Prayer and watching birds may not seem obvious activities to combine, but for me as a Christian who enjoys watching birds, there are special occasions when they do. Afterwards, I am left with memories of special moments when I felt in awe of God and especially thankful of his love.
Let me admit that I find prayer extremely difficult. I have tried various formulae of prayer, for example using the ‘ACTS’ approach of adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication, or amplifying the Lord’s Prayer.
Whatever technique I adopt, however, my prayer seems contrived; the words ring hollow and I soon become discouraged at yet another ‘failed attempt’ to pray.
The twin problems of insufficient time and distraction persist too. I feel guilty that I don’t more often make the time to pray, and, when I do, my mind seems beset by the ‘noise’ of trivial thoughts and a tendency to dwell on daily concerns.
I doubt that I am alone with such frustrations, but that awareness does not help at the time. How can I draw close to God, when I don’t pray?
Ironically, a similar frustration affects my birdwatching. I don’t seem to have enough time to do it. Of course, in both prayer and watching birds there are issues of balance, coping with the typical pressures of modern life like the day job, family commitments and church-related duties.
Curiously, watching birds can present temptations which for me are echoes of those I experience in prayer, notably the tendency to rush.
Readers have probably heard of ‘twitching’ and may think the activity is synonymous with birdwatching. It isn’t. Twitching represents one potentially extreme kind of birdwatching, involving the pursuit of rare birds that others have found and publicised.
For me, the joy of watching birds lies in the mental absorption as I concentrate on observing a bird and its behaviour. I look at it through binoculars, telescope and naked eye, as I note its plumage, listen to its song and watch it feed, fly and interact with other birds.
On occasion, I can be mesmerised and lose track of time as I simply enjoy watching and being in the presence of a particular bird. There is no thought of the next task or a concern that I must move on to do something else.
On these occasions, watching birds becomes prayer for me when words of thanks pass my lips. Often as I walk away I simply say, ‘Thank you, Lord’, and feel a sense of gratitude to God for creating such a wonderful creature.
Sometimes I recall the words of Jesus, who taught that individual sparrows are loved by God, and I remember his lesson that God loves each of us uniquely, much more than we can know or understand.
The biblical image of a bird detested by human beings, but loved by God as part of his creation, is one of the reasons why a Short Eared Owl features in the publicity for the ‘Even Sparrows’ weekend retreats that I lead in Holy Island.
These weekends are unique retreats that combine prayer, meditation and Christian teaching with guided birdwatching in beautiful places like Holy Island.
And the owl is one of the birds we can see there. The sight of it invariably causes a flutter of excitement among the group, as we stop and watch it fly to and fro only a few feet above the ground on a hunt for voles.
That sight is always a highlight, a ‘wow’ moment that prompts me to marvel. Thank God for Short Eared Owls!