Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering



I’m preaching today at the local Presbyterian church, which is in a time of transition and has invited various spiritual leaders in the community to take a turn in the pulpit. I’m grateful for the opportunity to preach today, because I have a natural “hook” to catch people’s attention.

IMG_0249You see, Henry and I have three wedding anniversaries—and thus three chances to celebrate. There have been some years when we’ve celebrated all three, and other years when we’ve been apart for one of those anniversaries, and have celebrated on another. There have also been times when two of them have fallen on the same day, but I don’t think they’ve ever all three fallen on the same day again. Have I confused you yet? Here are the three anniversaries: the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, May 29, and today: Trinity Sunday.

We call this our “liturgical anniversary.” Although we didn’t schedule our wedding with this in mind, it has become a beautiful connection for us: here we were, celebrating and deepening our commitment to this relationship, receiving God’s blessing upon it—through human hands and words—on a day in the festal church calendar that also celebrates a relationship.

In fact, Trinity Sunday is the only church feast that celebrates a relationship. There are feasts celebrating events in the life of Christ, like Christmas and Easter. There are feasts that celebrate the holy men and women who, throughout the past two millennia, have had an impact on the lives of the faithful. But this is the only feast that celebrates a relationship—the particular relationship between the three persons of the Trinity.

Over the years since our marriage, I’ve had lots of time to think about the importance of inviting the Trinity to guide our relationship. I’m not going to reproduce my entire sermon here (who knows, I might get to recycle it in another context, some other year!), but here is where I ended up.

So what does it mean to live by the Trinity? We are created to be social beings. God wants us to be in relationship—but not just any kind of relationship. We are more whole when we carry each other’s burdens willingly, voluntarily, through love, rather than because the rules and regulations tell us that we must. We are more whole when we lean on each other, learn from each other, grow alongside each other, depend on each other—in that positive sense where we each contribute to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Trinity is like that: a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Creator, Christ, Holy Spirit. Together, a mystery beyond our comprehension. There at our beginning, our ending, and every moment in between. Infusing our lives. Sometimes leading the way, other times seemingly absent, yet always present.

What relationships in your life are more than a sum of their parts?

What might it mean to view your personal relationships—such as marriage—through the lens of the Trinity, as you understand it?


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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….