A Few Gems from the Book Collection in Robert Lax’s Old House on Patmos

A few images from lesser-known Lax publications I found on the shelves in his old Patmos house while staying there this past winter.

This post appeared originally in the Spring 2024 issue of The Robert Lax Newsletter. To subscribe to this free quarterly publication–with news of Lax-related events, articles, quotes, and images–click here.

A YouTube Video Featuring Steve Georgiou Talking About Robert Lax

Steve Georgiou was one of the young people who spent time with Lax on Patmos in the 1980s and 1990s. He went on to write three books about him, including The Way of the Dreamcatcher: Spirit Lessons with Robert Lax, a collection of interviews.

Last summer, Father John Dear, a leading Catholic activist for nonviolence, hosted a Zoom chat in which Georgiou talked at length about his relationship with Lax and his views on Lax’s life and importance. You can view it on YouTube by clicking below.

This post appeared originally in the Spring 2024 issue of The Robert Lax Newsletter. To subscribe to this free quarterly publication–with news of Lax-related events, articles, quotes, and images–click here.

Robert Lax’s Patmos House Today

Robert Lax’s Pendo books on a shelf in his Patmos house. The photograph shows those who traveled with him when he left Patmos for the last time in 2000. (Photo by Michael N. McGregor)

Almost 40 years have passed since I first set foot in Robert Lax’s small house above the port town of Skala on Patmos. Three months ago, I had a chance to return for the first time in 18 years and stay in it, thanks to the kindness of those who own it now.

I went back to Patmos because I’m writing a book called An Island to Myself: The Place of Solitude in an Active Life (forthcoming from Monkfish Publishing, spring 2025). Much of the book is about the two months I lived on Patmos in 1985 when I was 27. I spent the first in total solitude and the second in a modified solitude that included time with Lax.

My purpose in returning was to see how different living in that kind of solitude would be as an older man. (I’m only three years younger now than Lax was when I met him.) Staying in the house of a man who lived every day in solitude was a bonus. Few of Lax’s things remain there, but one wall of the small main room is still lined with his books.

Looking through his shelves brought several thoughts to mind:

  1. Lax was more interested in simply getting his writing out into the world than in worrying about how big his publisher was.
  2. He collaborated with an astonishing number of people on small books and limited press runs, and he was friends with most of them.
  3. The books on his shelves that weren’t his own (which means the books he read) fell into five main categories: a. books by friends, b. books on religion or philosophy, c. books of poetry or on the craft of poetry, d. dictionaries for the languages he spoke (English, French, Italian, and Greek), and e. books people had given him.
  4. Because he lived without a television and used his radio primarily to listen to the BBC for half an hour once a day, his books represent the ideas and knowledge he filled his mind with.
  5. He drew from a wide variety of traditions as he sought to improve his consciousness and deepen his faith.
The front door of Robert Lax’s house on Patmos. (Photo by Michael N. McGregor)

I was glad to see that Lax’s house had changed in the 24 years since his death. These days, a painter stays and works in it for much of the year. It’s a living space where creativity still takes place. But it was good to see his books there too, to find his spirit in them. The one other obvious reminder of him was a poster on the wall with his lovely face above one of his best-loved poems:












–Michael N. McGregor

Solitude, Survival & Imagination

It’s a quiet time in the realm of Robert Lax. Philip Glass’s opera based on The Circus of the Sun was supposed to go on a world tour after its premiere at the Malmö Opera House last May, but Covid forced the premiere online and the tour has yet to be rescheduled. I know of no new Lax books coming out. And any forthcoming creative works based on his life or poems are still percolating in secret. Even the internet search I always do before putting this newsletter together yielded nothing fresh.

Which seems just fine for the end of winter, when nature pauses before offering the fireworks of spring. In Lax’s later years on Patmos, when visitors arrived from spring through fall, winter was often the only time he was truly alone. The wind would blow and the rain would pelt his modest house, where it could be quite chilly inside as well as out. He’d dress in two layers of clothes, pull a watchcap over his ears, and sit on his bed, sometimes under the covers, with a small pad in one hand and a pen in the other.

