Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


Letting It All Go

Last week I began attending a Centering Prayer class at my church. This method of prayer traces its origins back to the prayer practiced by previous generations of Christian hermits, mystics, monks and nuns. It’s a way of praying that gets our agendas out of the way so that we can listen for God, and be open to God’s presence and action in our lives. It’s based on Jesus’ own instructions, found in Matthew 6:6–8:

IMG_3236But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask.

Naturally, our class assignment is to set aside a period of time for Centering Prayer every day. It’s felt a little bit like homecoming for me, as I have participated in contemplative “sit” for years, individually and collectively, including with my coworkers when I worked at the Center for Action and Contemplation.

One of my particular challenges is sticking to a certain time of day for prayer. I already have a morning routine that takes as much as two hours to complete, so adding another twenty minutes doesn’t feel right—in part because I know it’s good for me to get away from the computer at various times during the day. So I tend to take my prayer time, my contemplative sit, in between portions of my freelance work and other online projects.

On Friday, I chose as my prayer time a mid-afternoon period when I thought I had a sufficiently long period of time available. I set the timer on my phone, assumed my prayer position, and began sinking into silence.

I don’t know how long I had been praying, but suddenly my phone rang. I have assigned specific ringtones to a few of my more regular clients, so I knew, without opening my eyes, who was calling. I also knew that this client was hoping to finish two different projects that day, which I had been editing, before taking a week off for her first real vacation since Christmas. There was no question in my mind that I should answer the phone.

As we conversed, I was aware of how my (prayer-centered?) ability to stay calm and collected, going “the extra mile” to work things out, helped this client to lower her anxiety level and get the work done. (I even remembered to turn off my timer so it didn’t go off in the midst of our conversation!) We finished our discussion, I concluded my revisions for her, and then went on to complete my workday with a few additional tasks. Somehow I knew—instinctively—that I didn’t need to try to return to my interrupted prayer practice.

Later, I realized more consciously that I hadn’t needed to return to my prayer practice because God had, in that moment when I responded to my client’s need, invited me into living my prayer through action instead. I was still praying, and there was no question that God was with me, even in me, as I breathed peace and calm and assisted my client in getting out the door for a long-overdue time away from the office. It perfectly illustrated what I was told at that first Centering Prayer class: We are called to learn it well…and then let it all go.

Has this kind of a situation ever happened in your life? Were you able to let go of the need to “do it right” and trust that you were being called to do something different—that was still the right thing in that moment?

Can you open yourself to that type of “yes, and” approach to your discipline of prayer? Can you practice diligently, and then let it go when you are called to live it out in a new and different way?


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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.”


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.




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?


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?