Spiritual Renewal Through Birding
An Interview with Annie Aguirre
by Linda Lehman Thomas
Photos by Annie Aguirre
Black-throated Blue Warbler (Taken at Pathways Retreat)
The other week Steve and I were strolling along the main trail at Pathways and saw a dark-haired person with something around their neck walking towards us with their head turned upward, scanning the treetops. As we got closer, I recognized Annie Aguirre who was, indeed, heavily laden with a camera and binoculars.
Annie, who works as the marketing and events coordinator for Elkhart County parks, is an avid birder and graciously agreed to a conversation.
How and when did you become a birder?
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest where I met an ornithologist studying crow behavior, woke up every morning hearing Osprey breeding calls, and developed a love of nature. I migrated to Indiana in 2015 and soon found a small group of birders that took me “under their wing”.
What is your birding practice now?
It varies a lot. I am very fortunate to have a job where I can regularly lead bird walks and programs, such as the "Wednesday Bird Walks" (offered on the first Wednesday of every month). Outside of work, I make a habit of keeping tabs on my favorite birding spots. Citizen science research plays a fairly large role in modern birding, and by making these regular check-ins, in a small way, it helps provide a snapshot on the health and overall abundance of birds in our area.
Ovenbird (Taken at Boot Lake Nature Preserve)
Is Pathways a good place for bird walks? What birds have you seen here?
Absolutely! Pathways has some great diversity in habitat, which in turn, brings a great diversity in birds. So far, I've listed 81 species at Pathways (the entire list can be seen here), since I started in March 2016. A few memorable birds so far include Red-breasted Nuthatch (which I found just the other day), Wild Turkey, Ovenbird, and some incredible up-close encounters with a pair of Black-throated Blue Warblers.
Pathways Retreat's mission statement is to be a spiritual retreat center for rest, reflection and renewal. Does your practice of bird walking provide rest, reflection and renewal? If so, how?
Yes, birding definitely plays a large role in my spiritual renewal. When I first moved to Indiana from Oregon in the summer of 2015, things were tough. I was recovering from surgery, feeling isolated, homesick, and dealing with a lot of loss. On a whim, I went on a walk with a group of local birders, who showed me great kindness and quickly welcomed me. During those walks, I didn't really notice the pain from my surgery, and my feelings of loss were replaced by feelings of curiosity, as the group taught me all about the fascinating lives of birds. The birding community helped me find confidence again. As I began to go birding on my own, I let myself reflect and let go of things in my past. Things remain very much the same to this day–birding is a way for me to share a love of nature with friends and feel centered.
Red-Breasted Nuthatch (Taken at Reith Interpretive Center)
One of our values at Pathways is contemplation, our response of awe to the awareness that everything is sacred. Is bird walking contemplative for you?
I think nature has an incredible way of providing us with connection–to community, to ourselves, and to God. When I needed support, I found it through a group that shared a passion for nature. Birding has given me a great deal of spiritual and personal insight, as well.
One thing I realized as I started to bird regularly was that observing birds meant observing nature as a whole. The arrival of Dark-eyed Juncos meant that the first snow was close at hand. When I was looking for the last of the season's mulberries, Cedar Waxwings revealed the location of a sun-sweet patch. One time, by paying attention to the warning calls of the birds around me, it even helped me avoid a dangerously close encounter with an aggressive (likely infected) coyote. There's so much out there, and simply by being aware of the subtle things in nature, I feel connected in ways I never did before.
Birding has also helped me practice acceptance. There have been times I've wanted to find a specific bird and dedicated a fair amount of time looking, without success. There's been other times I've come really close, but the bird slipped away before I could say for sure. Being left with the mystery like that–of almost knowing–I think carries over to a lot of things in life. It can be frustrating, but also a blessing. Having these kinds of unanswered questions about nature gives me an ongoing passion to explore.
Wild Turkey (Taken at Pathways Retreat)
This was a really, REALLY lucky shot!
Annie is leading a bird walk at Pathways!
If you’ve ever wanted to learn to identify birds by their calls, that is Annie’s special passion.
The first bird walk at Pathways will be
Sunday October 29 at 3:00.
Consider bringing binoculars,
hiking boots, outdoor attire, hat, etc.
There is no registration or cost for this event, though donations to Pathways Retreat are gratefully received.
By Evan Miller
Does this match your experience? On my first visit to Pathways I was surprised. I was surprised because I walked out the trail behind the retreat house, down the narrow strip of land between arbor vitae and spruce, and discovered that the path opened to a much wider and deeper space with woods, cottage, labyrinth, and meadow. It was like opening one of those Russian dolls, to find another doll hidden within that opens to reveal yet another treasure
I think I learned on my first trip that the open area east of the spruce trees was land that Pathways did not own, and that someday it might be developed outside of Pathways control. That seemed problematic. It didn’t take much imagination to foresee land use that would impinge on the quiet treasure of the woods.
