Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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Silence and the Holy Land


So I’ve been back from the Holy Land for a week now. In the back of my mind, I think I had all sorts of ideas about how I’d already be sharing photos, impressions, experiences…but that’s not the way things have turned out. Instead, after three intense weeks of travel, my body succumbed to a rather nasty bug and I’ve spent much of the past week flat on my back instead.

Of course, God has used that, too. Our week in Israel and Palestine was so chock-full of experiences that there was very little time to reflect upon what was happening. Each evening in our hotel room I would take time to pull out our little laptop and record what I could of the day and my impressions. But just about every night, I’d also find myself awake at 3 am, processing even more. So I would get up and write again. It was an extremely full season in my spiritual life—but there was not much space for silence.

During these sick days, I’ve had time to get still, to just lie in the weak winter sun and rest, to let some of what happened filter from my overly active brain into my deeper being. For much of the week, I didn’t even have the energy to write any of it down, so I’ve had to trust God that I would recall what was really valuable—or let it become part of my life at a level beyond conscious memory.

I am also trusting that the fruit of this silence and stillness will show up in my life and my ministries. Part of the reason this Holy Land experience was so intense is that it was a Familiarization Tour, designed to provide potential group leaders with a taste of what’s possible if we were to lead a group of pilgrims to the Holy Land. I would like to do that, because I can already sense how connecting with the land—what they call the Fifth Gospel—has enriched my understanding of so many biblical events. (More to follow on that theme, but feel free to let me know if you would be interested in joining me!)

img_4318For now, I sense that I am called instead to pay attention to my own integration process, and let it take the time it needs to unfold within me. And so today’s picture echoes that theme…. The crusader Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem has amazing acoustics. The well-formed emptiness of the chapel allows even the smallest sounds to reverberate in the stillness with incredible beauty—thus effortlessly encapsulating the themes of my past month of blog posts. There is a place for emptiness and stillness, a place for silence—and then there is a time to open our mouths and let our voices reverberate in God’s holiness, trusting God to make of it something beautiful and powerful and transformational.

That time is coming for me. Is it coming for you?

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The Silence of Snow


One of the things I miss about winters in New England is the silence of the snow. Watching a curtain of falling flakes drift toward the ground in almost perfect silence is a visceral memory for me. The muffling nature of a blanket of snow feels very appropriate for the season—especially following on the chaotic busyness of the holidays.

We all need some muffling in our lives, at various times, in various ways. Whether it’s the barrage of information coming at us via electronic and social media or simply all the input we must wade through during the course of a workday, we live in a cacophony of sound—unless we are intentional about seeking silence.

But why seek silence? It’s such a basic, fundamental concept for me, yet I’m aware that we may not be doing a good job of teaching younger generations about the value of silence, of muffling the external and internal noise so that we might hear the “still small voices” in our lives: God, nature, our suffering neighbors and friends.

What would it mean for our world if each of us were to muffle our own chaos for some moments in order to hear the still, small voices of others? What might arise when God can speak, through the silence, to our deepest souls?

dsc_2444-eImagine yourself in a comfortable chair, bundled up in a winter quilt or fleece blanket, perhaps with your fingers wrapped around a cup of hot chocolate, tea, or coffee. Imagine gazing through a picture window upon a meadow covered in still, silent snow. The scene is “empty”—but not really. The snow covers many things—but they are still there, buried beneath the snow. Let the snow blanket muffle all those things. Let your mind become still, empty, silent. Let your breathing slow. Let your eyes close. Let your heart be open, waiting. Don’t “expect” anything. Just let yourself let go. See what might happen.

Join me?


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The Stillness of Ice


Winter does come to the Sonoran Desert. It freezes here, although not frequently. I’ve seen ice form on puddles in the early mornings, and if I need reminders of true cold, I can look across to the Catalina Mountains, which are high enough to gather snow while it rains here in the valley.

I’ve been reflecting further on the theme I started last week: on the need to foster emptiness, stillness, and silence in these winter days—especially as a way of recovering from a very full and busy Christmas season. Our culture—at least here in America—has effectively stolen Advent from us, replacing it instead with the chaotic busyness of holiday events, parties, lights, gifts, travel, family, and so on and so on…. We may try, but—especially for me last month—Advent stillness was hard to come by. So now, in this quieter, more reflective season, I am finding wisdom in my contemplation of ice.

img_3877Ice is literally reflective—which makes it a good choice for reflecting upon the season. Although it may not reflect its surroundings as clearly as water, ice is also not ruffled by wind. It stands solid, with a stillness that lasts as long as the colder weather holds. It can be moved by the larger forces of nature, or human intervention, but not by every gale of winter storm.

