I’m excited my book will be available to people who need or prefer to listen rather than read, but it’s strange to hear someone else read words I wrote about my own experiences.
Price alert: The Kindle version of PURE ACT: THE UNCOMMON LIFE OF ROBERT LAX has been temporarily reduced to $2.99 on Amazon again. Last time this happened, it lasted only a short time. The usual price is $11.99. Click below!
the red blue color poems in colored crayon (do a lot of things at once) they're poems but look like paintings yet (being neither poems nor paintings) are something beyond both --- and are meant to be (that) thing beyond both that includes both --- not a matter of mélange des genres a reaching beyond known genres for a new one a direction of the discovery of new ones (from thesis antithesis to synthesis) a reaching beyond what is to what (may become) --- is there a sense in which all that may ever become already is? yes, is in potentia
–pp. 350-351, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax
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.)
[*Note: After making this post this morning, I received a message from Robert J. Wicks offering readers of this blog 30% off on his new book. To receive the discount, go to the Oxford University Press page for Night Call and use the promo code ASPROMP8.]
The popular writer and psychologist Robert J. Wicks, author of 50 books, has included a section on Robert Lax as a mentor in his new book Night Call: Embracing Compassion and Hope in a Troubled World. The book just arrived in my mailbox yesterday so I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it looks like an important book for these unsettled days.
Wicks features Lax in a chapter called “Profile of a Future Mentor.” He quotes several passages from my book Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, first to illustrate that Lax felt mentored himself by the Indian guru he met in college, Brahmachari, and then to show how Lax, in turn, mentored others. In addition to discussing my relationship with Lax, Wicks talks about Lax’s mentoring of Steve Georgiou, quoting from the book Georgiou wrote about their relationship, The Way of the Dreamcatcher.
Wicks concludes his section on Lax as a mentor with these words:
“Both Georgiou and McGregor were bringing their life experiences to Lax, in this case, in the hopes of making greater sense of their stories than they could on their own. The were seeking a form of wisdom that would allow them, in turn, to continue to share with others in need–possibly on a deeper level–what they had and would learn.”
Later in the book, Wicks returns to Lax briefly, mostly to quote (again from Pure Act) a brief Lax poem that suggests the goal of self-evaluation and renewal:
Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax has been named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award in Biography/Memoir. You’ll find a full list of finalists and information about the awards ceremony here.
If you live in the Seattle area and are interested in attending, the awards ceremony will take place 7-9 p.m. in the Microsoft Auditorium at the Seattle Public Library’s central branch (1000 Fourth Avenue).
Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax has been awarded an Honorable Mention in Biography by the Catholic Press Association (CPA), making it the only biography to receive awards from both the CPA and the Association of Catholic Publishers in 2016.
Bob Lax’s Circus of the Spirit
The Catholic Worker / January-February 2016
In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton recounted his memories of Bob Lax during their student years together at Columbia University. Lax was “a gentle prophet” who seemed to be meditating “on some impenetrable woe,” a born contemplative who could “curl his long legs all around a chair, in seven different ways, while he was trying to find the right word with which to begin.” Lax possessed “a natural, instinctive spirituality, a kind of inborn direction to the living God.” Lax saw Americans as a people “longing to do good but not knowing how,” waiting for the day when they could turn on the radio “and somebody will start telling them what they have really been wanting to hear and needing to know…. somebody who is capable of telling them of the love of God in language that will no longer sound hackneyed or crazy.” As Michael McGregor relates in this hard-to-put-down biography, in the course of Lax’s long life he became a quiet voice telling his readers about the love of God in language that is never hackneyed or crazy but is lean, surprising and drawn from deep wells.
It happens that Pure Act appears just as a 136-page anthology of Lax’s poetry and journal writing has been published by Templegate: In the Beginning was Love. The editor is my friend Steve Georgiou, who, like McGregor, also knew Lax in his later years and whose vocation as teacher was given its shape in large measure thanks to his mentor on Patmos.
Lax was one of the several friends who witnessed Merton’s baptism and it was Lax who, as the two of them were walking along Sixth Avenue not long afterward, asked Merton what he wanted to become. For Lax, the question wasn’t so much what to become as who to become. It was obvious to both of them that “Thomas Merton the well-known writer” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English” were not good enough answers. “I don’t know,” Merton finally said. “I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean,” Lax responded, “you want to be a good Catholic?” Merton was silent — he hadn’t figured that out yet. “What you should say,” Lax went on, “is that you want to be a saint.” That struck Merton as impossible. “How do you expect me to become a saint?” “By wanting to,” said Lax. “I can’t be a saint,” Merton replied with conviction. To be a saint, he imagined, would require a magnitude of renunciation that was light years beyond him. But Lax pressed on. “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”
It is not stretching the truth to say that both Lax and Merton spent the rest of their lives attempting to become the persons God created them to be — not aiming for capital S sainthood, complete with holy cards and a niche on the church calendar, but run-of-the-mill saints who have a talent for disappearing.
