Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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Behold I Make All Things New


Last Sunday I visited St. Michael and All Angels church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Like the church of my childhood that I mentioned a few weeks ago, this church has grown immensely since I was a child, from a small adobe sanctuary to the sprawling, active campus it is today. I love their bright, airy, New Mexican-themed worship space—and was surprised by an Eastertide addition when I arrived last Sunday. IMG_1539cLiterally hundreds of origami butterflies adorned the sanctuary, floating in the air, clustered around the cross, alighting on a huge, translucent banner that hung in front of the organ pipes. Because they “die” in the “tomb” of the chrysalis and emerge as radically changed creatures, butterflies have long been a powerful symbol of resurrection. (As a child, when my birthday fell on Easter, I was given a beautiful butterfly pendant with the body of a cross, and it remains one of the most meaningful gifts of my life.)

Like the banners at St. Andrew, the butterflies brought me to tears, but for different reasons. I think that part of what impacted me was the communal nature of this witness to the resurrection. Each origami butterfly was clearly handmade. They were different sizes, different colors, and each slightly different, although clearly modeled on the same pattern. I found myself imagining the entire congregation gathering together to create these, generations working collectively to teach the folding sequence, create the butterflies, string them together, then hang them in the church.

I also find myself thinking about the long history behind origami, which has been practiced in Japan for hundreds of years. I’ve seen, in person, the thousands of origami cranes that adorn the Nagasaki memorials—a clear call for peace in a place literally obliterated by war. Origami cranes continue to be created, around the world, to symbolize the need for peace today.

Many people are afraid of what they see as syncretization in the church—especially when they believe it involves the incorporation of elements from other religious traditions. Those who believe that contemplative prayer is Buddhist simply don’t know their Christian religious history, as contemplative prayer harkens back at least as far as the Desert Mothers and Fathers in fourth-century Egypt.

I, on the other hand, believe that the encounter with other traditions strengthens us. When we enter into sincere dialogue with another, seeking to learn and grow from the wisdom we each have to share, we must reaffirm where we stand, and be willing to be challenged and changed by the wisdom of the other. These opportunities also provide us with the chance to imagine and manifest our own faith in new ways—as these origami butterflies boldly proclaim. Just as butterflies no longer resemble caterpillars, so authentic spiritual life today does not always resemble the faith of our forebears. The Holy Spirit is always making all things new (Revelation 21:5).

Where have you experienced God making things new in your spiritual life?


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What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger


Last week was transition time for my seedlings. After weeks of happily starting life on the east-facing windowsill in my guest room, they moved outside. I actually started the process two weeks ago, giving them a taste of the greater extremes of outdoor living, one hour at a time, then two. Then I forgot about them, and they got about five hours, so I gave them the next day off. Then back out again, into the stronger sun and wider temperature range, in order to “harden them off” so I could plant them in my garden cage.

IMG_1486Because of this process, those seedlings are not looking their best right now. Direct exposure to the sun, no longer filtered through the window glass, has partially burned some of the leaves. Wind has been a new experience in their lives as well, toughening their stems but probably also contributing to the loss of some of the smaller leaves. We haven’t had any rain while they’ve been outside, but I have turned the hose on them, giving them an experience of the power of water which was previously unknown to them. Then I actually turned them upside down in order to remove them from their pots and get them into the ground.

What a ride this has been for these young plants! I do expect that they will survive; generations of gardeners have developed this method of toughening up the young plants so they can survive in the harsher conditions of the great outdoors. But I’m also not thinning the plants yet; if two seeds sprouted in each little pot, I’ve left them both. After a few weeks, once the plants are more fully adapted to their new homes, I’ll remove the less vigorous plant in each location, giving the stronger one full reign over its assigned plot of ground.

We are very much like those plants. We begin life in the sheltered womb, in a gestational incubator where sun and wind do not have direct access to our vulnerable young bodies. The birthing process is a shocking and painful one, and some don’t survive it. We must then grow accustomed to a new world, where the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” will batter us about—some of us quite a lot, others not so much. We find our patch of ground and we thrive there, but we bear the scars of those experiences, in our bodies and our souls.

What doesn’t kill us does make us stronger. There’s a story running around the internet (apparently one of those “urban legends”) that full-grown trees in the completely enclosed Biosphere 2 would suddenly topple over when they reached a certain height because they had not experienced the strengthening effects of wind. Regardless of whether the story is true, there is a truth behind it. We may not appreciate the painful experiences in our lives, but they do teach us valuable lessons. Like my little plants, we grow stronger as we adapt to our environment and survive our experiences.

