“I’ve always loved [the] image of prayer as birdwatching.”
~ Rowan Williams, 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, Being Disciples,
What is the shape and form of “prayer” for you?
Our living room looks out onto a grassy enclosure shaded by four mature pin oak trees. When we moved here, we named it Pin Oak Park.
Because the start of the pandemic coincided with the annual spring migration, I became interested in birds. A pair of Nikon binoculars sat conveniently on a shelf in our coat closet. So I took them off the shelf, pulled a director’s chair out under the trees, sat back and began to watch for movement in the branches.
At first, I saw the usual suspects: crows, robins, cardinals, sparrows. But occasionally I’d hear a distant call that didn’t seem related to any of the habitual nesters. A birder watcher friend told me about an app called Song Sleuth that helps birds by their songs. I downloaded the app on my phone. Presto! A new world opened up – the world of birdsong. I became mesmerized by the calls that sounded from tree to tree.
After a while I felt compelled to move beyond Pin Oak Park to terrain with habitats that attracted other birds: migrating warblers, for example. My favorite bird became the wood thrush, for its resonant flute-like call that rings through the forested areas of Fairmount Park:
Ee-oh lay, ee-oh lay
I learned something that seasoned birders have long known: birds that appear on the brilliantly colored pages of guide books don’t miraculously show up. You have to wait. And watch. Sit and wait. Stand and wait. Wait and watch. And listen.
Walking alongside the Delaware River in Bartram’s Garden with my friend Cary, she noticed a fluttering in the trees. I trained my binoculars on the spot but the movement was blurred. She saw a flock of yellow rumped warblers. I saw … a blur. Until finally, I spotted them.
Another time she texted me to say she’s seen and heard an indigo bunting in a meadow just walking distance from where I live. I rushed over with binoculars and cell phone. I stood. I walked. I stood some more. Then I sat on a log, waiting and listening for about an hour. Nothing.
In retrospect I see that the experience of bird watching bears a remarkable resemblance to prayer. In prayer and meditation, we sit in a comfortable position, back straight, shoulders relaxed, and wait. Often our waiting is interrupted by distractions, like the sound of a passing car. Or the name of an item missing from our grocery list. But then we center ourselves and continue our silent watch. If we’re lucky, we’ll feel a rustle, sense movement, maybe catch a glimpse of… Ah, bright wings!
Birding and watching for the movement of the Holy Spirit, I’ve discovered, are a lot alike.
Psalm 27: 14
Wait patiently for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait patiently for the LORD.