There, he’d write poems to the wind and the rain, just as in summer he’d write them to the sun and the green on the hills. He understood that acquiring both wisdom and greater awareness of the presence of God meant being fully alive to every moment, every emotion, and even every hardship. He once wrote:

     to be wise is to know, for one thing, which way the wind blows…

     knowing how to stay alive & healthy (well-fed & with adequate air
     and sleep) in all kinds of conditions is also a part of wisdom

     the wisdom of survival.

     wisdom for survival.

     he who is imbued with the wisdom of survival is not only fit for “sur-
     vival” himself, but for teaching it to others. (even to generations of

     “the survival of the fittest”–not of the fiercest, not of the fastest–
     the fittest, among men, may, after all, be the wisest.

In the same year he wrote these lines, 1969–a time when he was still growing used to living in the islands full-time–he also wrote:

     as a child (it seemed) he had played alone in the living room most of
     the time, dancing to records on the gramophone and performing in
     an imaginary theater.

     (now it was only when he was quite alone that his imagination began
     to come alive.)

     what he needed was not only quiet, but solitude: a solitude that honed
     itself against solitude.

It seems, of course, that we’re about to exit not only the quiet of winter but also the quiet of these lockdown years. In these final days of relative solitude, of conditions I would not normally choose, I ask myself if I’ve grown wiser in the ways of survival during this time–wise enough to teach others down the line, as Lax did. I ask, too, if I’ve put my fears and anxieties aside long enough for my imagination to come alive–to be like a child again, dancing to a gramophone.

In winter, when Lax was alive, I’d often picture him sitting placidly on that bed in that room with the wind and the rain making their assault outside. There was little to envision really–a man in a watchcap on a bed, writing on a cheap pad–but that image always made me more comfortable and more courageous with my own aloneness–my own attempts to create or discover something valuable, wise, and true.

(The quotes used here are from pp. 216 & 243 in Love Had a Compass by Robert Lax.)

This post originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of The Robert Lax Newsletter. To sign up for this free bimonthly publication, click here and enter your email address on the left-hand side of the page.

What Visiting Robert Lax on Patmos Was Like

Robert Lax with Michael N. McGregor
Photo: Sylvia McGregor

Note: This remembrance was first published in an issue of The Merton Seasonal in 2001, a year after Robert Lax died.

After the Circus Goes By

© Michael McGregor, 2001

I don’t know how many evenings I spent with Bob Lax during the years I knew him. Dozens. Maybe a hundred. I returned to Patmos each year, staying sometimes for just a few days, other times for weeks. In approach, the visits were all the same – the climb up the hill, the cats at the door, the knock on the frosted glass and that gentle “hello” – the “o” round and full, drawn-out and rising until it was both question (“Who’s there?”) and statement (“Whoever you are, you’re welcome”).

The first moments inside were similar, too. Bob would offer a cup of water or tea. If he was alone, he would hand me something to read while he shuffled out to his tiny kitchen – a new publication, a poem, a letter from someone I knew by name or from a previous visit. If it was summer, someone would always be there already, and I would have the feeling I had just missed the funniest joke ever told, or a life-changing moment, or the absolution that follows confession. More often than not, all I had missed was the latest exchange in Bob’s conversation with life. The magic of visiting Bob was that once the water or tea had been served and a sweet had been offered, nothing was ever the same. The conversation was endless but it was always going somewhere new, directed not by anyone’s will but by the personalities of those present and by the spirit Bob fostered – a spirit of playfulness and a deep desire to love and know. There were themes that came and went with the years and themes that never changed, Bob’s preoccupations, which deepened and strengthened with time, like channels rubbed into bedrock. (One of the many things he taught me was to look for the themes that defined my own life. When he was younger, he said, he once wrote for as long as he could, pages each day, with the single intention of finding out what he most cared about.) Anyone who knew Bob knew his concerns: peace, common ground, knowing God, meditation, being love…and the inexplicable joy of the circus.

In summer it could be a circus at Bob’s. (In the later years, along his entryway wall, the first thing a visitor saw was a sign advertising Circus Roberto.) His bedroom was the center ring – stuffed full of painters, writers, dancers and mystics, many pursuing their arts because Bob had encourage them. On the wall were photos of acrobats, drawings of animals, and an advertisement for the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus. Bob himself was the circus high priest – both ringmaster and clown. He sat on his bed with his legs propped up, his clothes mismatched, his face a panoply of glee. Wand in hand, he directed the magic. He was sage and child, clever and simple, alight with a joy that understands sorrow – all a master or clown should be.

