddy


Recently in prayer, I found myself reflecting on my paternal grandfather. When I think about familial role models for my spiritual life, he is always the one who first springs to mind. Many of my formative memories of him took place in Tucson, so perhaps it is not unusual that he should be coming to mind now that I have moved here to live.

Robert Stainton McArthurGranddaddy was a staunch Presbyterian who served as an Elder and did his best to make sure that he and his family lived faithful lives. For example, I grew up hearing stories about how strictly he observed the Sunday Sabbath, insisting that no work could be done—but also taking the family on long drives up into the Catalina Mountains for Sabbath rest and recreation. There was never any alcohol in Granddaddy’s house, and I learned to play Rook instead of Bridge at Granddaddy’s because they did not own any of the “devil’s paste cards.”

When I was a child, Granddaddy owned a construction company that mostly built residential buildings, but he also built the sanctuary at Northminster Presbyterian Church. In fact, giving back to the church through the use of his gifts was a passionate commitment for him. The first thing he did after retiring and selling his construction company was to return to Mississippi and construct a new campus building for Reformed Theological Seminary.

Granddaddy felt passionately about everything he did. I still remember a time when my family was visiting and we had spent the day “out and about” doing something together. On the drive home, Granddaddy suddenly realized (perhaps he saw a campaign sign) that he had forgotten it was a local election day. We immediately headed for the polling location—with no stop at home to drop off the rest of us—but still arrived too late. Granddaddy commented that this was the first time in his life that he had missed the opportunity to vote.

Granddaddy was also the first male adult that I remember crying. He was not afraid to show his emotions—something that was pretty unusual in men of his generation. He was also very much connected with creation. I fondly remember a number of early morning walks, where I first encountered quail and learned about a variety of other desert creatures.

At this point in my life, I have a more balanced view of Granddaddy than I did as a child, when he was a psychologically towering figure in my life. I’ve learned about his clay feet—and recognize that we’ve all got them. I also remember disagreeing with him on a number of theological issues, but he was always loving with me in our discussions. Perhaps most of all, I’m grateful for the role model of someone who clearly lived his spiritual life—as he understood it—to the best of his ability.

Who in your family—if anyone—was a spiritual role model for you? In what ways were you influenced by your family of origin about your spiritual life? What still lingers with you from that time?

Here’s a poem that I wrote recently, connecting with those early morning walks.

 

Morning Walk

Early morning constitutional,

Wobbly walk along rocky, rut-ridged roadway,

Leaning on cane companion,

Soaking in slanted desert light.

“See the quail, granddaughter?

See God’s beauty

All around?”

 

Early morning constitutional,

Striding along well-paved path,

Focused on pace and place,

Capturing Instagram images of desert flowers,

Recognizing roadrunners and rabbits.

 

Granddaddy walks alongside again,

Free of frailty,

Filled with wonder.

Traipsing together,

Souls connected,

Spirits soaring,

We savor simple sunrise.

 


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Reflections on Ordinary Time


In the Christian church calendar, we’re in the midst of the longest “season” of the year, entitled Ordinary Time. Unlike Lent or Easter, Advent or Christmas, this time is considered nothing special—although there are certain special days thrown in, such as yesterday (sometimes moved to the nearest Sunday), which commemorated the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop (Luke 9:28–36).

And yet…is there really ever any time that is truly ordinary? If God only meets us in the present moment (as opposed to when we are lost in our heads, reliving the past or fearing the future), then how can any moment be ordinary? Isn’t every moment truly extraordinary—a gift from God?

Think for a moment about the quality of time that we spend with a loved one—especially if that time is limited for some reason. Don’t we consider every moment to be special? Don’t we tend to savor every bit of time together? And yet…isn’t that really just a mind game? Yes, we are focused specifically on our loved ones when they are present with us—whether it’s a spouse about to leave for military duty overseas or a child home from college for a few short weeks. But doesn’t every moment provide us with gifts, provided we are open to receiving them?

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Admittedly, not all gifts are bright and shiny. Sometimes we have to look for the silver (or gold) linings in the clouds. But the very fact of our being alive, in this beautiful, complex world, is in itself extraordinary.

So what if we were to treat all our time as extraordinary? What if the “daily grind” became the “daily gift”? What if we embraced every experience, as everyday mystics have learned to do with such practices as the Welcoming Prayer? And what if we remembered to look for evidence of God’s presence, and gifts, every single day?