Spend some time in reflection on the experiences in your life which have left an impact on you. How have you grown stronger? Can you give God thanks for all the experiences in your life?


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The Attainability of Ideals


As I shared a year ago, I’m a member of Spiritual Directors International, and attended their annual conference in person last year. This year it was a bit further away, in Louisville, Kentucky, so I chose to register for their webcast instead, and listen to the talks on my computer. I knew that I would miss out on those wonderful in-person connections, and that most of the workshops would not be broadcast, but I decided to see if the webcast experience was worth it.

I also had family visiting during that time, so it’s only been this past week that I’ve finally watched the videos. There are some advantages to recorded webcasts, like being able to hit pause and take notes without missing what comes next. I’ve definitely gleaned some wisdom from the talks I’ve heard, and some of that sparked connections that I’m going to share here today.

SDI chose to hold its conference in Louisville because this year is the 100th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birth. A wise monk, prolific writer, and spiritual guide, Merton has influenced millions of people through his books and example during the past century, and many of the talks at SDI’s conference focused on his life and work.

One talk, given by Sr. Susan Rakoczy, centered on the theme of discernment in Merton’s life, and his struggle to find solitude in a life that, for a monk, felt increasingly full, busy, and noisy. Some of this was actually the result of Merton’s own actions. For example, the publication of his enormously successful autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, brought dozens of young men to try their vocations at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, overcrowding the monastic community where Merton lived. Even when he was finally given permission to live in a secluded hermitage on the Abbey grounds, he found his days filled with visitors who came to meet with him for spiritual guidance and conversation.

At one point, Merton actually tried to transfer to a quieter, more contemplative monastic order, but the church hierarchy decreed that he had to stay at Gethsemani. It was at this point in the lecture that I found myself thinking of the medieval French abbess whose biography I edited earlier this year. She always sought to be “a simple nun” and that calling was, for many years, denied her. Even when she finally succeeded in resigning as abbess, the experience was in many ways not what she had expected, or desired. Merton always sought to be in “solitude,” and that was, for most of his life, denied him, nor was he able to “keep the world at bay.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI wonder if “unattainable ideals” is a theme in the monastic life. Richard Rohr likes to tell the story of a Trappist monk who admitted that most of Merton’s fellow monks didn’t care for him because he told them they were not true contemplatives, just introverts. I imagine that it’s quite possible that monks and nuns seek a monastic life because they’ve got a certain idealized view of that world—and often the reality doesn’t match, to a greater or lesser degree. An SSJE monk once told me that only one in ten men who arrive to test their vocation actually takes final vows; the rest learn and grow from the experience, but also learn that monastic life is not what they are truly seeking.

I believe that the same is true for those who live outside the monastic walls. Whether it’s the “perfect” marriage, an “ideal” job, or “just the right” career, we usually find that the reality doesn’t live up to our internal expectations.

Another task I completed this week was a first draft of a talk I will give at a Cursillo in June. I was asked to give the talk on Ideals—and here’s where it gets interesting. For the creators of this three-day renewal retreat, “ideals” are not unattainable. Instead, they believe that each of us has a single ideal that drives what we do in life. Instead of being “pie in the sky,” I found myself thinking of it more like the cantus firmus of our lives—the underlying musical theme that persists through all the variations in how we live out our days.

So perhaps the key is to understand that living a life of solitude was, for Merton, the underlying theme. In her talk, Sr. Rakoczy read from some of Merton’s descriptions of the moments of solitude that he did experience in his life. Clearly these were powerful and transformative for him, and they often evoked some of his most effective writing. But most of his time was not spent there. It was spent in the daily busyness of prayer in chapel, work in the garden, meeting with other monks and with visitors, writing, studying, answering letters, washing dishes, and all the other details that monastic life can entail.

We also don’t always dwell in our ideal worlds. Our marriages have their perfect moments, but also their disagreements, and the days we’re just too plain tired to do more than coexist. Our jobs can be a great match for our gifts and skills, but that doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes have to deal with poorly trained colleagues and impossible-to-please customers.

I invite you to reflect on what I’ve shared here and pray about what resonates in your life. What have you idealized? Can you learn to be content with the attainability of ideal moments in your life?


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Following Nature around the House


There was a day last week when I “should” have been working and just couldn’t bring myself to do so. It was a beautiful spring day, and finally warm enough after a few cloudy days—along with some rain and snow last Sunday!