But while I loved to see the circus at Bob’s, the times I miss most are those nights in winter or early spring when no one but me would be there. When he would be wearing long johns and two or three shirts, a cap on his head. When we would sit by ourselves drinking tea, sipping soup, the lights mostly off, the town beyond the window dark. We might hear a mouse scurry along the wall then or a cockroach dance across the kitchen. Bob would look up at me and smile, and I would see the love alive in his eyes, not for me alone but for the whole world – the mice and the cockroaches, the cats and the flies. We talked on those nights, of course, about his life and mine, our concerns and preoccupations. But often we just sat like that, musing in silence, two kids on a sidewalk late at night, after the circus goes by.

Michael McGregor, an essayist and fiction writer, first encountered Bob Lax in Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain while living on Patmos in 1985. Impressed by Lax’s youthful wisdom, he made a note to look for him in Merton’s later books, not realizing Lax was living half a mile away. The two met three weeks later and remained friends the rest of Lax’s life. His article “Turning the Jungle Into a Garden: A Visit with Robert Lax'” appeared in Poets & Writers magazine (March/April 1997).

Victor Hugo on the Patmos Within Us

Dan Siegel, who, with his wife Jenny Yancey, runs a wonderful summer writing program on Patmos called GoodWorld Journeys, sent me the following quote from Victor Hugo yesterday.  It is worth contemplating, not only for what is says about how we live or might live but also for how well it reflects the life Robert Lax lived on the actual island of Patmos.

“Every man has within him his Patmos. He is free to go, or not to go, out upon that frightful promontory of thought from which one perceives the shadow. If he does not, he remains in the common life, with the common conscience, with the common virtue, with the common faith, or with a common doubt; and it is well. For inward peace it is evidently the best. If he goes out upon those heights, he is taken captive. The profound waves of the marvelous have appeared to him. No one views with impunity that ocean, henceforth he will be the thinker, dilated, enlarged, but floating; that is to say, the dreamer. He will partake of the poet and of the prophet. Henceforth a certain portion of him belongs to the shadow. An element of the boundless enters into his life, into his conscience, into his virtue, into his philosophy. Having a different measure from other men, he becomes extraordinary in their eyes. He has duties which they have not. He lives in a sort of diffused prayer, and, strange indeed, attaches himself to an indeterminate certainty which he calls God. He distinguishes in that twilight enough of the anterior life and enough of the ulterior life to seize these two ends of the dark thread, and with them to bind his soul to life. Who has drunk will drink, who has dreamed will dream. He will not give up that alluring abyss, that sounding of the fathomless, that indifference for the world and for this life, that entrance into the forbidden, that effort to handle the impalpable and to see the invisible; he returns to it, he leans and bends over it, he takes one step forward, then two; and thus it is that one penetrates into the impenetrable, and thus it is one finds the boundless release of infinite meditation.”


By the way, the teachers for Dan and Jenny’s program on Patmos July 9-19, 2018 will be Mary Karr and George Saunders.  You’ll find full details here.


A Look Inside Lax’s Patmos House: His Wall of Inspiration and Memories

The first photo here is of a long table in the main room of Lax’s house on Patmos and the wall above it, where he taped photographs, cards and children’s drawings sent to him by friends and strangers.  He said once that all of the things up there told him to put them there.  He used the room this table and wall were in for most activities, including sleeping and entertaining guests.

Lax wall--Patmos

On the table itself, you can see a stack of the notebooks Lax used for jotting down poems and observations, a large supply of airmail envelopes for the many letters he wrote, and the pens he used to make drawings and yellow dots for friends.  The blue denim coat in the foreground and the straw hat to to the left were regular garb when he went down into town.

The wall items are a bit hard to discern but they include an icon of St. John the Theologian (a copy of which hangs above my own writing desk), a pontillist painting of a circus, two cards with images of St. John on Patmos, and a photograph that might be of Jack Kerouac.  The items stretched much further down the wall and across the next wall to the left.  When you sat in that room and talked with Lax, you had the feeling that you were surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

The second photo is of a poster that hung in Lax’s entryway in later years, just inside the frosted glass door.  The words on it capture the feeling during summer days when friends of all kinds streamed in and out.

