What can birdwatching teach us about prayer? About noticing God’s work in our world? Read on as Tish Harrison Warren directs our gaze through her “binoculars.”
Attentiveness: Learning to Watch from Birders
By Tish Harrison Warren
My personal superheroes of attentiveness are birders.
There is an overlooked, workaday poetry in the little-known world of birders. Like all great poets, birders speak out of their profound observation of the world. They remind us that glory comes only by watching and waiting, by keeping an eye out for what most of us miss. Birdwatching websites and magazines are positively endearing to anyone who has ever been a jaded urban dweller. They are a breath of earnest fresh air. One birder’s report reads. “The first species that I noticed turning up this year was a tufted titmouse singing Peter, Peter, Peter in our orchard on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late January. His song was my first aural reminder that winter will eventually fade.”
If we have any hope at all, our hope is eschatological – that God will at last make this sad, old world new again.
Jesus is our first aural reminder that winter will fade. His resurrection is a real and fleshy promise.
But when Jesus ascended, he did not simply leave us with a token to remember him by until he returns. He promised to keep working. He sent his Holy Spirit to his people. The promise of the resurrection is also that Jesus is still at work today, in our own lives. In the present tense. So we wait and watch for the coming kingdom, when God will finally set things right, but we also wait and watch for glimpses of that kingdom here and now.
Prayer teaches us this craft of watching – not only for the eschaton but for God’s work in our daily lives. Rowan Williams writes, “The experienced birdwatcher, sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knows that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view.” He likens this to prayer: you sit still, waiting for glory, for grace, for God’s presence. He writes, “Sometimes of course it means a long day sitting in the rain with nothing very much happening. I suspect that, for most of us, a lot of our experience in prayer is precisely that … And I think that living in this sort of expectancy – living in awareness, your eyes sufficiently open and your mind both relaxed and attentive enough to see that when it happens – is basic to discipleship.”
Christian discipleship is a lifetime of training in how to pay attention to the right things, to notice God’s work in our lives and in the world. Through long practice, we unfix our gaze from distractions and fears in order to attend to that which God attends. We learn to watch. Silence, stillness, and attentiveness are in short supply in our increasingly loud, digitized and frenetic world.
The church’s task is to learn to keep our eyes peeled for how God is at work. We gather each week, watching for the coming king. And with the earnestness of the Audubon society, we look for the quiet, overlooked glory in our midst, for God’s perplexing yet healing presence in the world. We watch for glimpses of the redemption to come, even now. Through prayer, through gathered worship, through the Scriptures and sacraments, we train our eyes to notice the light in the darkness.
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary,
bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted,
shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen
Book of Common Prayer
Taken from Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren © 2021 Tish Harrison Warren. Published by InverVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, which was Christianity Today's 2018 Book of the Year and the recently released Prayer in the Night. Her articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Religion News Service,Christianity Today, Comment Magazine, The Point, and elsewhere. She is a founding member of The Pelican Project and a Senior Fellow with the Trinity Forum. She lives with her husband and three children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.