As I read ‘In Constant Prayer’ in my borrowed student bedroom at the University of Kent (accommodation for Lambeth delegates and workers) I was shocked at the extent to which I was drawn into the world of Robert Benson. No other author’s work has ever resonated with me at such a deep level, but Benson, living a continent and a culture away (he is an American from Tennessee) seemed to understand how I thought and felt about a lot of ‘stuff’ that seems to have shaped both our lives.
I find it incredibly difficult to verbalise the depth of feeling and the experience of reading these books. Other authors have impressed and inspired me with their writing..the atmospheric, lived spirituality of R S Thomas poetry, the fantasy of Tolkien and Lewis (and the latter’s clear and accessible theology) and other writers of history, archaeology, philosophy, theology and spirituality too numerous to list (although Tom Wright deserves a special mention) but none have stirred and involved me like Benson. You may have noticed an absence of fiction writers here…although I read pretty widely in my younger days I guess at heart I’m a non-fiction kind of person!
Benson and I seem to share several life experiences. We were born in the same year (I think he’s a little older than me), we share a common faith, would probably describe ourselves as introvert and contemplative, appreciate the structure of the daily office in our prayer lives, draw inspiration from the life and work of St Benedict, have more than a passing experience of depression and have people close to us suffering from dementia. On the other hand, he is an American (a culture I confess I struggle with) and a lover of baseball, a sport which I neither know about or understand…
When I read his books I enjoy the opportunity to enter his world and relish the joyful experience of accompanying him on the journey through the text. Each book is like a long, leisurely conversation, and I always feel a deep sense of loss when the conversation and the journey through the book is over…although the journey continues in my thoughts.
Benson says that he writes,
“two kinds of books about one thing – paying attention. I write about paying attention for the things that can point us to the Sacred in our lives.”
Some of the books are overtly religious, written for people who are comfortable with talking about those things, while others are less overtly religious. They are about ‘everyday’ subjects like travel, baseball and gardening, trying to demonstrate that the Holy can be found in the ordinary, if only we have eyes to see. I guess for a person like me who has not always found that traditional church is a good place to be, ‘finding God in the ordinary’ has become very important.
In my next post I’ll make some suggestions about how you might get into the books of Robert Benson, for anyone whose appetite has been whetted by my posts so far.