After traveling with the Cristiani circus family through Western Canada in 1949 and finishing a draft of what would become his first book, The Circus of the Sun, in 1950, Robert Lax felt restless. His observations of the Cristiani acrobats and reading of St. Thomas Aquinas had given him a clear sense of how he wanted to live in the world and a name for it: pure act. But he didn’t know where he should be living or what he should be doing other than writing his poetry.
Aquinas had written that only God was pure act, but Lax believed that people could come close to being pure act themselves if they were filled with love. According to his definition, pure act was a kind of mindfulness–a practiced way of being in the world–and yet it was a presentness too–a spontaneous living-in-the-moment without self-consciousness or hesitation. Having heard that Catherine de Hueck had started Friendship House in Harlem simply by moving into a tenement and addressing whatever need was right in front of her, Lax decided to do the same thing in Marseilles, the French city that had scared him the first time he’d seen it.
Nothing lasting came from Lax’s months in Marseilles other than a strong belief that simply being a loving presence could be as much of a vocation as anything else. That was enough. Although he continued to roam restlessly in future years–traveling with another circus in Italy, editing a literary journal in Paris, and working for Jubilee magazine in New York–he had narrowed his true desires to three: living a simple contemplative life, writing the kind of poetry he wanted to write, and being a loving presence wherever he was.
It wasn’t until Lax left America’s commercialism and relentless ambition behind and moved to the Greek islands, however, that he found a place he could feel at peace. On the island of Kalymnos he discovered a whole community of fishermen and sponge divers who seemed to live lives of pure act, singly and together. The smallest gesture was both practiced and spontaneous, ancient and new. Everyone seemed fully present and alive. He settled among them to learn from them while writing his poetry the same way.
When politics forced Lax to move to the nearby island of Patmos, he was momentarily dismayed. But he soon realized that a life of pure act could be lived anywhere: circumstances didn’t matter. In time he drew people from the around the world to the island of St. John, where they experienced and learned from his loving presence. His pure act.