Greece 2006 (Patmos & Kalymnos) 157


Greek Orthodox Easter on Patmos, 1989

The following description of an Easter eve service on Patmos comes from a journal entry I made on Easter Sunday, April 30, 1989.  Happy Greek Orthodox Easter 2016!

Spent a cool morning washing clothes and reading bits & pieces of Merton’s A Vow of Conversation.  Sleepy Easter morning after a late night of celebration.  Met Petros [Lax] & his two young friends—Eva from Switzerland and Gary from New York—and after a series of tête-à-têtes and a dinner of beans & bread, then pasta and finally lamb entrails in an avgolemono soup broth, all shared round and consumed with draughts of conversation about the place of eggs in religion and history and plenty of laughter, we set out into the unexpectedly cold night to attend an Easter service.  At first we couldn’t get a taxi so we tried the service at St. John’s in Skala.  I was itching to go up to the cave or monastery, though, and finally Gary indicated a similar wish, so he, Eva & I (Petros was not in a mood to wander far from home) tried the taxi stand again, finding a car this time and speeding to the top of the hill where cars were already lining both sides of the street.

We went in and found ourselves at the end of a large crowd on the steps just inside the monastery door.  Around us children with sleepy eyes clutched candles while their elders leaned against the whitewashed walls, waiting.  For what?  20 minutes, 30 minutes.  We could just barely hear the chanting of the monks.  We lit our candles from those around us and waited, too.  Then, at midnight, the bells began to ring and voices began to sound all at the same time as the people around us smiled broad smiles and hugged and kissed each other with cries of “Christ is Risen” in Greek.  Then the exodus began.  Those within the church and in the courtyard began to file out—gush out, actually.  They pushed and pushed, swelling from one to two and then three across, pressing us up against the walls and making it difficult for the children caught in the press to find space to breathe.  I moved to the top of the stairs and could just see into the courtyard where candlelight lit a hundred faces.

Along a stone gallery above, candles and faces alternated, solemn sentinels keeping the vigil.  We waited as the crowd continued to pour out; then there was release, we were in the courtyard and the blackened murals beneath the arches of the church were before us.  We moved to the church doorway, into the antechamber where we held our candles up with the others and watched the monks in their black robes and round, pill-box hats or gold and white embroidered garments, each with a medallion with the face of Christ on it placed between the shoulder blades.  Gushing gray beards, the soft faces with their few strands of black of the young.  Solemn islanders who broke into smiles as they filed forward and kissed first the silver-gilded book and then the ring of the abbot or patriarch, exchanging warm smiles and greetings with him.  As Eva said, there seemed to be a genuineness to their interactions.

More people filed out and we were within the church, standing in a corner near the altar screen beneath the great silver lamps that hung everywhere from the ceiling, beautifully clean and white against the black from centuries of candles.  Beneath a red & white Tiffany-style lamp to my left an old priest in gold and a young monk in black combined their voices with that of a young boy in suit and tie, trading chants with a balancing trio on the other side.  To my right an almost obscured ikon—St. John?—wore a silver halo built out from the flat surface of the painting.  The monks went in and out of the innermost chamber and by positioning myself in a doorway beside the ikon I could see inside it.  They chanted alternately before an altar, behind which languished a figure of Christ painted on a wooden cross with John and Mary kneeling on either side.  On the altar stood a chalice with a silver-threaded Greek-cross-shaped cloth covering.

Back out in the sanctuary a young monk brought in a tray on which a large, 30-foot-diameter loaf of bread had been placed.  It was prayed over and removed and a folding support with a cloth draped over it was brought out.  A monk appeared from behind the screen and after walking back and forth a couple of times, put down the book he had been carrying—a book covered in silver with images of saints or the trinity on its cover—and began to read—actually, chant—what I took to be the gospel.  While he was reading, the oldest monk on either side tapped a bronze bowl with a metal rod, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly.  Earlier, one of the younger monks had gone out into the courtyard and tapped a long piece of rough-hewn wood with two wood mallets.  This was the calling of the people of the world to Christ, using a replica of the piece of wood tradition holds was used by Noah to call the animals to salvation on the Ark.  The reading finished, the incenser appeared once more and was waved at the bowing, crossing few still left within the church.

