Remembering Robert Lax on the 20th Anniversary of His Death

Twenty years ago on this day (the feast day of St. John in the Orthodox calendar), I was getting ready to teach an evening class when I received word that my dear friend and mentor Bob Lax had died. I turned out my office light and let the tears flow–tears of gratitude as much as of grief, for I had been blessed with 15 years of close friendship with this warm, funny, smart, creative, and humanely spiritual man.

Of all the things I learned from Lax, perhaps the most important was to find and follow my own path in life. I suppose that is why I ended my biography of him, Pure Act, with these words:

Several people who knew Lax said he found what [his friend Thomas] Merton was looking for: a kind of solitude, simplicity, and peace that passes human understanding. Some have even said he was the one who became a saint. None of this would have meant much to him except perhaps as inspiration to others. What he--and Merton--found, he thought, was his own way of walking. His own way of singing the song. He own way of being pure act. For, as he once wrote,

there are not many songs
there is one song

the animals lope to it
the fish swim to it
the sun circles to it
the stars rise
the snow falls
the grass grows

there is no end to the song and no beginning
the singer may die
but the song is forever

truth is the name of the song
and the song is truth.

May the song Lax sang resound in all of us who loved him or love his work and love the truth he sang about. And may we find our own new ways to sing it too.

Eyes of Innocence

      “Whatever his failures,” Thomas Merton writes in his essay “Message to Poets,” “the poet is not a cunning man. His art depends on an ingrained innocence which he would lose in business, in politics, or in too organized a form of academic life. The hope that rests on calculation has lost its innocence.”
     I don’t know that Merton was thinking of Lax when he wrote these words, but he certainly might have been. It was Lax who encouraged him to try writing poetry himself, and one of the things he admired most in Lax was his enduring innocence.
      As for Lax, when he worked for the New Yorker as a young man, he seemed to know innately that its combination of cleverness, calculation, and commerce was killing his poetic soul. Once he left that position, he mostly stayed far away from business and politics—and even during his brief teaching gigs, no one would call his approach “organized.”
     I wish I could reprint Merton’s entire essay here because, though it was written in 1964, it speaks more clearly about the poet’s role at this moment in history than anything else I’ve read. And by “poet” I mean any person who seeks to speak of life as he or she truly sees it. I think that’s what Merton meant by the word too.  “Poetry,” he writes, “is the flowering of ordinary possibilities. It is the fruit of ordinary and natural choice. This is its innocence and its dignity.”
     Almost every poem Lax wrote focused on the “flowering of ordinary possibilities.” This is especially true of his later, more minimalist works. It was the seemingly ordinary that fascinated him, the way it became extraordinary when studied intently. And he often said that the breaks in his poems came to him naturally. He would establish a rhythm and break from it where a break felt right.
     Two of the most important traits any artist needs are the ability to see the world and himself clearly and honestly, and the ability to express what he sees precisely, neither muddying it nor gilding it. As Merton asserts, these are traits of the innocent. One of the things Lax sought to do in his 20s and 30s was unlearn the things he had learned in school that weren’t true for him, so he could see the things that were true more clearly.
     Too few of us make the effort or take the time to do what Lax sought to do. Instead of doing whatever is required, taking whatever time is needed, to know and express our own thoughts, our own true beliefs, we accept the slogans and attitudes of one group or another. Sometimes consciously, sometimes passively. As a result, we can never see the world through innocent eyes—the eyes that see love rather than hate, solidarity rather than division, open-minded hope rather than the calculations that might lead to some imagined “victory.”
     “Collective life is often organized on the basis of cunning, doubt, and guilt,” Merton writes. “True solidarity is destroyed by the political art of pitting one man against another and the commercial art of estimating all men at a price. On these illusory measurements men build a world of arbitrary values without life and meaning, full of sterile agitation.”
     The results of this arbitrariness, Merton says, are despair and alienation. “In such a situation,” he writes, “there is no joy, only rage.”
     Lax believed deeply that all of us could see clearly and know what to do in any moment if we put ourselves in a place where grace could flow to us and through us. To him, that meant slowing down and waiting until he knew what he should do. It also meant quieting his mind and his heart, especially when everything around him was unquiet. He believed in a unifying spirit that disappeared from our sight only when we drifted away from it.
     There is no magic in the images and words poets see and use, Merton tells us. “It is the businessman, the propagandist, the politician, not the poet, who believes in ‘the magic of words,’” he writes. “For the poet there is precisely no magic. There is only life in all its unpredictability and all its freedom.”
     Lax was, above all, a poet of life as it truly is. As he truly saw it, through innocent eyes. He wrote again and again (as the title of one of his books suggests) of the “thing that is.” The life that is—not as we’d like it to be or might change it to be, but as we experience it right now.
     “When the poet puts his foot in that ever-moving river,” Merton writes, “poetry itself is born out of the flashing water. In that unique instant, the truth is manifest to all who are able to receive it.”
     “Let us obey life,” he says, “and the Spirit of Life that calls us to be poets, and we shall harvest many new fruits for which the world hungers—fruits of hope that have never been seen before. With these fruits we shall calm the resentments and the rage of man.”

© Michael N. McGregor

(This post by Lax biographer Michael N. McGregor originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of The Robert Lax Newsletter. To receive this bimonthly emailing, sign up on the homepage.)

Alone on Patmos: My First Self-Isolation Experience, 35 Years Ago

The Skala harbor on Patmos (© Michael N. McGregor)

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:

Lax in the Time of Coronavirus

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.)

Robert Lax & Politics

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 importance.”

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.”

–Robert Lax to Steve Georgiou (p. 242, The Way of the Dreamcatcher)

Learning from Lax to Move 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.

A Place Where Grace Can Flow

On the website for the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Transformation, author Mary van Balen has posted a lovely meditation on Lax’s idea that we should put ourselves in “a place where grace can flow.”

“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.”

You can read her full meditation here.

Video: “Harpo and the Clown of God”: Michael N. McGregor Talking about the Lax/Merton Friendship

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.

Decoding the Anti-Letters Between Lax and Merton

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!