The Echo Within: Robert Benson

A writer ought to offer something worth saying as well as something worth hearing. Some authors have a thing or two to tell me, but frankly, after a few pages, I don’t care to hear it. I’ve come to believe that truth without beauty … well, isn’t truth. I reveal my bias here, but writing is a sacred calling (just as is photography and carpentry and mothering and leading a parish); and I don’t understand “writers” who don’t seem to give a rat’s ass about the actual craft of writing. And it’s no better with religious books (maybe worse). Slapping the name Jesus on bad art still leaves bad art. My hunch is that Jesus doesn’t much appreciate the association.

Thank God, however, there are writers like Robert Benson.

If you’ve hung around Miska or me very long, you’ve probably heard Robert’s name tossed about. Miska has recommended (or given away) Benson’s Living Prayer more than a few times. And a few summers back, the small community that met in our home read A Good Life, Benson’s exploration into St. Benedict’s Rule.

Robert’s latest book, The Echo Within, offers his ruminations on embracing one’s calling and vocation. It’s a fabulous read. I loved the numerous (and conflicting) ways I encountered his wise mind and artful pen. On one page, I’d find myself saying, ah, yes, that’s what I’ve been trying to say. And on the other pages, hmmm, I’ve never seen it that way before. One moment, I’d laugh out loud; other moments I’d sense a deep piercing where a word or image had landed well. I think collisions like these signal how we are on to something good.

Our exploration for what we are called to be and do, for what deep gift is uniquely ours to inhabit and then give away, is one of our most central, most human, questions. By virtue of both living so many years in a university context (among young friends beginning to chart their way) and by simply having the kinds of conversations pastors tend to have, I’ve long lost count of how many times I’ve heard this question: how do I know what I’m supposed to do with my life? We’re all asking this when we’re twenty-three. Many of us are still asking when we’re fifty-three.

I wish I’d had The Echo Within to recommend in all these conversations. Now I do. When I pass it along, however, I will also pass along a warning. Some will find Benson frustrating. When we ask these questions of our life’s direction, we often are looking for someone to tell us what to do – or at least to give us some fool-proof system that will tell us what to do. Exactly. Prescisely. Clearly. And quickly. Even if you didn’t know Benson and were unaware that such things will always be the opposite of what Benson provides, you’d know soon enough by skimming a few of his chapter titles: Listening (ch 1). Hearing (ch 3). Waiting (ch 6). Dreaming (ch 10). And there’s more where that came from. Lots more.

Benson reminds us that finding our vocation is about finding our truest selves. Or, to put it another way, it is about finding the “echo of the Voice that spoke us into being [which] is the sound of our own true voice.” To find ourselves, we must listen to what God has spoken uniquely to us, in us.

This is the heart of the matter. Finding our vocation, our call, our life’s work, is not first or foremost about what our business card says about us or how we find the way to pay our mortgage and put food on the table. Your life’s call is about embracing the beauty God had in mind when he took joy and delight in making you. And then, your taking joy and delight in singing the song you (and only you) were intended to sing.

“Your vocation” says Benson, “is not only about the work you do with your hands and your heart and your mind; it is about what shapes the work, the person you become in and around that work as well.”

5 Replies to “The Echo Within: Robert Benson”

  1. Great review! I’d never heard of Benson before this morning and am intrigued to read some more. I’ve heard similarly wonderful things about THE FIRE WITHIN by Fr. Thomas Dubay – have you read it?

  2. Thank you much, Winn, for taking the time to read THE ECHO WITHIN in the first place, for your kind and gracious words about what you read, and for introducing it to your friends. I am honored and humbled and grateful. I feel the way that you do about the art of what we make for the Holy, and I am glad you found a sentence or two that passed muster.

    Namaste —

    R. Benson

  3. Thanks, Winn for the recommendation. Have you read Parker Palmer's Let Your Life Speak. A good short read.

    One of my favorite Frederick Buechner lines about calling & vocation: "Don't ask what the world needs; ask what makes you come alive because what the world needs are more people who have come alive."

  4. Kyle, I haven’t read The Fire Within . Let me know if you find it helpful.

    And Ramon, haven’t read Palmer either. I do like Buechner’s line and, of course, his other infamous one: “your calling is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger” (or something like that).

  5. I am anxious to read more on Benson’s Echo as I wrestle with my own vocation. Palmer is especially good if you know anything about battling with depression and is definitely short. Thanks for all you offer here. It helps to get a “trusted” recommendation in a world where marketing is for the highest bidder, not the most worthy product!

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