In those early days, Pathways existed as 10 acres leased from Steve and Linda Thomas, as the area bordered in white in the satellite photo. (The retreat house is at the bottom of the photo. The top of the photo is the north edge of the property.)
Four years ago, Steve and Linda bought another 4 ½ acres, the area bordered in yellow in the photo below. Since then, Steve cleared the land of invasive brush and is planting it for additional spaces and paths to add to Pathways. This essentially expands Pathways land to 14 acres.
But all this time the space in the middle (bordered in pink on the photo) was owned by a neighbor, purchased back in the 1990’s with the intent to build one or two houses on it. In the summer of 2016 this neighbor let Pathways know that they had decided to sell it, and we had the opportunity to acquire it.
An anonymous donor, hearing of the situation, donated the funds to purchase the land, and we closed on the property last fall. This expands the total land under Pathways management to 17 acres!
In accepting the donation, the Pathways Board of Directors decided to let the land “be still” for three years before making decisions about how it will be used. We have, however, mowed a path on it so that it can be walked and prayed on. (In addition to maintaining the path, we’ll also be removing woody invasives, so it won’t be completely untouched.) You can access this path from just east of the Retreat House or from the main path at the point where it splits and enters the woods.
Speaking for the Pathways Board of Directors, we’re grateful that so many things have come together to make this possible. Thanks be to God!
By Evan Miller
On May 22, 2016, the Pathways Retreat board and staff formally commissioned me as a co-director. You may have seen pictures of the event on our website or Facebook page. For many of us, Julie and Linda have been the face of Pathways. Who on earth is this new face, and why did this happen?
In the coming months, I imagine Julie, Linda, or I may tend to the why question in this blog. For now, for those who don’t know me, I thought you might appreciate more about the Who. While you can read my bio here, in this post I offer the reflections that I shared with the board and guests at the commissioning service. I trust it will give you more insight into who I am, and my journey to this bi-vocational role. You’ll also get the backstory on the beautiful new singing bowl in the main Pathways Meeting room.
Reflections for Commissioning - May 22, 2016
Where does a story begin?
I’ve decided to start this story about 10 or 12 years ago in a spiritual formation group. I think that was the first time I began to realize that somehow, perhaps because of my own personal journey of spiritual awakening, I was intuitively recognizing echoes of that journey in other person’s stories. It was my first stirrings to a possible call to the ministry of spiritual direction.
Eventually I began to test that call in conversation with others, and that eventually led me to Marlene Kropf’s year-long seminar in spiritual direction at AMBS. I’m not sure which surprised me more: that I was taking a class at AMBS, or that I felt so at home in it.
As I completed that course, I imagined that I would find a couple of directees, and that this spiritual direction thing would eventually be a nice retirement project. But a number of things happened very quickly, among them a letter from Linda prompted by Marlene, inviting me to get involved at Pathways.
And as I began practicing spiritual direction, I found myself saying, “For this I was born.”
Over the next few years, this sense deepened, and with it conflicted feelings about the world of business. My business world seemed arid and meaningless compared to exploring the depth dimension with my directees. I found little relief from anxiety, stress, and compromise.
Yet my own director invited me to look at my company with the eyes of a spiritual director. “If all creation is groaning for redemption, could it be that our human institutions - including your for-profit business - is also seeking wholeness and redemption? And almost simultaneously, an executive coach I was working with at the time asked me the same question. It was too much to ignore.
Eventually I landed at Richard Rohr’s Living School of Action and Contemplation, and had personal experience with Richard and our other two core faculty, Cynthia Burgeault and Jim Finley. At the last gathering at our first weekend together in Albuquerque, Jim advised us on returning to our “real lives” after this intense week of study and community. He said when you go back, “What’s in the way, is the way.”
That hit me like a personal zinger: “What’s in the way, is the way.”
So I came back, and the business promptly went into a tail spin. At the height of it, I cut my hours back to ¾ time to help reduce expenses and create space for others to step up their efforts. I was reading John of the Cross, the desert fathers and mothers, and Thomas Kelly, and everyone in between. Pathways launched our first capital project, and we formed the Associates. How to put all this together? I was still stuck on my vision from years ago: first one, then the other.
Then something profound happened last winter when Sara and I were invited to give a retreat on contemplative prayer practices to the Mennonite Pastors of Northern Michigan.
We were warmly welcomed, and what we shared was well received. But of course in this kind of setting, one receives far more than one gives. What I received was that through the weekend it slowly dawned on me that every one of these people were engaged in bi-vocational ministry. They were teachers, farmers, excavators… and deeply sincere, deeply committed church workers.
Slowly, and in conversation with Linda and Julie, I began to realize that I had set up a false dichotomy: now/then, business/ministry. Perhaps I was called to do both now.
I already had release from the business to a ¾ time position. Perhaps it was already time to make official what was already beginning to happen at Pathways.