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Finding My Way to Prayer


It’s confession time. Even spiritual directors are imperfect. Wildly imperfect. We get busy, we take on too much, we get distracted, we “fall off the prayer wagon.” I am not immune to any of this.

I had a big, powerful dream this past week. I’m going to share some of it because it spoke very clearly to me about the pitiful state of my personal prayer life, and it feels like a good parable that might be meaningful to others as well.

In the dream I’m in a big, fancy hotel, trying to get to my room on the fifth floor. I get in an elevator, push 5, then my mind wanders. Suddenly I “wake up” to discover I’m the only one left in the elevator. I step out when the elevator stops, but I’m not at the fifth floor. Instead there’s a huge dining area before me, but it’s closed off by a low wall. It’s clearly a very fancy buffet—tiny little desserts are laid out close by. I realize it’s a wedding banquet, but I know I don’t have an invitation.

I turn around and see a wall where very fancy types of free tea and coffee are laid out, but I’m not interested. I then go around the corner and find some free food, but what I see are desserts and, upon closer inspection, it appears that most of the icing has been eaten off the tops of the chocolate cupcakes. But they look good and I want something to eat, so I take one anyway, and put it in a white paper bag to carry with me.

I turn and go back to the elevator bank. I push the button, but then wander off, exploring, and miss the elevator when it comes by. I come back and push the button again and try to stay nearby, but still manage to miss it a second time. Then a third time I do come back, stick close, get on, and find I’m in an elevator that only goes to floors 13 and above.

I get off that elevator when it stops, then get on again, intending to go back to the ground floor and get on the right elevator. I finally manage to do that, and get to the fifth floor. I walk off to find I’m standing in an outdoor area. It’s been raining, but has stopped. I find the faucet handle that would turn on a rain barrel, but I need to choose where to point the hose. I see a low, almost empty lake and know I should point it in that direction. I turn on the faucet, stop and start it once, and the water initially comes out brown and dirty, then flows clean and I watch the lake slowly begin to fill up.

Then I woke up.DSC_3846

What a very powerful metaphor I found this to be. I can’t find my room, my place, for prayer, in large part because I’m wandering and distracted. I am not yet invited into the heavenly banquet—although I can see it. There is sufficient free food and drink available now, “outside” that heavenly banquet, but I choose to go for the stuff that’s been tasted by others and partially devoured—and is full of sugar, so it isn’t good for me—because I want what’s easily available rather than taking the time to venture further in search of real sustenance.

I am distracted and wander off, so that I miss the way home multiple times. I finally get to my territory and the lake is almost dry. I’m parched. I don’t need fancy cupcakes; I need clear, clean water from heaven. And there is free water from heaven, but I’ve turned off the faucet so my lake is almost dry. I fumble to get the faucet on, and the water doesn’t initially run clear because of all the dirt that’s accumulated in the system. But I let it run and it doesn’t take long for the dirt to clear its way out of the system and good clean water to begin to fill my lake.

So…does any of this speak to you? Have you had dry, distracted spells in your prayer life? What do you need to do to get the abundant water from heaven flowing freely into the lake of your soul?


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Teach Us to Pray


In the Revised Common Lectionary (a carefully organized schedule through which the entire Bible is read on Sundays over the course of three years), the gospel reading for this week is the first part of Luke 11, where Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them to pray. Last week I shared a bit of where my prayer journey has taken me in recent weeks—into poetry. In Instagram this week, I also shared some images and questions about our patterns of prayer.

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One image that came to me this past week is that prayer is like two-way mirror glass. Prayer reflects us back to ourselves, so that we might better understand what we bring to our relationship with God. If we pay attention to what we bring to prayer, and how we pray, we will learn a lot about ourselves and our priorities.

But, at the same time, God can also look at us through that glass and see us clearly. God understands us better than we do ourselves. Then, when God is ready—and/or perhaps feels that we are ready—God shines light from the other side and glass that was once reflective becomes transparent. For a moment, we can see through. We can somehow catch a glimpse of the Divine Spirit that gives us life and teaches us love.

And once we catch a glimpse, we are never the same. We hunger for more glimpses. That hunger draws us back to prayer, and to recognizing those aspects of ourselves that we see in the mirror. We learn to support in ourselves those things that are good, and to release from our grasp those things which are not. And we humbly ask God for assistance, as we learn to nurture the good and leave the rest behind.

