Balance and The Spiritual Life: An Interview with Robert Benson
By Caroline McReynolds-Adams
“The Rule of Saint Whatever-Your-Name-Is: Finding Balance in the Spiritual Life” is a two-day retreat that will guide individuals through the spiritual practice of creating and sustaining their own Rule of Life. With the Rule of Saint Benedict as a guide, participants will spend time in silent contemplation, guided reflection, and sacred liturgy to work to restore a rhythm and a balance to the spirituality of their work, prayer, rest, and community. The retreat will begin at 5:30pm on Monday, July 13 and go to 1:00pm on Wednesday, July 15. Register online here.
As we prepare for the retreat this summer, retreat leader Robert Benson, esteemed writer and public speaker, was able to answer a few questions about his experience in the work of spiritual formation.
Interview with Robert Benson:
You write frequently on the importance of balance in the spiritual life and you refer to the structure of this balance as a “Rule of Life.” For many, the term “rule” can be intimidating and oppressive at first glance. Can you talk some about how you understand the term “rule” and its importance in the spiritual life?
Saint Benedict himself calls his rule a regula, because, as he says, ‘it regulates the lives of those who live it.’
We all live our lives according to a ‘rule’ of some sort. We work certain days of the week, we have certain days off; we take our children to school and other places according to someone else’s rule; we worship certain days and do not on others; we get paid on someone’s schedule and take our vacations that way as well; we have responsibilities and relationships that determine how we spend our hours and days, and on and on and on.
To me, the question is not whether or not we live our lives by a rule of some sort, it is whether or not we recognize the rule by which we are living, and whether or not we consciously and thoughtfully shape it in ways — daily, weekly, monthly, annually — that will feed our spirits rather than diminish them.
The spiritual life is largely a matter of staying awake, and that includes paying attention to the way you live day in and day out.
You use the Rule of Saint Benedict as a tablet of sorts for creating our own rule of life. Can you explain how/why you see this ancient, monastic rule to be relevant and needed today?
I do not mean to suggest that we live our lives as monastics, unless, of course, we happen to be a monastic.
What I do believe is that the frame of Benedict’s Rule — the call to achieve a balance between prayer and work and community and rest — is a better place to start to build a rule for living our lives than the rule of life that is generally given to us by the consumer culture we live in.
The culture’s rule largely is only interested in our work life and our community life, our rest and our prayer are squeezed in around the edges or squeezed out altogether. Which means that half of who we are goes poorly attended to.
Benedict’s frame for a rule of life helps us to be thoughtful and practical about tending to the half of our life that often goes uncared for.
In your book A Good Life: Benedict’s Guide to Everyday Joy, you outline four primary Rules of Life: Prayer, Work, Rest, and Community. Which of those rules is hardest for you to maintain and why?
The rules for prayer and rest are always the most difficult.
If I do not do my work, I hear about it from someone. If I do not attend to the communities to which I am given — family, friends, neighbors, and so on — I will hear from someone about that as well. No one ever asks me if I have made my prayers each day or gotten enough rest or had a retreat lately. They assume I am taking care of those things ‘on my own time’ and only bring it up if I seem to be too stressed or crazy to get done the things they want me to get done.
Work and community are noisy characters and always make themselves heard. Prayer and rest are quieter and always require planning and discipline.
What is it that you hope retreat participants will glean most from our time together?
I hope we can help each other see that we are meant to live one life, not two — a real life here and a spiritual life over there.
I hope we can help each other begin to learn to make realistic and practical choices about the balance in our lives.
I hope we can help each other not be afraid to build a rule for our lives. We are going to live by one anyway, it may as well be one that feeds our souls and holds us close to the things we hold dear. It may as well be the Rule of Saint Whatever-Our-Name-Is.
Robert Benson writes and talks about living a more contemplative and prayerful life in the modern world. He has written more than a dozen books about the search for and the discovery of the Holy in the midst of our everyday lives. His work ranges from books on prayer and spirituality, to travel and gardening, to baseball and the Rule of St. Benedict. They include Between the Dreaming and the Coming True, Living Prayer, In Constant Prayer, The Echo Within and his most recent work, Dancing on the Head of a Pen. His work has been critically acclaimed in publications as diverse as The New York Times, Publishers’ Weekly, American Benedictine Review and dozens more. He is a lifelong churchman, an alumnus of The Academy for Spiritual Formation, a member of The Friends of Silence & of the Poor, and was recently named a Living Spiritual Teacher by Spirituality & Practice.com. He lives and writes and pays attention in Nashville, Tennessee. More information is available here.
Caroline Adams is an Assistant Director of Education, Programming and Connections at Scarritt Bennett Center. She works primarily with Spiritual Formation programming which includes programs such as Tuesdays in the Chapel, Vespers and All That Jazz, Poet’s Corner, and the Laskey Gallery. She holds a Masters of Divinity and a Certificate in Religion and the Arts in Contemporary Culture from Vanderbilt Divinity School.