The Quakers talk about discerning God’s will as Way - Way opens - Way closes. With time and patience, Way becomes clear.
As I’ve leaned into this bi-vocational idea in the last five months, I’ve experienced Way opening for me on both paths. The business has recovered from it’s tail spin and looks ahead to significant growth. It needs me right now in ways that I cannot ignore. And I think I have a contribution at Pathways beyond both my work on the end of a shovel, or even in my personal ministry of spiritual direction.
Or maybe Way has been open all along and I’ve just stopped resisting so much. And we arrive at this place, on this day with me wondering… What’s next? The only thing I know is that I don’t know.
And so we come to this Singing Bowl, which I purchased for Pathways a few weeks ago. Ever since we opened this new retreat house, it seemed to me that we needed a singing bowl that was appropriate to the size of this room. The retreat center we met in Petosky had a bowl that was about this size, and they were happy to let us use it instead of the bowl that I had borrowed from Pathways. So there is direct connection for me with this larger singing bowl and that weekend in Northern Michigan.
But this bell also reminds me of Jim Finley’s teachings, and I thought I’d share something from him that captures something of what is emerging at Pathways.
I’m guessing as I read this you’ll feel a bit like me when I read it, which is that it doesn’t make sense. I don’t quite understand it. But in a way, if I don’t overthink it, it does make sense. In a way I do get it. Or maybe it gets me.
Jim is talking here about why we study the mystics - why we read St. John of the Cross, and Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr… He says,
The mystic is the one that realizes that the word God, whatever our tradition is, God, is a sound that bears witness to the infinity of this. [Bell] Like that. God is the word we use for the infinity of that. And simultaneously this [bell] is the concrete immediacy of God. [Bell] That God is the word we use for the infinity of this. [Bell] And this is the concrete immediacy of God.
And instead of this [bell], it's the orchid, [bell] or your beating heart, [bell] or your sadness, the end of the day, turning to see a flock of birds descending. You can't explain it, but your awakened heart knows that it's true. That God is the infinity of this day's end. And this day's end is the concrete immediacy of God.
That's why at this moment if we could really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really see what we really, really, really, really, really, really,really are, we'd all see God, really, really, really, really, really, really, really emptying herself, giving himself away, pouring himself out as all of us sitting here just the way we are. Nothing missing anywhere. Just like that.*
Nothing missing anywhere. Just like that. [Bell]
May God grant us eyes to see God pouring God’s self out as all of us, just the way we are. Nothing missing anywhere.
* From an unpublished conference presentation: “Spiritual Healing of Trauma”. Available from www.contemplativeway.org.
Thoughts along the way
By Linda Lehman Thomas
It’s 5:18 a.m. and I’ve lain awake in bed for over an hour, wrestling with myself. I awoke with the thought that, “It’s time.” Time for what?
Yesterday was the open house celebration for the expansion of Pathways Retreat. This little retreat center that emerged from a spiritual friendship—which began as a seminary class requirement—is now going “public.” The text for the service yesterday was from The Message:
…You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.
God is not a secret to be kept.
We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill.
If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you
under a bucket, do you?
I’m putting you on a light stand.
Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine!
Keep open house; be generous with your lives.
By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God. (Matt. 5.14-16)
During the service I shared how years ago the executive board consulted with Stanley Kropf about expansion and the question that stayed with us from that encounter was, “Is this a private or public ministry?” In other words, is Pathways a private place for Julie and I to do ministry with a small group of people or is it a public ministry, involving the larger community? The answer to this question has many ramifications: legal, organizational and financial, to name a few.
As the board listened and discerned, we sensed the latter: this was to be public. So we took a next step by inviting several spiritual directors to be associated with Pathways. We didn’t go looking for spiritual directors who needed a home. Rather, when we looked around us they were already there, waiting alongside the path. So now we had more support, both administrative and ministry support, to go public.
The next step was clear. More physical space was needed to make room for more people. Much to our astonishment, the design for this space became clear and finances were provided by the generosity of many individuals, churches, businesses, and a grant. So, yesterday Julie and I said good-bye to our private ministry and acknowledged that we’re going public with this – as public as a city on a hill. It’s time and we’re ready.
I’m not awake in the wee hours of the morning wrestling with this. No, rather, I’m wrestling with the idea that this means it’s time for me to personally go public as well. I sense I am called to share my thoughts along the way. These thoughts are sometimes quite entertaining to me, but for all of my life have been kept inside.
This idea is scary and feels rather presumptuous. I’m aware of a fluttering anxiety in my stomach, and yet I can’t sleep because the deepest part of me knows it’s time for this too. So this blog starts today, the first day of Pathways Retreat’s going public. Something is right about it. Here we go and we’ll see what it becomes…
As the ministry of Pathways Retreat grows, this is a place for the directors to share their thoughts along the way. Enjoy!