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).

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: https://michaelnmcgregor.com/blog/

Painter Abbey Ryan Talks about Her Series of Meditations on Lax’s “the light, the shade”

kohlakoura beach, lipsi, greece (the light / the shade), oil on linen on panel, 5×4 inches, 2017, painting by Abbey Ryan, from her website

Painter Abbey Ryan has spent a half-dozen years creating postcard-size oil paintings inspired by Robert Lax’s book-length poem “the light, the shade.” She painted many of the images in the series in 2017 while living on the Greek island of Patmos, near where Lax spent the last years of his life.

In this video, Ryan talks about how Lax’s attention to simplicity and presence has inspired her in her painting and approach to life. The video also shows a beautifully designed display of her Lax-inspired work at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania.

published by Pendo-Verlag, 1989, currently unavailable

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.

Recently Opened: An Exhibition of Paintings Inspired By Lax’s Poetry

Painter Abbey Ryan, whose parents were friends of Lax, traveled to Patmos in 2017 to visit his former home and complete a series of paintings loosely based on his poem “the light / the shade.” Now, 14 landscapes and still lifes from that series are on display in the Quick Center at St. Bonaventure University in Lax’s hometown, Olean, NY. The show runs March 25-June 2, 2019. Abbey will be on campus Thursday, April 11 for a 3 p.m. gallery talk.

You’ll find full information about the exhibit here–and more about Abbey and her Lax project here. If you like what you see and read, check out Abbey’s website, where you can view (and purchase!) more of her magnificent works.

Abbey’s work has been featured in a number of publications, including Oprah Magazine, Seth Godin’s Linchpin: Are You Indispensible?, FOX’s Good Day Philadelphia, BoingBoing, Artists & Illustrators, Making It In the Art World, New Markets For Artists, Fine Art Connoisseur, American Art Collector, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her art is in more than 1,300 private and museum collections on six continents.

Artist Abbey Ryan’s “the light / the shade” Series, Inspired by Robert Lax

Painter Abbey Ryan has long been inspired by the writings of Robert Lax, who was a friend of her father.  Last year, she traveled to Patmos, the island Lax lived on, as well as Lipsi, a smaller island he loved, and painted scenes in both places.  This past spring, her “the light / the shade” series, which takes its name from a Lax poem, was featured in a solo exhibition at the Harrison Gallery at Arcadia University.  To see some of her paintings from Greece and her lovely still lifes based on the Lax-inspired theme, go to her website.

To read about Abbey’s “the light / the shade” series and how Lax inspired it, click here.

Here’s Abbey’s bio, from her website:

“Inspired by the ‘A Painting a Day’ movement, I started making daily paintings for my blog on 9/23/07.

Ten years later, my blog has had over a million visitors from over 100 countries. My paintings have been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine‘s “Live Your Best Life—Women Who Make Beautiful Things,” Seth Godin’s bestseller, Linchpin: Are You Indispensible?, and FOX’s Good Day Philadelphia, among many others. I was recently named #5 on the list of 49 Creative Geniuses by Boost Blog Traffic.

“More importantly, painting has become my meditative time and the best part of my day. Attempting to paint every day speaks to my interest in ritual, practice, classical still life and trompe l’oeil painting. In sharing my work on my blog, I explore the nuances and complexities of ever-changing internet globalization. My paintings are usually sold by eBay auctions, and are in over eight hundred private and public collections around the globe.”

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.

A 53-Minute Film Featuring Lax’s World on Patmos, Poetry Readings and His Thoughts on Life

For what may be a limited time, the Bayerischer Rundfunk in Munich, has a link to an interesting film showing Lax in his later years on Patmos: Nicolas Humbert & Werner Penzel’s “Why should I buy a bed when all that I want is sleep?: A chamber film with Robert Lax.”  It’s a 53-minute look into Lax’s world, with him reading his writings and talking about his thought and life.  Don’t miss this opportunity to see Lax as those of us who were fortunate enough to visit him on Patmos knew him.