It was on this date, March 25–Greek Independence Day–that I left Patmos after meeting Robert Lax for the first time 35 years ago. I had been on the island for most of two months, the first month (before meeting Lax) all alone, thousands of miles from home. It was that time alone–that self-isolation–that set up the meeting to come and all that followed from it.
To read what it was like to be alone on Patmos in winter in 1985 and how it prepared me for the blessing of meeting Lax, go to my personal blog, where I’ve just posted a description of the experience: https://michaelnmcgregor.com/blog/
As I often do when I’m not sure how to think about something, I’ve
been musing on how Lax might have responded to all that is happening in
our country and our world right now. Self-quarantine wouldn’t have
bothered him much. He tended to self-quarantine most of the time anyway.
And he was used to staying in touch with friends only by mail or phone
or, later in his life, email. Even when he went out, he tended to keep
what we now call “social distance.” And the possibility of dying because
he was older wouldn’t have caused him worry.
What I think he would have been doing is spending more time in
contemplation. Not trying to figure out what a spreading pandemic meant
but simply holding himself in the moment, waiting on God, resting in the
reality of being alive. He would have prayed for his friends and for
peace in this time as in all times. And he would have written—poems, of
course, but also letters to the people on the long list of
correspondents he kept–assuring them he was okay, asking if they were,
making a joke and encouraging them.
Most of us live such busy lives, it can be difficult at first to slow
down in the way this virus is making us slow down. But once we do, we
start to see what Lax saw before he left the United States to live by
himself on a Greek island: Much of what busies our lives is a chasing
after things—a doing—that keeps us from simply being.
In a long meditation I quote on page 207 of my book, Pure Act, Lax wrote this:
“Deprived of being we have recourse to having, which is indispensable for us, and good, as long as we know how to use it largely and simply for our real needs. But there is a danger: having, in giving us many things (burdening us) weighing us down, gives us the disastrous illusion of making up for our deficiency of being, and we are always tempted to look for a (consistency) in it, to attach ourselves to it as to a security, and to accumulate more and more…instead of turning ourselves, as empty as possible, toward the Source of being who alone is capable of satisfying our thirst and giving us happiness joy blessedness.”
With our world shut down, now is a good time to think about our real needs, the illusions we live by, where our security lies, and what we are really thirsting for.
Yesterday afternoon, when my wife and I walked around the lake near our Seattle home, there were more people out than usual on a cold day. After the walk, my wife asked: “Did you notice that we didn’t hear the snippets of complaining we usually hear when we walk the lake?” I hadn’t noticed that, but I had noticed that the people we passed seemed lighter in spirit–less burdened than usual–despite the uncertainty the virus has brought. Freed of their usual busyness, they were able to slow down. Able to let go.
Slowing down. Letting go. Being. And loving. These are the things Lax would focus on right now, I’m sure. These are the things that will get us through this.
(This meditation originally appeared in The Robert Lax Newsletter–March 2020. If you would like to receive the newsletter, go to this site’s main page and look for the sign-up box on the left-hand side.)
A few days ago, I gave a talk at the latest gathering of the International Thomas Merton Society called
“Making Ourselves Heard: Lessons from Merton’s Approach to Principled
Dissent and Communal Renewal.” When it came time for questions, the
first one wasn’t about Merton but about Lax: “Was Lax political at all?”
I gave the answer I’ve given before: Lax was political in that he believed deeply in peace. In other words, the pursuit of peace was his politics. He started his broadside Pax to promote the idea that simply disseminating poetry and art is an act of peace.
But as I’ve continued to think about the question, I’ve realized that in
today’s context, Lax was political in many other ways as well. He had
an absolute belief in nonviolence, even in extreme situations. He
believed that those who oppose violence should eliminate it, in all
forms, from their own life first. He believed that finding common
language is a step toward finding common purpose. He believed that peace
starts with individuals trying sincerely to communicate with each
other. He believed that people should be free to do what they feel moved
to do, as long as it is in harmony with others. And he never
gave up hope, even when things looked bleak. At a time when I saw
conflict everywhere, he saw the possibility that turmoil and unrest
might lead to progress and new freedoms.