I met Lax at the Catholic Worker in Manhattan in 1961 and found him to be as lean as an exclamation mark, as tentative as a question mark and quiet as a comma. He occasionally came down for Friday night meetings and one evening read aloud some of the amazing poetry that eventually became part of his most treasured book, Circus of the Sun (now the first section of Circus Days and Nights). His circus poetry has ever since been a special love of mine, joyfully re-read more or less annually.
The Catholic Worker was a natural place for Lax to be. He had an affinity for the marginal and for those drawn to them. Earlier in his life he had been part of the community at Friendship House in Harlem. One winter Lax and Tom Cornell shared a $28-a-month apartment on Avenue A that seemed even colder inside than it was outside.
Another aspect of Lax’s affinity for the Catholic Worker was that he was a pacifist and had been one since his student days. Lax was one of those people who would far prefer to die than to end anyone’s life. When draft registration began shortly before the US entered World War II, both Lax and Merton declared themselves conscientious objectors. “Why,” Lax joked, “should I kill strangers when I have been so shy and polite about not killing unpleasant acquaintances?”
In that period of his life when our paths first crossed, Lax was editor-at-large of Jubilee magazine, an eye-opening, photo-intensive Catholic monthly that took an interest in people, places and topics widely ignored by the Catholic press as a whole: eastern Christianity, the works of mercy, lay communities, Christian art and artists, Church life in Europe, Asia and Latin America… No issue of Jubilee was ugly or boring, each issue a voyage of discovery.
One of the joys of life at that time was occasionally walking up to the Jubilee office and having a visit with Lax in his small white-washed cubicle that had, now that I think of it, something of a Greek look about it.
It was no surprise when not long afterward Lax made Greece his home, first Kalymnos beginning in 1964, an isle then famous for its sponge divers, and a decade later the monastic island of Patmos, where he remained until shortly before his death in 2000. By then Lax was something of a hermit, if one understands that many hermits are, as Merton was, intensely social people whose doors open both to friends and strangers nearly every day. But, apart from the cats who found Lax to be a good provider, Lax preferred to live alone.
Lax was born in Olean, New York in 1915 into a Jewish immigrant family. His remarkable mother, Betty, was both a founder of the local synagogue and a member of the Methodist and Presbyterian choirs, a combination that anticipated the wide spiritual reach of her son. During the Depression, Lax enrolled at Columbia where he formed life-shaping friendships with Merton and Ed Rice (later to found Jubilee), the poet Mark Van Doren (one of his professors) and radical abstract artist Ad Reinhardt. Lax also met his first holy man, a Hindu monk named Brahmachari who seemed far less interested in converting Christians to Hinduism than in converting Christians to Christianity. (It was thanks to Brahmachari’s influence that Merton read Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.)
Lax was eventually to give up much that his talents, education and background equipped him to do, but in the years following graduation from Columbia he was on the staff of The New Yorker (where some of his early poetry was published), wrote film reviews for Time, and endured a period of script-writing in Hollywood. What he mainly learned in those years was how unhappy he could be attempting to be someone he was not.
The circus had been where he got the clearest glimpse of who he really was. While at The New Yorker he had met the Cristianis, a renowned family of acrobats. The poems knit together in Circus of the Sun were mainly works that had grown out of traveling with their small circus when it was on tour in western Canada. Joining in, Lax proved to be a natural clown.
While not drawn to a fulltime circus life, he was attracted to walking the high wire of voluntary poverty while gradually learning to write a lean poetry which in many cases was a trickle of slim words or thinner syllables cascading down the page. It was a poetry of contemplation in which the word “you” may mean yourself or God or the secret places where the one disappears into the other.
Michael McGregor — who knew Lax well — has written a book I’ve waited a long time to read. It’s a story with many surprises and much beauty. McGregor has the biographer’s gift of not only keeping careful track of Lax’s long pilgrimage, both physically and spiritually, but of bringing the reader into a space in which Lax is permanently alive and well. It’s a luminous story told with love and skill.
