The Catholic Worker / January-February 2016
Review by Jim Forest
Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax
By Michael McGregor
Fordham University Press, 2015, 472 pages, hardcover, $35
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