“I’m hopeful,” he said to me, “that the world’s societies are caught up
in an evolutionary moment, one that will bring us into the ideal city,
where music will play and all will move to it. If you decide to put on
all blue clothes and do cartwheels across the square, that will be fine
and in time with the music.”
Above all, he believed that we should make every decision consciously
and carefully, slowing down and even stopping—waiting—until we can
discern what is best for all concerned. I suspect that if we did nothing
more than slow down in this country, waiting for discernment before we
act or speak, the peace we think is impossible now might soon appear on
the horizon, however hazy.
“In every moment,” Lax said, “we make decisions, both large and small.
True life comes in understanding that these decisions are of ultimate
And isn’t it true life we seek, rather than some temporary victory, moral or otherwise?
“I think we will steadily become more receptive
to what love really means. There will be a
collective understanding of where we came from,
where we are, and where we are going.
I feel that we will increasingly sense a greater
interconnection and unity with the whole of existence,
and so we will become more gentle, more intuitive,
more caring, more giving, more loving as a result.”
Just up on the Beshara Magazine website: Poet Robert Hirschfield’s thoughtful consideration of Robert Lax’s approach to the pace at which we live our lives and the wisdom that can come from moving more slowly.
Robert Lax was 69 when I met him, so it didn’t surprise me that he moved slowly. It took me a while to realize, though, that moving slowly was more than an accommodation to age for him. He had never moved quickly, even when young. He distrusted moving too fast.
It wasn’t just that he was somewhat awkward (in college, Thomas Merton writes, “[Lax] would often curl his long legs all around a chair, in seven different ways, while he was trying to find a word with which to begin”) but also, and even more, that he had learned the value of taking your time—with movements, with opinions, and especially with decisions.
When I was doing interviews for Pure Act, one thing everyone who spent significant time in Lax’s Patmos home seemed to remember was the way the conversation would just stop sometimes. Lax would pause, often with his head down, waiting for a thought or memory to come to him or someone else. Those of us who were used to having someone fill any gap in conversation were often uncomfortable the first time or two this happened. But then we came to like it—to rest in that pause, feeling it was okay to just sit with each other. To just be.
When Lax walked anywhere, he took his time—the island was small and he never had to be anywhere at a certain hour—but he took his time in other ways too: fixing tea, washing dishes, answering questions, ending an evening. He brought his full attention to each of these, just as he brought it to each guest, each word, each moment.
I don’t know what Lax would say about this moment in the United States and the world in general, but I suspect he would advise us all to slow down and even stop for a while. I think he would tell us to wait until the right word or action or decision came to us rather than rushing to have an answer to every question, response to every event, or correction to every wrong we perceive or endure.
Lax said once that we should put ourselves in a place where grace can flow to us. He wasn’t advocating searching for some specific physical place but rather standing still, being quiet, opening our minds and spirits to what is eternal and wise and hard to hear (or invite in) when we are talking and moving and trying to make immediate decisions.
When we stand in that place, when we make a habit of standing there, it isn’t just that grace can flow to us; grace can also flow through us—out into a country and a world that need it now more than ever. Just by slowing down, we can be a version of that calm oasis Lax’s Patmos home was for those who gathered there.
“Some places of grace remain constants in our lives,” van Balen writes. “Some change. Lax found them throughout his life, with friends, while traveling with a circus family, with poor fishermen on Patmos, and other people and places in between. Being attentive and open, we find them, too.”
A video recording of Michael N. McGregor’s keynote address at the 2017 International Thomas Merton Society conference is now viewable online. The talk, titled “Harpo and the Clown of God: The Seven-Storied Friendship of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax,” explores the extraordinary lifelong friendship of these two intelligent, spiritual, creative, and often silly men. To view the presentation, go to the Merton Center Digital Collections.
At the International Thomas Merton Society conference at Sacred Heart University in 2013, I gave a talk on the lifelong correspondence between Robert Lax and Thomas Merton titled “Decoding the Anti-Letters: A Whirling Dance of Wisdom and Wit.” Last spring, that talk was published in The Merton Journal in Great Britain. And now the Journal has made it available as a PDF online. You can read it here.