But last Wednesday was beautiful, so I took the opportunity to get out in the garden. I watered, trimmed, pulled weeds…and then went to feed the birds. As I walked toward the bin where we store the bird seed, I startled a snake, which moved quickly behind the bin. Fortunately for my peace of mind, its tail slithered into view as it swung about and I could see that it wasn’t a rattlesnake. It was, however, a good-sized snake, and exactly the color of the bricks on the side of our house. I decided to wait on filling the bird feeders and went inside the house to see if I could capture it with my phone camera through the window. I could, and I sent a couple images to Henry…but I wanted more.

DSC_2544cGrabbing my camera, I went outside and followed it around the outside of our house. Sometimes it blended in perfectly with the wall and soil; other times it was clearly visible against our concrete back porch, or when it slithered over a hose.DSC_2586 Can you find its head amongst the rocks here?

I startled some other wildlife on my walk, and snapped a few pictures of a lizard sunning itself on our back wall. I also noticed that some of the rocks are falling out of the back side of our wall…a major project for a future date! I also took a few photos of our irises, which have survived the depredations of the deer this year due to an effective deer repellent spray.

Eventually the snake made its way outside our back yard and disappeared into the grasses in the meadow to the east of our house. I let it go and walked back indoors with my pictures, content with my day and ready to sit at the computer for a while.

Perhaps the reason I wanted so much to be outdoors was because this snake encounter was awaiting me, and somehow I knew I would miss out on something if I stayed inside. Unlike a friend who recently had a rattlesnake slither across his back porch, I don’t have dogs to alert me to its presence. I have to follow my instinct, pay attention, and perhaps even play “hooky” from work for a little while.

Have you ever followed your instinct and spent time doing something when you “should” have been doing something else? Were you rewarded with the gift of an encounter, or realization, or connection?

I invite you to follow that nudge next time, and see where it leads….


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It’s Time to Begin


I have a series of favorite songs, mostly electronic dance music, that I listen to in the car to help keep me alert on my long drives through New Mexico. Occasionally, a particular song will stick with me, and I’ll repeat the song over and over, singing along…and sometimes pondering why, after hearing it so many times, this particular song would have something new to say to me.

Recently the song was “It’s Time” by Imagine Dragons. On the day I drove, I just enjoyed the song, the energy, and another phrase in the chorus that is important to me: “I’m never changing who I am.” On the days when I struggle to believe in myself, in what I’m called to do, this is an important line for me.

The next morning I awoke with “It’s time to begin” in my mind—over and over—and realized that, as with spring, I am beginning something new, even at the ripe old age of…over 50. Two weeks ago, on the eve of my birthday, I officially got my first gig as a writing coach. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked to do this, but it’s the first time that I’ve actually embraced the role.

Part of what has me so excited about this new part of my professional life is that it definitely has a spiritual component. What was so wonderful about my conversation with this new client was the ways in which the Holy Spirit took charge of the questions that I asked as the conversation progressed, and what a difference that made in the depth of the conversation, and the energy of the commitment. It was very clear to me that this was an invitation for me into another facet of my work as a wordsmith and as a spiritual guide—a meshing of these two worlds in new ways.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd so “it’s time to begin” something new—in this season of spring. It doesn’t matter how old you are; you can always begin something new. The saguaro cactus doesn’t begin to grow its iconic arms until after it is a century old. Certainly, then, we who are so much (or not so much) younger, can always be open to new beginnings in our own lives.

What is looking to grow in your life this spring? It’s time to begin!DSC_5517


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Relevance


I spent much of yesterday in tears. I attended the memorial service of Harold M. Daniels, who was pastor of the Presbyterian church in which I was raised, and instrumental in spoiling me for any other Presbyterian church by introducing the Great Vigil of Easter and other liturgical “reforms and renewals” during my youth. A major part of the reason that I became an Episcopalian 20+ years ago was that the Episcopal Church puts more emphasis on liturgy and sacraments—which became very important to me in large part because of the influence of Harold Daniels.