What is your concept or image of prayer at this time in your life? What other concepts or images have enlightened your journey at earlier stages in your life? How might this image that I shared today support your own understanding of prayer? How is Jesus still teaching you to pray?


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Poetry and Prayer


Back in April I committed to putting my personal writing first in my workdays. In rather stark contrast with prior attempts at doing this, I have stuck with it this time. Almost every weekday I have sat down to write, and on those days when circumstances have prevented it, I’ve been able to pick up the habit again the next day, rather than losing it in my rush into other things.

Perhaps part of the reason that I’ve been able to keep doing this is because the very act of sitting down to write poetry is feeding me. It is feeding some hungry part of my soul that I hadn’t realized was starving. I’d had inklings, but for the most part I’d ignored them. Now, I sit down, become still, and wait and watch to see what appears. Some days a dream image will pull me in. Other days an experience or conversation will elicit reflection. Sometimes I just sit and let snippets begin to flow through my mind, writing them down as they come.

I am realizing that this poetry is also, inevitably, a form of prayer. It brings me into the present moment—where I am open to what is currently available in and to my soul, rather than pondering the past or fearing the future. God is only truly present to us in the present moment—because when our minds meander into past or future, we are lost in memory or musing and God is not present there.

One morning this past week, the flow of snippets eventually led to this poem about prayer. I pray that it will encourage you to consider your own prayer life….DSC_0485 fern

 

Sip serenity from

slim stem of frosted fern

 

Elephant thoughts

mangle mystical memories

 

Shake head

Begin again

Every morsel of moment shelters sustenance.


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Learning Confidence from Flowers


I read an interesting article this past week, about women and men and confidence. It’s well worth the read, especially if you are a woman or wish to be supportive of the women in your life. It talks about various studies that show how women have an “acute lack of confidence” which prevents us from taking action, risking failure, and believing we can make our impact on the world.

I certainly have experienced what they describe. My inability to believe that I could be successful on my own, doing work that I am skilled at performing, kept me “trapped” (frankly, because of my own mindset) in unhealthy employment situations for far longer than was necessary. As a freelancer, I have had to overcome my reticence and learn how to increase my rates—because I no longer worked within a system that automatically gave me raises for good performance. I have also, in retrospect, missed opportunities because I thought I had to be perfect, rather than “good enough,” to take the chance, and risk, of that next step.

DSC_3449cInterestingly, as I’ve been contemplating this article, what keeps coming to mind are big, showy flowers. The night-blooming cereus is only the most recent example to come to my awareness, but many plants don’t stand out until their flowers catch the eye and wow the onlooker. For plants, those flowers are critical to long-term survival. Plants must have, or develop, confidence in their blooms if they want to attract pollinating insects that will propagate the species.

Of course, plants come by their flowers honestly and naturally. They don’t appear to have any capacity for crippling internal dialogue: “What if my flower isn’t perfect enough? What if it won’t attract the right type or number of insects? The flower to my left had incredible success last season; why am I even trying to compete with that?” Instead, every plant makes the most of nature and nurture, whether the rainfall or nutrients were lean or plentiful, and blossoms to the best of its ability.

And unless we happen to be master gardeners, we probably couldn’t analyze why flower X is more or less “successful” than flower Y. But our “nurture” has sure taught us that we must evaluate every “success” around us—to our detriment, I believe. As Jesus said in Matthew (6:28–29), “Why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”

One of the key takeaways from the article—for me, anyway—was that acting with confidence actually increases confidence. When we take risks, even if they involve “failure” and thus become opportunities for learning, we grow in confidence. But we have to “show up” and take those risks. It turns out that girls quit competing in things like team sports when they lose confidence—and thus miss out on valuable, confidence-building lessons about how to own triumphs and survive setbacks.

We each have our own splendor—our own specific, unique mix of gifts from God. We were created to blossom, each in our own ways. Whether we are woman or man, our confidence should not be placed in some misguided idea of perfection. Instead, it should be rooted in the fact that we are created to blossom, and the world needs the flowers we have to offer. I do not need to compete with the power of your flower; instead, I need to nurture my own nature and believe that God has called me to do just that. It’s time to stop thinking so much, step out with confidence, and act.

When in your life have you lacked confidence? When have you been able to blossom? Where in your life might you find opportunities to encourage younger generations of women, and men, in the art of confidence-building?

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