Being to the gift of each day: a talk with Robert Benson The shelves at Robert Benson’s home office weigh heavily from the many books of his favorite writers. My six wise guys, he calls them including Annie Dillard, Thomas Merton, Graham Greene writers he says have been given to me as teachers and guides. The reader indeed hears their echoes in Benson’s evocative prose; Benson’s first book, Between the Dreaming and the Coming True, drew favorable comparisons to the work of another of his mentors: Frederick Buechner. Now Benson’s newest, Living Prayer, continues his spiritual explorations, this time with a focus on prayer in daily life. Through images and personal stories he recounts his delighted discovery of the ancient Christian monastic tradition of using liturgical prayers throughout the day. Timothy Jones: What lies behind the title, Living Prayer? Robert Benson: My editors were the ones who came up with it. As they read bits and pieces of my story in the manuscript, they said, This is a book about living a life of prayer. I admit I am embarrassed a bit by the title. It implies that I’ve arrived in some way. I’m nowhere in the neighborhood of holy. But prayer is something pre-eminently to be lived.
TJ: What kind of reader will find this book helpful? RB: I wrote it keeping in mind people who have been in the church before, maybe all their life. But then they left. Or they’ve stayed but are dissatisfied.
They feel distant from the church because it didn’t speak to them in real ways about real things going on in their lives. They have had questions harder than somebody wanted to answer. Now they want to find or reclaim real ways to practice their faith. And real ways to pray.
TJ: You suggest in the book that nothing in our culture encourages us to marry our religion with the rest of our lives. RB: You don’t have a life and then somehow attach prayer to it. Prayer needs to sanctify all of life, not just pieces of it.
I grew up in an evangelical Protestant tradition. I learned one kind of prayer, extemporaneous prayer. That kind of prayer is fine as far as it goes, but until I was almost 40 years old that’s basically all I knew. Then I discovered the liturgy of the hours, sometimes called the daily office. Nobody had told me about this rich prayer tradition of the monks, about the regular prayers they have prayed for centuries. As I began to experience that kind of prayer, I connected at artistic, poetic, and spiritual levels. I said to myself, I have finally wandered my way into praying a kind of prayer that has lived in me all my life. Journaling, silence, and praying the Psalms and printed prayers are all part of this tradition. Suddenly I realized that there are all kinds of ways to articulate and live a wide-ranging life of prayer.
TJ: You write that today the primary rule of work is to cram as much into the hours of the days as you can. How is that a problem? RB: I worked for years in marketing and editorial departments in the music and book businesses. We all let work eat us alive. In our culture work takes all our energy. It’s the way we come to value ourselves and measure success.
Society overvalues work to the detriment of other values like prayer, rest, community.
TJ: But there’s another way. How would you describe it? RB: The life I live now as a writer is the life I always dreamed I would when I was 12 or 13. It took me about 30 years to get the courage and wisdom to actually try it. Not everybody should be a writer, of course. The world already has plenty of us! But whatever the profession, it seems to me that you can live in a way that lets who you are drive how you spend your time and energy, as opposed to what you do. TJ: How does prayer fit into that picture? RB: If all you do is work, then it is going to be hard to have any time to pray. Because most of prayer has to do with stillness and quiet and rest and waiting. It takes patience. Deep prayer is hard to do with a cell phone ringing in your ear. If you never stop, if you are never still, there’s a limit to what can happen when you pray. So take the phone off the hook. Or get up in the middle of the night. Or take a week of your vacation and spend it on a personal retreat in a monastery.
TJ: How can prayer, especially the monastic tradition of saying prayers at regular intervals, frame a day? RB: Those rhythms of prayer remind us the day is whole unto itself. When you pray the liturgy of the hours, you begin the morning by remembering God’s creation of the world, God’s saying, Let there be light. You remember that just as the world has been created, your day starts with your saying to God, in effect, Here I am. I’m sent off to work, to do what’s been set on my table.
Then in the middle of the day, according to the tradition, you stop, eat, rest, and pray. You acknowledge the gifts and graces God has given you and refocus yourself for the rest of the day. As you get to late afternoon, light begins to fade, and you allow yourself to pray, I didn’t get this or that done, or I can’t wait to get home to the kids. And the day fades and you say the vespers prayers. And the night comes and you ask Christ to be with you. Darkness comes, you put the house to bed, and you make your confession, and say, God is waking. Lord, guard my sleeping. And then what you do more than anything else is die. Because for all you know, for all the good you are for the next six or seven or eight hours, you’re dead. Until sometime in the darkness and void, there is light. And the day starts again.
This frame makes it possible to live fully in and for today. At the end of the day, I put all the day’s history aside, ready to start clean. Which means I can awaken with joy, not worrying about yesterday.
Timothy Jones is the author of The Art of Prayer (Ballantine) and 21 Days to a Better Quiet Time with God (Zondervan).