Friday, May 05, 2017

Ornitheology: Birding as a Spiritual Discipline

My seven-year-old son recently discovered that I have a website, and wanted to see it. So I showed him a few of the various links here on The Peace and the Passion, and explained that blogging is a way for people to publicly display and write about the things that interest them. 

He looked at me and shook his head. "Dad, if that's true, there need to be more birds here!"

And he's right. While my essays, and some of my poems, are written in the hope that they'll be of interest and encouragement to the general public, I've always kept my blog as an arena for my own delight, without much thought as to whether it will be widely appreciated or not. For some reason, though, I've not often connected this blog with my interest in birds, save as the subjects of my photos. But since birding is my pastime of choice, and brings me great joy, it does seem fitting that I should share a bit more about it here. My blog, after all, is subtitled "Reflections on the Christian Life," and birding is a major feature of this particular Christian life, redeemed and sanctified right along with every other aspect of my mind, heart, body, and daily living. 

Over the course of this summer, I'm going to be posting a series of spiritual reflections inspired by various birds, many species of which have long symbolic traditions in Christian art and thought. But before we begin that series (which will be posted in the weekly "Friday Feature" slot), it seems fitting to take a moment to commend birding as useful spiritual discipline to my readers, whether you already have an appreciation for birds or whether you're yet to reach that manifestly eminent stage of Christian enlightenment.

This is a subject that was dubbed "Ornitheology" (a portmanteau of "ornithology," the study of birds, and "theology") by the prominent pastor, author, and Bible teacher John Stott, who also happened to be a lifelong birder. Now, to the uninitiated, a passion for birds might seem as peculiar a thing as a fondness for patristics, medieval iconography, or quatrains of arcane verbiage. But birds really do have an immediate appeal that most people can appreciate--as winged wonders that seem to transcend the limitations of our plodding, terrestrial existence, they are often the inspirations for our highest works of art; and, as a hobby, birding is one of the most popular pastimes in the world. My own love for birds has waxed and waned through various seasons of my life, but it seems to be innate--some of my earliest memories have to do with a feeling of fascination regarding birds. 

OK, OK, so a lot of people like birds. But why should you, in particular, bother to think about birds, or take any of your valuable time to go slogging about the countryside looking for them? I have a few good reasons for you, some rather practical and some more reflective. 

First, birding is one of those rare hobbies that combines the admirable qualities of being as cheap as you want it to be (or, if you have lots of money to throw around, as expensive as you want it to be), of encouraging healthy interaction with nature rather than with a glowing screen indoors, and of promoting a bit of pleasant physical activity. It engages us in something real, something beyond the scope of our own limited, technology-driven agendas. It draws us outside of ourselves and our creations, and directs our attention back to the Maker's world, the creatures he designed for his own glory. 

Second, birding is a hobby that is both remarkably accessible and remarkably challenging. That's a balance that video-game designers aim for in all their productions, and it's something that's always been available for birders. It's accessible: even the novice can simply wander outside, look around, and start spotting birds and noticing their differences. There are often dozens of species in any given area (sometimes hundreds), with such a wide variety of sizes, plumage, and behaviors that the hunt for spotting them all--some more common, some rarer--becomes an exercise in delight. It doesn't hurt that many species are remarkably beautiful. So it's immediately accessible and rewarding, even to the novice birder. But it's also a challenging activity: birding is the sort of hobby that offers new levels of discipline and enjoyment the further one proceeds. Even after one has learned to identify many species by sight, there are still the challenges of learning to identify birds in plumage that varies by age and season, recognizing their songs and calls, and understanding their behavior. Birders who have been at it for decades often say that they're still learning. Thus birding is both immediately rewarding and nearly inexhaustible; a rare combination in a hobby.

Third, it's a hobby that teaches the priceless skills of patience, silence, and attentiveness. We live in an age where self-help gurus can make millions just by teaching people how to return to a sense of "mindfulness." We are too often distracted by all the multitudinous stimuli with which we surround ourselves, and we end up feeling harried and unanchored as a result. Birding, by its very nature, draws us back into habits of mindfulness and peace, of giving up our hectic pace and learning to wait for nature's beneficence to emerge in its own time.

And for the Christian, birds can carry a special appeal beyond all those factors. We've long used birds in our symbolism, as metaphors for the way our spirits respond to God. As an example of this symbolic association, consider the popular artistic rendering of angels: though they are spirit-beings of indefinable physical form, they are often portrayed, both in Scripture and beyond, as being human beings with birds' wings. The Bible regularly calls attention to birds as metaphors and examples for various important principles in the Christian's life. A bird is even one of the primary symbols of a member of the blessed Trinity itself (the Holy Spirit, represented by a dove). 

If that's not enough for you, consider that Jesus himself actually commands his disciples to study birds: "Look at the birds of the air!" (Matt. 6:26) Though Jesus mentions birds as an example to make a specific point in that passage, the imperative he uses ("Look!", blepo in Greek) means more than just a quick glance; it refers to a sustained act of observation, of paying attention, of study. Birds are intended to be reminders to us of God's faithful watchcare over his creatures. They sing for joy, just as we do, and they fly the endless skies, just as our spirits soar in answer to the love of God. Birding gives us a chance to delight God by taking delight in his works. So go forth, and look at the birds of the air.