All the senses but one had been involved—then the chalice appeared.  Bread was handed around and people began to push forward to the center entry through the altar screen where a priest stood with a long-handled, ornamented spoon and served bits of bread soaked in heavy wine to the supplicants while another priest held the end of a red cloth below each chin, wiping it after the giving of the sacrament, sure to let nothing fall to the ground.  A basket of plainer, dryer bread was held out by a young monk at the corner of the church.  I ate it first and then the sweeter, ginger-and-anise-flavored bread I had received earlier.  I went back out into the antechamber and left my candle in front of the ikon of St. John, a postcard of which I had taped up behind my computer at home.

It was after 2 a.m. when we began to make our way down the hill, a thousand stars and a wayward cloud or two above and the lights of the city petering out into the dark, distant sea below.  For some reason we spoke of the oppression of the Palestinians and in South Africa.  Our conversation was somber, but undergirded with hope, too, for we had each, in his or her own way, been touched by the gentle, loving finger of God.

Kalymnos: The Island Lax Loved

The photograph here is of Kalymnos, the Greek island Robert Lax loved most.  He moved there shortly before Easter in 1964 and stayed for most of the next 10 years, recording the wisdom of the fishermen and sponge divers who lived on the island.  He might have stayed the rest of his life if his hasty (and temporary) departure in 1974 to work as a writer-in-residence at a new arts venue near Buffalo, NY, hadn’t convinced many islanders that he was a spy.

Unfortunately for Lax, he left the island just as the Cyprus Crisis was making it look as if Greece and nearby Turkey would go to war.  The islanders had never quite figured out why he was living there among them, scribbling things down and taking photographs.  When he left suddenly just as war loomed, they thought they knew.

Although he had been warned that some islanders wanted to kill him, Lax returned to Kalymnos in 1976.  He stayed off and on for the next four years but he never felt entirely comfortable there again.  In 1980 he moved permanently to Patmos, where he would live for most of his last two decades.

In honor of Orthodox Easter, coming up on May 1, here are some thoughts about Easter on Lax’s favorite island:

Easter is one of the best times to visit the Greek islands.  Icons are paraded through the streets, there are lamb feasts, and everyone gathers at the church the night before Easter Sunday to celebrate the risen Christ at midnight.  When I was on Patmos at Easter one year, a basket of colored eggs and cookies appeared one day in my rented room and the town was full of joyful visitors.  On Kalymnos, the islanders take things even further, “celebrating” the holiday by throwing sticks of dynamite into the air.  According to anthropologist David Sutton, the practice goes back to the 1960s, when Lax first lived on Kalymnos (and, indeed, he mentions it in his journal).  Here’s how Sutton described his own experience with Kalymnian dynamite in a 1996 article in Anthropological Quarterly:

“I was warned about renting the house across from the churchyard.  I had arrived on the Greek island of Kalymnos in the Eastern Aegean with my wife and six-month old son and had been directed by friends to a large house overlooking the main town.  The only drawback, I was told was “the dynamite” (i dinamites), but that was only one night, at Easter, not worth worrying about.

“What I had visualized as a large fireworks display, however, turned out to be a bombing.  Amid cries of “Christ is risen” several hundred pounds of TNT formed into projectiles of two or three pounds each were hurled into the sky from the church courtyard at midnight on Easter eve, rattling our house to its foundations, cracking two window panes, and sending the window handles flying across the room.  As the explosions continued sporadically throughout the day, I felt that I had gotten a taste of life in a war zone.  I later found out that the dynamiting was considered to be light that year, and that the toll of damage was nothing compared to that of twelve years earlier, when four people were killed in what later became known as “the Accident” (to atihima).”

Let me end with a quote from a journal entry Lax made about Kalymnos on August 5, 1969:

“sometimes it seems as though the island were a school of thought; as though there were living somewhere in the mountains, an invisible zen-master who kept everyone on the beam.  if you walk along in dark thoughts (down the main street0 no one will say hello to you, or if they do, they say it timidly, knowing not only that it would be wrong to interrupt you now, but even to recognize you as a visible being when you were not (as they usually manage to be) in your full find feeling.  but if you are feeling very well, the say hello with joy.

“on such a day, someone may run over spontaneously & shake your hand.

“the joy i am talking about, the full fine feeling, in greek is called kefi.  some days you have kefi & some you don’t.  when you do, you are full of spontaneous good actions, every one of which may be expected to turn out right.”

(from Journal C by Robert Lax, Pendo Verlag, 1990, pp. 50-52)