Ice can handle a lot more pressure than water. Think about the weight of an ice skater versus the bulk of a swimmer. Skaters might scrape up the surface of the ice, but the underlying layers remain still. Swimmers displace water, pushing it outward, disturbing the whole. Ice can endure much more because the gales of life slip along its surface and slide away.

Ice also protects. Deep bodies of water do not freeze completely, forming a barrier against the bitter winter cold and allowing the creatures who dwell in the depths to survive. In the same way, our seasons of stillness protect the parts of us that might not be able to withstand the gales which storm about us at some points in our lives.

Stillness also brings balance into our lives. If we spend all our time in frenetic activity, we can lose touch with our deep inner strength, our patient endurance, and our need to protect the more delicate parts of our soul’s habitat. When storms rage, we stand strong in our stillness and let the chaos fly by.

In what ways do you need to foster an appropriate icy stillness in this season of your life?


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The Emptiness of Bells


Christmastide is officially over. Gifts have been given, carols sung, food eaten. With a few intentional exceptions, the Christmas decorations have been taken down and stored away for another year. (A friend of mine declared recently, “I’m surprised how much the Christmas lights feed my inner spiritual joy. The ceramic houses that light up…will be featured until at least Candlemas…possibly even Shrove Tuesday!”)

Yet I can’t help but reflect on a continued sense of “fullness” from the Christmas season. Our hands were filled with gifts, our ears and hearts with carols, our stomachs with food. All of that is good—as far as it goes. But the problem is that we have so filled the season of Christmas with events and activities and material things that we are often filled to the bursting point.

I found myself, one recent afternoon, sitting in the wan winter sun in our living room, just wanting to let go. I wanted to release all the stuff and busyness and accumulated sense of accumulation. I was aching for emptiness, stillness, and silence.

As I sat in the silence, I found myself reflecting on an article I had just edited. The article spoke of a series of bells that represented different aspects of the spiritual life, but as I sat on the couch, I found myself thinking instead about how bells must be empty in order to resonate with sound.

dsc_0304-bell-ringing-cropI have seen many different kinds of bells, from all over the world, during the course of my life. I’ve rung a huge bell in Korea, taller than me, using a large external log suspended on chains. I’ve held in my hand tiny bells from the Middle East that encase small round balls that ring the bells when they are shaken. I often use a Tibetan singing bowl as an aid to meditation, and have awakened to the sound of church bells soaring over the Italian countryside.

All of those bells share one thing in common: they must be empty, or nearly so, in order to freely resonate. Anything cluttering up the inside of the bell will cause a hollow thunk rather than a resonant, sonorous ring.

Winter is often considered a season of slowing down and letting go. In the wake of a full Advent and Christmastide, what might you need to release during these winter days? Where in your life might you need to foster emptiness? What keeps you from resonating?


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Preserving Dependence on the Light


dsc_8111-lighthouseDid you know that the US Government has been auctioning off lighthouses? A friend recently mentioned this to me and I did a bit of research. Evidently, over a hundred historic lighthouses are now considered “excess government real estate assets” and are being sold to raise funds for preserving and maintaining lighthouses that are still active.

It’s intriguing to consider owning such an iconic piece of American history, but I’m more intrigued by the idea that we no longer need so many of these lighthouses. It would seem that we no longer need the light; we’ve become dependent instead on our own devices—literally, in the case of GPS and other modern marvels.

So what does that have to say to us, spiritually, as we begin another year? We’ve just celebrated Jesus’ birth—the Light of the World has once again come into the world (as if Christ ever left!). A new year begins, and each day is a bit longer here in the northern hemisphere, meaning that there is literally more light each day.

But are we paying attention to that Light, or are we fixated instead upon our own devices—be they the devices through which you’re reading this blog, or the devices that keep us safely cocooned for the winter, or the mental devices that allow us to avoid interacting with those who are different?

What would it mean for you to stop relying on your own devices—literally and figuratively—in 2017? How are you called to turn again toward the Light? What New Year’s resolution would you like to make today about embracing the Light, living in—and shining through—the Light of the World?