Spiritual Reflection – On the Watching of Birds
Look at the birds of the air. —Matthew 6:26
Writing in his book ‘On the Way: 100 Reflections on the Journey of Faith’, James J. Rawls compares spiritual discipline with the activity of bird-watching. He suggests that the guidelines for bird-watchers apply equally well to people who are seeking to find the Spirit. What follows below in italics is Rawls’ explanation of these guidelines and how they apply to the spiritual practice.
The first and most elementary guideline for bird-watching is to study the book. Every birder knows it is essential to spend time studying a good field guide before going out looking for birds. So it is for seekers of the Spirit. Time spent studying the Word of God pays rich dividends as we seek the presence of God. In one of our collects from the Book of Common Prayer, we acknowledge that the Lord has caused “all holy Scriptures to be written,” and we pray we may have the wisdom to “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.”
A second guideline for good birding is to follow a personal guide. When I was in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland a few summers ago, I followed a local guide named Russell. He knew the Cairngorms well and led me one day to a rocky outcropping where perched below was an elusive wee bird known as a snow bunting. Only a dozen pairs nest in Scotland during the summer. Without Russell’s expert guidance, I surely never would have seen one.
Mentors or guides are of equal value in our spiritual life. Many of us seek guidance from ancient souls of distant lands. Numbered among my own revered guides (which is evident from my series of reflections) are Augustine of Hippo, Ignatius of Loyola, and Julian of Norwich, as well as more recent luminaries such as Evelyn Underhill, Fleming Rutledge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alan Jones, and C. S. Lewis.
Birders also know the importance of learning when and where to look. Early mornings are a prime time to go birding as awakening songbirds begin their dawn chorus, and remote islands are excellent places for good bird-watching. Spiritual seekers, likewise, are drawn to what are called “thin places,” places where the veil seems thin between our everyday world and the world of the Spirit. It may be a faraway place halfway round the world, or it may be the pew of our own parish church early on a Sunday morning. We each need to discover the time and place where our yearning for God best finds what it seeks.
Another quintessential guideline for birders is to be quiet and patient. Our Lord gives seekers the same advice and offers the same assurance. Whenever we have no sense of God’s presence in our lives, we need to practice the discipline of quiet patience. “Be still,” our loving Creator says. “Be still, and know that I am God!”
Perhaps the most important guideline is to stay focused. Birds have an uncanny ability to focus their vision; their visual acuity is eight to ten times greater than ours. To enhance our viewing of them, we use such mechanical aids as binoculars and spotting scopes.
We spiritual seekers also need to stay focused. To aid us in that focus, we have the matchless gift of the incarnation—the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is Christ who brings the presence of God most clearly into focus for us, revealing the divine nature in a unique and powerful way. What once was distant is now with us, is now in and among us. Simply put, Jesus Christ is our essential equipment for experiencing God’s presence.
Rawls, James J. On the Way: 100 Reflections on the Journey of Faith. WestBow Press. Kindle Edition.