THE SPIRITUALITY OF BIRD WATCHING INTRODUCTION
Michael F. Nartker, SM
Over twenty-five years ago my youngest sister got me interested in Birdwatching. She bought me a wonderful set of Binoculars which were small, light, and powerful and that I could also use for viewing the stars. She would take me walking in the nearby nature and wildflower preserves and we would see how many bird species we could identify. After several months I was hooked on birdwatching! (And I still used my binoculars to look at the stars every now and then.)
Over the years, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between birdwatching and spiritual life. It was especially the excitement of discovery that comes with the practice of both.
Yes, the excitement of those few moments of catching the sight of a bird rarely seen with its unique bright feather patterns and familiar song, were all part of the reward of seasoned and novice birdwatchers alike. In the spiritual life, sometimes it seems God is like a bird just waiting and wanting to be caught! The reward for those who choose to follow the discipline of the spiritual life is indescribable. The only difference is that in the end you will be the one caught by God.
Knowing the feather patterns and the songs of many species takes years of birdwatching in order to build up the confidence and skill for correct identification. In the end, one still needs the advice of the experts. This is where a seasoned specialist or even a group of seasoned birdwatchers can be helpful. The wisdom and years of others go a long way in helping one become experienced. Of course, the key word is “experience,” and that takes time and patience.
In the spiritual life “Theophilus,” or God Lover, as Luke called his sponsor, will look for a Spiritual Guide who is willing to walk the journey with him. This Spiritual Guide is a person whose knowledge is gained not just from his training and books but also from years of experience directing or guiding others. Needless to say, a seasoned Spiritual Guide is a rare person to find, but they are there.
The first and most important thing that I learned as a Birdwatcher and a Theophilus is that both practices require patience and silence! I purposely chose the word practicing because anyone can be quiet, but it is rarely practiced. Just jumping into the bush and trying to catch sight of a bird will only give the novice birdwatcher a few seconds of blurred feathers and a temporary cacophony of bird calls.
Needless to say, because a bird’s hearing is excellent, unnecessary conversation will only keep them at a distance. My first experience after rushing into the preserve to catch sight of birds was disappointing until I learned that silence and patience are the key.
One time in my disappointment at birdwatching, I decided that I would just stand still and be quiet no matter what. I was eventually rewarded! As I stood still with my camera at my side, a bright yellowish-orange blur landed in the lower branches of a tree. I waited. After a short while the blur flew down and landed on the ground not far from me. I slowly moved my camera to my eye and started taking pictures. Eventually the blur, which I later identified as a Baltimore Oriole, came closer to the base of a small tree right next to me, seemingly oblivious to my picture taking! What a rare treat!
The whole time the Oriole sang his specific song. Without realizing it, I not only learned his song but could identify his presence just by hearing him sing. Birdwatching is one of the few disciplines where identification by hearing instead of just seeing counts as evidence for identification. The modern bird reporting apps on computers allows one to electronically enter bird songs as well as bird pics as positive sightings.
Several years I enjoyed reading different books by various spiritual authors and praying from my prayer book. One day, for some reason, I decided to just be still and sit in the presence of the Lord without keeping busy with the written Word. Most of the time, though, it seemed I was like one of the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane…sleeping. However, over time, there was a subtle change or shift that I almost missed. I noticed that this meditation time was not all sleeping. I really was awake. While it seemed like the time had dragged on forever, in fact, too much time to account for had flown by. Yet I was always refreshed and wonderfully peaceful at the end of this quiet time. Whether time dragged on or flew by, a deep-down peace and freshness always rewarded me. I looked forward to this time that I literally gave to the Lord, even though it seemed the Lord was giving to me peace and refreshment, “…to safe waters you lead me, you restore my strength,” Psalm 23.
Eventually, only the continued practice of the stillness and patience of a birdwatcher helped me persevere in this practice of quiet presence. It seemed as though I was waiting for a bird to land in my lap. Many years later, I now know that this was the best preparation for me to experience the Lord; as simple as waiting for a little bird to land in my hand.
Once on a retreat at the Trappist Monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky, I happen to spy an older monk standing in the garden with his hand stretched out as if asking for an offering from some invisible person. Suddenly, a small chickadee landed in his hand and started eating seed that the monk had offered him. He saw me standing there, watching him in the distance, and silently beckoned me to come over and join him. I slowly approached until I was close enough for him to put some small seeds in my hand. He told me to just stand there quietly and the birds would eventually come and eat them. He later said that they are the most trusting of birds, even more so than city pigeons. The trick is to stand still long enough for them to land in your hand. And they did! Their little feet tickled, but I laughed out loud just for the seer joy of such an experience…and, of course, scared them away.
I would like to invite you along on a casual journey of the Spirituality of Birdwatching. Maybe you will get hooked too. I do promise little exciting tidbits from my own store of experience to entice you along a way that is both satisfying and rewarding. I hope the reward will be a deeper spirituality and relationship with the Lord…and birds.
It is exciting knowing that birdwatching can lend itself so well in helping us participate in these Attributes of God, which in the next section I will talk about them.