Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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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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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?


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Continuous Learning


I grew up in the desert—although our yard did not reflect that. Albuquerque, New Mexico gets less than ten inches of rain a year, but I lived in the more fertile Rio Grande River Valley, in a city well supplied with aquifer water. We had grass and pine trees in the front yard, a horse pasture and garden in the back, and cottonwood trees on every side.

IMG_3244But I also grew up learning about cactus. If we drove up onto the mesa, a wide, flat area on the west side of the river, I could see various types of cacti and experience blowing sand and desert heat. I learned the names of cholla and prickly pear cacti and understood the precious value of water, even if the well from which our family drew its water never ran dry.

Our valley oasis in the midst of the desert was particularly clear when we flew in and out of Albuquerque on various trips. A ribbon of green literally cut through the desert, meandering along either side of the Rio Grande, through town and beyond in both directions, as far as the eye could see. Once we left the valley, flying west, all I could see was vast expanses of undulating shades of brown. There was beauty in the brown—spectacular shapes and shades of color—but the underlying desert showed through clearly.

Now I live in a very different type of desert. Stately saguaro cacti and tall palo verde trees (translated as “green stick,” for its green bark) actually make Tucson appear much greener than most of Albuquerque—at least beyond that fertile river valley. As Henry and I are learning about our own new microclimate, I’ve discovered that I am once again living in a fertile river valley. Although the Santa Cruz River runs nearby, it is dry for much of the year. The underground aquifer, however, has watered generations of crops in this area, mostly cotton, making our particular patch of ground more fertile than most.

Henry and I have moved a lot over the twenty-plus years of our marriage. One thing I’ve recognized is that there’s always more to learn about each habitat we inhabit. As summer slides into fall here—which is still plenty hot, but at least we can begin working on our backyard landscaping projects again in early mornings—we’re beginning to register for local gardening and desert-landscaping classes. They will teach us about the particularities of our new home, and how to garden in sync with the climate and the native species, rather than in conflict with them.IMG_3239

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the barrel cactus blossoms, which are peaking in these late-summer weeks—something I have not experienced before. There is always more to learn about this precious, God-given world we inhabit.

What have you learned this week? Where has God’s incredible creation spoken to you?


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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.”

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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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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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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.