IMG_1269What first brought me to tears yesterday was walking into the sanctuary at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church and seeing that they had hung four of the banners in the front of the church that used to hang in the smaller sanctuary when I was young. Created in the height of the 1970s, they have a certain look to them that is probably anachronistic to most people today. For me, however, they immediately evoked memories of a passionately engaged, growing congregation of young families that instilled that vibrant, relevant faith in their children.IMG_1268c

During the service, which was (naturally!) planned by Harold and called “A Service of Witness to the Resurrection,” I enjoyed watching many of those no-longer-young parents of my church friends participate in the liturgy with similar passion. I also sat there thinking about the fact that I was one of the youngest people in the room—with the exception of Harold’s grandchildren. What was relevant and “cutting edge” in the 1970s is not so today—and yet so much of the liturgy that Harold brought into the life of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church was deeply rooted in the early history of the church. It was not just reform; it was rediscovery.

At the service, I also sat two rows behind a woman who was very influential for me—although I don’t believe I have ever told her this (and therefore I shall do so now…!). She led a liturgical dance group at St. Andrew when I was young. For some complicated reasons I did not participate, except occasionally as part of the youth group, but I longed to do so. Many years later, when re-introduced to the concept of movement prayer during my formation as a spiritual director, I wholeheartedly embraced it, then found and joined a liturgical dance group in the Boston area. The monthly Embodied Prayer sessions which I now lead (ironically, at the local Presbyterian church!) are rooted in my belief that all of us are invited to pray with our bodies—something I first learned so many years ago at St. Andrew.

In such ways is the church continually renewed and reformed, remaining relevant in the face of changing times. I imagine that, when I was a child, the older generations at St. Andrew were appalled at those bright and flowery banners, just as many of those celebrating Harold Daniels’ life are likely uncomfortable with the use of slide shows and praise bands in liturgy today.

And yet…we must remain relevant if the church is to have any hope of flourishing in the future. Harold Daniels knew this, and I imagine that it’s part of what drove him to return to the “original sources” of his Reformed tradition (note that the quote on the “flower power” type banner is from St. Augustine!), seeking liturgical elements that would engage the members of his youthful congregation. And the liturgical dancer at St. Andrew created indelible memories in my young mind of how worship could include the body, as well as mind and voice. Over the years, my prayer has taken bodily form in many ways, and that passion has driven me to share it with others.

With all these memories and realizations flowing through me, it was a lovely irony that yesterday ended with a “Skype date” with one of my spiritual director colleagues, who is a bit older than me and has been asked if she would be willing to do spiritual guidance via Skype, as I do. She’s been a bit nervous about how this new technology works, and so we agreed to have a session together, so she could experience the process, and I could share some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned from doing this for the past year. Here we are, both firmly entrenched in a ministry that some people say “has to” be done in person, recognizing that we can only remain relevant if we are open to the Spirit’s guidance in embracing new possibilities—and, as we discussed, much spiritual guidance 1000 years ago took place via letter! By seeking renewal in a blend of deeply rooted tradition and the embrace of new technology, I believe we are honoring the Holy Spirit’s call to remain relevant in our ministry today.

Where do you see your faith community being relevant and engaging today? In what ways is it anachronistic? What does this awareness invoke, or invite, in you, in terms of a response?

Is there someone who has deeply impacted your life, who might appreciate some form of recognition and appreciation of that influence on your life or ministry?


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Spring Growth


One of the things we did while our son and his family were visiting a few weeks ago was work on the garden. Our son and I added compost to the soil and pounded support posts into the rock-hard clay (he actually did the work; I just held the posts upright!), and our grandson helped me plant lots of little red onion starts. IMG_1235The onions have since started coming up, and I’ve been sending periodic pictures of their progress to Massachusetts, where at least the snow has disappeared, even if the wind-chill temperature is still below freezing as I type!

As a child, I hated spring. The strong winds and resultant dust storms made it the most unpleasant season, especially waiting outdoors for the school bus. My strongest memories of spring were sand in my hair and eyes, and the nasty crunching sound that comes when the sand gets in between your teeth…. No fun.

It was like a revelation, then, to move to New England as a young adult and watch crocuses peek through the snow in people’s yards and daffodils spring into existence along the banks of the Charles River. Fruit trees blossomed in profusion and the earth smelled of rich fecundity. I loved it!

Now I’m back in New Mexico, and the spring winds have begun. I have a different perspective now. The dry, windy weather raises the fire danger; that matters much more to me than a bit of sand in my hair (and, I admit, I can now choose when to be outside!). Now I am drawn to the evidence of new growth that comes with spring…both the new growth in the native perennial plants in my front yard and the birth from seed of the tomato and cucumber starts in my guest room window. They remind me that we have both the opportunity to begin again, and to continue to grow, no matter how old and gnarled our perennial trunks might be.

What have you noticed this spring? Where are you experiencing the invitation to new growth?

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