I am birdwatching and praying. The two have a lot in common. Bird-watching is more than a hobby for me. It is a spiritual discipline, a facet of a life of prayer, an extension of my seeking, seeing, and hearing from the Spirit of Jesus. Not only do the disciplines of bird-watching and contemplative prayer appear strikingly similar, but I also see parallels in the tools as well.
Here are four disciplines of birdwatching that have enriched my spiritual life.
Watch and See
Both birdwatching and prayer have to do with seeing.A bird guide published more than fifty years ago says,“The only essential equipment for seeing birds is a pair ofeyes.”I have a pair eyes, but it took me two or three walks past a certain house to see a huge “28” on the front of the garage. I amaze my wife (who misses very little) at my ability not to see. I am too often in a hurry, preoccupied with some thought or upcoming event, and have my head down. I can pass by close friends without seeing them.
When I do slow down enough to see with my eyes and actually observe the world around me, I am awed by what I see. Onemorning, as I sat quietly and attentively along the wooded shoreline of Upper Whitefish Lake in Minnesota, I sighted a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Yellow-shafted Flicker, a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches and an Eastern Phoebe. The Sapsucker was a first sighting for me, but each bird was uniquely beautiful.
Unless I consciously choose to alter my pace and pay attention, I miss much of what is all around me in the physical world. This is also true of the spiritual realm. If I do not make room in my thoughts and schedule to give my attention to Jesus, or cultivate a hospitable heart, I am blind to his presence, his working and his speaking. It’s not that I pass him by; it’s that I don’t even “see” him walking right beside me, my traveling companion and guide. I also fail to recognise his Spirit looking out at me through the eyes of another. I miss the pleasure of enjoying his artistry in birds, sky, trees and people and in my own life. I miss the joy that overflows in praise.
Lift up your heads, O you gates;
lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
(Psalm 24.9 NIV)
Praise the LORD…flying birds…
young men and women,
old men and children.
(Psalm 148.7, 10, 12 NIV)
Listen and Hear
The bird guide goes on to say: “Good ears are a help, too.”I find that my ears, when alert, are the best tools I have for locating a bird in the first place. A call, the rustle of leaves, or thewhirr of wings gets my attention and turns my eyes in the right direction. Seeing and hearing work together. In contemplative prayer, to hear requires not only slowing down and paying attention, but also stillness. “Experienced watchers will often sit quietlyin a likely spot and let birds come to them….Don’t make yourself conspicuous…. Move slowly; the less time spend on the move, the better.”
There is a hurry-up motor running inside me. It is a challenge for me to take my time. I will, even when bird-watching, keep moving from place to place, pausing only briefly and then moving on when there isn’t enough action. I do see birds that way but am often disappointed I didn’t spot more or more interesting individuals. But when I do “sit quietly in a likely spot and let birds come” to me, I am surprised and delighted by what I see. In the handful of days my wife and I were on retreat at a lakeside cottage in Minnesota,I soaked my vision with (in addition to the birds already named) BaldEagles, Osprey, Loons, Herring Gulls, Hummingbirds, Mallards, Black-Capped Chickadees, Mergansers (51, swimming together!) – not to mention the ever-present Crows, perky Robins, and several species I was unable to identify. In a posture of quiet attentiveness and receptivity, I “hear” and “see” a great deal more than birds, within nature, people and myself.
Be still, and know that I am God….(Psalm 46.10 NIV)
Guides and Guidebooks
I have lived amidst birds my whole life – as we all have – but it wasn’t until I got hold of a guide book that I learned to recognize, identify, and get to know particular birds. I had to be mentored in seeing. Learning what to look for and how to look was not automatic and I gained a great deal by learning from those who were more experienced than I but whose wonder and love of birds I shared.
When I came to know Christ, the Bible came alive for me. God, through his Word, opened my eyes and began the life-long process of correcting my vision, and teaching me to see with the eyes of my heart. Like a good pair of binoculars, the Bible extended my ability to see truly. I was mentored in discerning the presence of Christ and his kingdom, not only by the writers of Scripture but also by others I read Scripture with, as well as more experienced spiritual guides. C.S. Lewis trained me to view the worldchristianlyand opened my eyes to new worlds through his books and essays. Eugene Peterson gave glimpses of what it looks like to become a “community of prayer in a self-bound society.”Emilie Griffin shared scenes from her experience of prayer. Annie Dillardtaught me to pray with my eyes open – to exegete creation in a posture of attentive prayer. Frederick Buechner showed me from his own spiritual journey how to listen to my life and so recognize God’s grace. I need to learn from others how to “see”.
Notes and Record-Keeping
My bird guide says, “A pocket notebook to record detailedinformation is worth carrying.” I can be a bit obsessive with my journal and pocket notebook, but I have discovered that a notebook and pen are tremendous aides to seeing, hearing, reflecting, writing and praying. I use them not only for specifically prayer-type activities but also as commonplace books where I take notes on sermons, books, experiences, thoughts, images, etc. These help me to sharpen my vision and retain what I have taken in. The act of recording, describing, reflecting and savouring what I see deepens the impression made on me by a bird or the Spirit.
As I have learned to “sit quietly in a likely spot”, intentionally watching, I have become more adept at noticing and appreciating birds as I go about my daily routines. In the same way, intentionally giving my attention to Christ in prayer, Scripture and worship – the “likely spots” for seeing Jesus, the places where he shows himself most clearly – I catch glimpses of him in creation, history, my story, others. I learn to see and hear him everywhere.
Prayer and birds are gifts of the Spirit of grace (who descended and alighted on Jesus inthe form of a dove!). Contemplative prayer and bird-watching are ways to receive and begin to unwrapthese gifts of love.
Birds – A Guide to the Most Familiar American Birds, Herbert S. Zim, Ira N. Gabrielson (Golden Press: New York, 1949, 1956).
Where Your Treasure Is, Eugene Peterson (Eerdmans); originallytitled Earth & Altar: The Community of Prayer in a Self-Bound Society (IVP).
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard (Bantam Books).
Listening to Your Life, Sacred Journey, Now and Then, Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner (Harper Collins).
Essays in Orni-Theology: With a Bible in one hand and binoculars in the other, John Stott opens window to the world of winged ones (Cindy Crosby.Christianity Today. 11/13/2008).
The Birds Our Teachers, John Stott (Hendrickson Publishers, 2011).
Photo credit: Maria Kummer (taken at Northumbria, 2004).