I’ll be talking about the friendship between Lax and Merton again as a keynote speaker at this year’s ITMS conference, to be held at St. Bonaventure University in Lax’s hometown of Olean, NY, June 15-18. My talk this time will be titled “Harpo and the Clown of God: the Seven-Storied Friendship of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax.” You’ll find full conference details here. I hope to see you in Olean in June!
(Note: These thoughts and other Lax-related news and commentary were included in the December issue of the Lax Newsletter, sent out last week. If you’d like to receive the newsletter, which is mailed to your inbox once every two months, just fill out the form on the Home page.)
“I may be wrong about Pax, but keep feeling that through good poems and pictures, peace can travel.”
–Robert Lax to Thomas Merton, 1953
The image here is from the third issue of Robert Lax’s broadsheet Pax, which he published sporadically between 1956 and 1962, adding three new issues in 1985. I’ve been thinking about Pax in the wake of the American election because Lax’s idea in publishing it was to spread peace by sharing the work of writers and artists. The work didn’t have to be about peace per se; the simple act of making art, Lax thought, is a peaceful–and therefore peacemaking–activity.
I don’t know any more than anyone else what the coming months and years will bring, but I’ve seen the agitation and rancor the election has fostered already. I’ve seen people say on Facebook and elsewhere that everyone should take to the streets or get involved in politics. A former writing student of mine said over tea the other day that she was unsure about writing in these times, worried that writing an essay about something other than current issues might be trivial. I’m pretty sure I know what Lax would have told her: that we need people thinking deeply and imaginatively about life right now; that we need those people to put their observations and intuitions into words and images; that we need books with those words and images in our hands and on our shelves and in our beds at night when we’re prone to worrying about where our world is heading.
When I was on my reading tour for Pure Act, an audience member asked me if Lax was political at all. I said no. But two or three days later, someone who had been at the reading suggested (gently) that I was wrong. Lax’s politics, like Thomas Merton’s, were the politics of peace, this person wrote. And he was right. Pursuing peace through whatever means, even a fragile newsprint broadsheet that few people read, is a political act.
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.” –Thomas Merton
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” –Thomas Merton
(You’ll find information on all Pax issues, including a list of the poets and poems in each one, here.)
The information below is from New Dimensions Radio, which will broadcast this one-hour interview over its affiliated stations in the U.S. and other countries in mid-February. To see if the program will be on your local station, check the list on the New Dimensions website. If not, you can buy the download now for $1.99 or downloaded it free from the website between Feb. 17 and Mar. 1. This is the most in-depth interview I’ve done yet on Robert Lax.
The True Spirit Of Poet And Mystic Robert Lax with Michael N. McGregor
Product: MP3 Download
Program Number: 3566
Host: Phil Cousineau
Interview Date: 11/19/2015
Length: 1 Hour
Robert Lax is one of the great experimental poets of the 20th century, a daring and original avant-garde writer who was sought out as a sage and a mentor. He was a circus performer, a clown and a juggler, and well known for being a close friend of Thomas Merton. McGregor knew and loved this man and wrote a biography to make this remarkable man’s life and works better known to more people. He says of Lax, “Robert Lax was the most significant person I’d ever met…I felt his life was unusual and fascinating and it was a good opportunity to explore someone so unique and special in both a spiritual and artistic way.” As Lax searched for a vocation he decided that perhaps a person following a religion of love ought to be a prophet of love. Lax had the courage to go his own way and did not follow any shortcuts in his pursuit of truth and God. McGregor interprets Lax’s philosophy of life as one in which “love goes in all directions. It takes you deeper into yourself and it takes you into other people’s lives and into your interactions with them. He felt that life is meant to be a unity and all things in harmony. That didn’t mean just all people in harmony, that meant our interior in harmony with our exterior, our sleeping and dreaming in harmony with our waking consciousness, all things coming together in that way.” (hosted by Phil Cousineau)
Michael N. McGregor is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Portland State University. He has lectured at universities, conferences, and community events on both Robert Lax and Thomas Merton, and is a member of Biographers International Organization and the International Thomas Merton Society.