* * *
— Bob Lax
Circus Days and Nights
Overlook Press, p 110
Robert Lax (1915-2000) is today best known in this country as Thomas Merton’s closest friend. Having met when they were both students at Columbia University, the two exchanged letters until Merton’s death in 1968. It is the purpose of Michael N. McGregor’s new biography of Lax to move him out from under the shadow of Merton’s powerful personality and give him his own place in the sun. This is not an easy thing for an American biography to do, both because Lax spent so much of his adult life outside the United Sates and because of his commitment as a poet to seeking the purest and sparest language possible, a commitment that makes his hermetic poems a challenge for many readers. While Lax enjoyed a certain measure of fame in Europe during his lifetime, it was only late in his life that his writings found a place in the American literary scene.
After Lax graduated from Columbia in 1938, he got off to a promising start. He landed jobs at the New Yorker and Time, and even spent some time as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. But a lifelong restlessness led him away from the well-beaten path of literary success. He traveled with a circus, lived for a short while in Paris and then in a poor neighborhood of Marseilles. He spent some time at a religious retreat near the shrine of La Sallette in France, and eventually settled—if that’s the right word—on the Greek island of Patmos. Finally, old age and illness brought him back to his upstate hometown of Olean, New York, where he died in 2000.
Born into a largely nonobservant Jewish family, Lax was baptized a Catholic in 1943. Ed Rice, who was Merton’s godfather, was also Lax’s. In the early 1950s, Rice founded Jubilee magazine, for which Lax served as a “roving editor” from Europe. That job was one of a number of threads that kept him somewhat tied to the American scene. He also kept up a correspondence with Mark Van Doren, the legendary Columbia professor, and thanks to his friendship with the graphic designer Emil Antonucci (who did a lot of work for Commonweal over the years), Lax’s great long poem The Circus of the Sun was published in this country. During all his years abroad, he wrote constantly. His poetry became gradually more pared-down, more minimalist. While he found sympathetic publishers in Europe, he remained little known and little published in this country, garnishing a certain reputation among better-known poets such as John Berryman (another classmate at Columbia) and John Ashbury.
McGregor got to know Lax by accident on a trip to Greece when someone on Patmos told him of the greatly admired American who lived on the island. McGregor sought him out and over the years they became friends. In fact, a fair amount of this biography frames itself around McGregor’s many visits to Patmos and the time he spent with Lax doing the things Lax loved most: walking around the island, swimming, and spending time in his modest home drinking tea, discussing books, sharing poems, and at times, sitting quietly. Toward the end of his life, Lax depended on McGregor to assist him with his papers and to help him return to upstate New York before the end of his life. Lax’s way of life, which McGregor observed in Patmos, had been established decades before: “living simply among those at the bottom of society, watching and writing down his observations, offering peace and whatever else he could to those in spiritual or physical need.” There was something almost monastic about it; it was in some ways similar to the life that Merton lived. Not surprisingly, Lax was, like Merton, a lifelong pacifist.
The title of this book derives from some lines Lax once wrote, obviously under the influence of the Thomism he learned during his Columbia days. God is pure act with no potency within Him, while everything else in the universe is in potential: on its way to pure act and thus on its way to unity with God. To really see something is to grasp that it is oriented toward pure act—which is to say, toward God. Perceptive critics were able to grasp this fundamental philosophical orientation in Lax’s austerely minimalist poetry. Mark Van Doren said that Lax expressed the “purity of the object and reverence in the beholder.”
Both Lax’s way of living and his poetics raise the question of his religious orientation. Lax never rejected his Jewishness after his entrance into the Catholic Church. He continued reading deeply in Jewish sources and was a close reader of Martin Buber. McGregor cites a long journal entry from late in Lax’s life where he writes that it is important to find the “right” religion and the right culture, but even more important “is the progress you make—the progress you find you can make—once you have found it.” The end, however, is to get beyond being a “good” Jew or Catholic in order to become a “contemplative, yes to be a mystic, yes.” In that context, Lax loved the line of Teilhard de Chardin: “Everything that rises must converge.”
McGregor wants to see Lax in his own right, and, true to that aim, he has written an intellectual biography that is as full and fair as one could expect. As a longtime reader of Lax, I learned a great deal from this finely researched book. It is not perfect: it is stronger on Lax the poet and essayist than on Lax the spiritual writer. On the latter topic one should consult Steve Georgiou’s The Way of the Dreamcatcher (2002). But Lax the poet deserves the attention he gets here, and the poetry, now mostly overlooked, is a good way into Lax’s mysticism.