By Laurel Dykstra
Several years ago I participated in the Wilderness Way Community’s Lenten challenge: to spend 10 minutes each day outdoors in prayer or meditation. Due both to my own inclination and the fact that Lent falls where I live during spring migration, mating and nesting season, this experience, which I described to others as “going outside and paying attention,” quickly turned into going outside and paying attention to birds.
The practice, which I thought glibly might be an add-on or Lent-Lite, turned out to be anything but. It was simply prayer, with all of the accompanying joys and pitfalls. This less than a hundredth of my day, was powerfully and consistently rewarding—if I showed up, God showed up. I found unplumbable wonder in the contemplation of the ordinary. When I focused on observing or photographing a bird I was unselfconsciously myself, completely present in the moment in a way that I almost never am in the rest of my life. Those minutes stayed with me through the rest of the day, sometimes returning in sharp focus, but mostly scaffolding the mundane.
Despite being showered, flooded, besieged with gifts, my resistance to actually going out and doing what I had committed to was incredibly high. Every day I told myself it was too wet, too cold, I was too tired, too busy, every day. When I started to document my prayer practice, posting notes and photographs on social media under The 40 Birds of Lent, I was tempted to engineer the experience, to cheat. If I saw a number of extra exciting birds or got several good photographs on one day, I might save them for the next day. I had an agenda: what if God only sent birds I had already documented or the light was bad? I was vain, competitive: I wanted my spiritual practice to look good for others. This discipline of prayer, just like the spiritual heavy-weights promise, showed me myself and showed me God.
This week’s birds include the almost largest and almost smallest in our bioregion. The Bald Eagle is one of a pair that circled above the drums and sweetgrass smoke as thousands walked the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside at the Women’s Memorial March remembering Indigenous women lost and killed in our neighbourhood and our country.
And a Dark-eyed Junco (left), a versatile, common sparrow.
Towards the end of a grey, cold and unspectacular time of contemplation in my co-op courtyard, what I had taken for a crumpled dead leaf at the top of the kiwi vines gave a sharp click and shot away faster than the wind could have carried it to hovered jewel-bright at my teen-age neighbour’s window–a tiny Anna’s humming bird (below right). They used to come here to build their nests of lichen and spider’s web and winters further south, but urbanization, human feeding, and global climate change have moved their winter range to the north.
This is The 40 Birds of Lent’s fourth year. Reflections and photos will be posted on Radical Discipleship every Friday during Lent. I invite you to journey with me, read the blog, go outside, pay attention-–I can’t promise there won’t be cheating but I’m pretty sure God will show up.
Laurel Dykstra is the gathering priest of Salal + Cedar watershed discipleship community, Coast Salish Territory and the curator of Radical Discipleship’s Wild Lectionary.