A New Lax/Merton Center for Civil Discourse?

(image from the Mt. Irenaeus website)

Father Dan Riley, OFM, reports that he and a small group of others from different faith traditions have been discussing the establishment of a new center dedicated to Lax and Merton and committed to civil dialogue in an increasingly uncivil age. The center would probably be housed at the Mt. Irenaeus Fransciscan Mountain Community Father Dan founded near St. Bonaventure University many years ago. Here’s the community’s description of its location:

Mt. Irenaeus rests on nearly 400 acres of beautiful land in the Allegheny hills of Southwestern New York State, with seven cabins, large community House of Peace, Holy Peace Chapel, 10 miles of trails, labyrinth garden, reflective pond and other sacred outdoor spaces for contemplation.”

One possible design for the center is an octagon, to reflect that shape’s importance in several traditions. The building would also incorporate some parts of the Marcus cottage where Lax, Merton and their friends gathered during college summers, writing, making music, and practicing debating important matters in community.

The fireplace in the Marcus cottage.

Riley and others have been trying for years to find a way to move the Marcus cottage from the hills above Olean down near campus. Unfortunately, the cottage hasn’t been maintained, so it isn’t feasible (or cost-effective) to move the whole thing. Instead, they’ve secured pieces of the cottage to put in the center: the mantel over the living room fireplace and the sailing ship model above it, as well as the doors and hinges from the bedrooms Lax and Merton slept in. An expert is looking at the cottage to see if other parts are salvageable too.

Father Dan Riley, OFM (image from the St. Bonaventure U. website)

According to Father Dan, the center would be a place outside the Mt. Irenaeus Franciscan structures where people from different backgrounds could talk about issues of any kind, whether they came out of a faith tradition or not. But it would be “a mystical place, not just dialogic,” he says. Its core value would come from the root of the word “conversation,” which means not just talking but turning or changing together.

If you’re interested in being connected to the project or just knowing more about it, you can write to the Mt. Ireneaus office coordinator, Michelle Marcellin, at mmarc@sbu.edu.

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 robertlax.com homepage.)

Ernesto Cardenal, Nicaraguan Poet and Translator of Lax’s THE CIRCUS OF THE SUN, has died at 95

(Photograph from ndbook.com)

Robert Lax became acquainted with Ernesto Cardenal through Thomas Merton, who served as Cardenal’s novice master when he was studying to be a monk at Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky. Cardenal eventually left the Trappists and returned to his native country, where he served as Minister of Culture from 1979 to 1988, a tumultuous time in Nicaragua’s history. A celebrated poet, he did the Spanish translation for the multilingual version of Lax’s The Circus of the Sun, published by Pendo in 1981.

You can read more about Cardenal’s extraordinary life on his Poetry Foundation webpage.

And in his obituary from the The Guardian.

You’ll find many of Cardenal’s books in English and Spanish at Amazon, including a collection of his correspondence with Merton.

Michael Mott, Thomas Merton Biographer and Lax Friend, Has Died at 88

(Photo of Michael Mott from the Wages & Sons Funeral Home website)

Michael Mott, who published a celebrated and definitive biography of Thomas Merton in 1984, died  at 88 on October 11. While working on his Merton biography, Mott relied heavily on interviews with Lax for both details and interpretations of some events in Merton’s life. During their work together, the two became friends. (Mott’s writings about Merton and his archives at Northwestern University were hugely helpful to me in the writing of my Lax biography.)

In addition to his Merton biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Mott published 11 poetry collections, two adult novels, and two novels for children. You can read much more about his long life and many writings on his website.

Brother Patrick Hart, Merton Secretary and Lax Friend, Has Died at 93

photo from Patheos.com

Brother Patrick Hart was Thomas Merton’s last secretary and a beloved spiritual inspiration to many. Here’s an obituary for him from America Magazine. An editor of many Merton books, Brother Patrick wrote his own small book called Patmos Journal: In Search of Robert Lax, based on journal entries from a visit to Greece. Brother Patrick was 93.

“Image and Word,” A Merton-Lax Exhibit in Buffalo

The Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State is hosting an exhibit dedicated to the creative works of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax.  According to The Public, an alternative publication covering Western New York, “The exhibit materials include framed literary items—mostly poems—and photos, and vitrines containing some of their books and other published works.”  You can read more of The Public‘s write-up about the show here.

The exhibit, titled “Merton & Lax: Image and Word,” is an expanded remounting of the Lax exhibit displayed at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts at St. Bonaventure University last year.  Among its highlights are rarely-seen issues of Pax, the limited-circulation broadsheet Lax produced in the 1950s and 1960s with poems by friends such as Merton, Jack Kerouac, Mark Van Doren, and E.E. Cummings, and illustrations by painter Ad Reinhardt and graphic artist and publisher Emil Antonucci.

The exhibit, which runs through August 26, is curated by Anthony Bannon, two-time director of the Burchfield Penny Art Center, and Paul Spaeth, Rare Books and Special Collections Librarian at St. Bonaventure University, who is also the curator of the Thomas Merton and Robert Lax Archives at St. Bonaventure.  For more information, see the exhibit posting on the Burchfield Penney website.

7 p.m. this Friday, June 16: Thomas Merton Society Keynote Address on the Merton-Lax Friendship to be Live-Streamed

I just learned that my keynote address at the International Thomas Merton Society conference at 7 p.m. (Eastern time) this Friday, June 16, will be live-streamed.  The talk is titled “Harpo and the Clown of God: The Seven-Storied Friendship of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax.”

