October 2004

Birdwatching, Spirituality and Evangelisation

Little Egret near Quarr Abbey, July 2004

When I was a boy, living near the Norfolk coast, I became a keen birdwatcher. Periodically that interest gets revived. On retreat at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight this summer I spent a substantial time sitting quietly on the shore, sometimes reading, sometimes praying, but often just allowing the populations of birds to visit with changing tides and weather. That serenity turned into excitement when I looked out and saw an unexpected white wader, surely not a Little Egret?

The sight stirred memories of boyhood learning of lists of rare birds (oh dear, that must have been 25 years ago). Was I mistaken? Was this an escapee from a zoo? Had I misidentified it? So I sat and looked, I tried to manoeuvre myself a bit closer and then waited some more, and observed. I attempted to photograph it, without startling success (see above) and tried to draw a few details of its appearance and behaviour so I could check with the books later. Later research taught me that there has been a change and that what was once a rare visitor is now a settled and breeding part of the southern English ecosystem.

I notice in Christian bookshops that John Stott, the leading evangelical preacher, has published a book on ‘The Birds our Teachers'. I haven't read it, so I cannot comment on its contents. However, the sight of its cover did make me think that birdwatching itself can teach us much of both spirituality and evangelisation.

In terms of spirituality this speaks to me about being in the right place with the right disposition. Although one can pray anywhere, it is often helpful to be in a location that is quiet and aesthetically pleasing with appropriate art and light which assists one focus on God. Even better, is to be before Jesus in the blessed sacrament. Of course spirituality is more than just prayer, but this close attention to being before God orientates one's whole life. Just as with birdwatching one needs to have the right attitude, the right openness to observe and recognise what is there. And often our perceptions are not clear, it requires patience and determination to make out where the movements of grace are in our lives and in our world.

And such an attitude of patient yet determined engagement with our world is necessary for evangelisation. We have to recognise what is before us with the eyes of faith. There is also another important evangelisation issue in my Little Egret. Just as British ecology is changing in both subtle and less subtle ways, so our human culture is undergoing alteration. Part of the missionary task of today is to see, understand and respond to these changes. It is essential that we are aware of the movements of culture, for it is in this developing context that God has placed us as messengers of the Kingdom. And if we look carefully we shall not only see the expected but we shall find delight in the unexpected epiphany of the divine.