The other keynotes–by Scott Russell Sanders, M. Shawn Copeland, and Luke Timothy Johnson–will be live-streamed too.

To tune in, go to http://merton.org/2017/default.aspx#stream when it’s time for the talk and look for the blue box (where you’ll find the schedule too):

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!

Author Monica Weis’s Lovely, Comprehensive Review of Pure Act in The Merton Seasonal

“slow boat / calm river / quiet landing”

Review of

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

By Michael N. McGregor

New York: Fordham University Press, 2015

444 pages / $34.95 cloth

Reviewed by Monica Weis, SSJ

The above words, etched into the gravestone of Robert Lax (1915-2000) capture the life and spirituality of this poet-solitary and friend of Thomas Merton. Michael N. McGregor of Portland State University has presented the literary world with a rich and graceful portrait of a talented and saintly man. Pure Act has already been widely reviewed in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (12/24/15), Publishers Weekly (9/15), America (11/30/15), Commonweal (1/*/16) and The Oregonian (11/4/15), to name a few. From them we learn that McGregor’s personal memoir passages are “vivid and engaging,” that this is a “warm, sympathetic literary biography of this complicated man who lived life as simply as possible,” and that Lax’s poetic subjects were both “visionary and ordinary, celebrating the apocalypse of the everyday.”

But it is Lax’s relationship with Thomas Merton that is of primary interest to the present audience, and Pure Act offers us keen insight into their meeting at Columbia University (1935) as well as the depth of their friendship evidenced in thirty years of correspondence and six visits. For sure, they were a salutary influence on each other despite notable temperamental differences. As McGregor perceptively notes, “Merton was a brilliant and tireless self-promoter, while Lax was often taciturn or tongue-tied in public . . . Merton was vitally concerned – in college and later – with finding answers, while Lax seemed much more comfortable with questions” (32). Yet both of them were not searching, as McGregor rightly distinguishes, but “pursuing . . . a sense of truth and of God and of themselves free from the expectations and trappings of the culture surrounding them” (78; emphasis added). Merton, for his part, discovered Roman Catholicism and his vocation as a writer and Trappist monk. Lax, a later convert to Roman Catholicism, remained a lifetime reader of Hebrew scripture and had, perhaps, the greater struggle and longer spiritual journey.

Bereft after Merton entered the monastery at Gethsemani in December 1941, Lax felt drawn to be with the poor in Harlem. In dire need of psychological healing and a philosophy of solitude – the dark aspect of Lax’s life that James Harford could not develop fully in his 2006 Merton and Friends: A Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice – Lax worked for a time in a menial job at The New Yorker which he considered a “toxic” environment. His unrest persisted because he could not write on command, preferring instead sudden inspirations he called “trumpet attacks” (103). He briefly tried his hand at teaching at the University of North Carolina, Connecticut College and a state college in South Dakota, and for a short period also wrote scripts for the Hollywood film industry; he traveled back and forth between Europe and New York City, worked as an editor for New-Story, was a roving reporter in Greece and Europe for Ed Rice’s Jubilee, and much later annually visited Paris and his publishers in Switzerland. In his early years, he seemed unable to settle in one place for very long, always needing a job and money to subsist, yet never abandoning his commitment to writing and reflection. By age thirty-five, notes McGregor, Lax willingly embraced poverty and a life of quiet, moving between Rome, Paris and Marseille, committed to his vocation of writing “that spoke of the beauty of God’s world. God’s people. And he could show those around him what harmony, grounded in love, looked like” (159-60).

From several comprehensive chapters we learn that Lax’s poetry gained a wider audience when Emil Antonucci, working as a graphic designer for Jubilee, began releasing hand-press versions of his poems (204). (It was Antonucci who illustrated Merton’s Original Child Bomb for PAX, a short-lived attempt by Lax to publish poems and art that would promote peace.) Throughout Europe Lax was seen as a forerunner of the concrete poetry movement, although he preferred to be regarded as a minimalist. The Merton-Lax connection was in the spotlight again with the 1978 publication of A Catch of Anti-Letters and a 1980 conference on Merton and Jacques Maritain in Louisville. For some unexplained reason, Lax’s talk, “Harpo’s Progress: Notes toward an Understanding of Merton’s Ways” was not given but later published in the inaugural volume of The Merton Annual (1988). Lax was again in the public eye in the 1984 PBS documentary Merton: A Film Biography, in Michael Mott’s The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, and in his invited review of the first volume of Merton’s correspondence, The Hidden Ground of Love, for St. Bonaventure’s literary journal Cithara. McGregor’s research unearths not only these connections, but also the complexity of Lax’s publishing history, his invitations for readings, a major exhibit of his work in Stuttgart, and his growing reputation in Europe. We experience his personal and literary struggles and triumphs. Quoting Stephen Bann’s critique of Lax’s poetry, McGregor offers two reasons why Lax’s poetry matters: he is countering the “overly secular approach to poetry” then popular and making “momentous statements about human existence in our times” (289).

Peak moments for this reader are the links between Merton, Lax, Mark Van Doren, and Bramachari, and the pull of the Olean roots which offered Lax the balance to his “attraction to urban energy and rural peace” (51). Also engaging is the extensive attention paid to Lax’s deep friendship with the Cristiani family whose circus act he followed through western Canada in 1949. This early relationship with acrobats who knew how to concentrate on the present moment inspired Lax’s poem-cycle The Circus of the Sun (thought by some to be the best writing of the twentieth century) and Mogador’s Book (1992) published almost fifty years after meeting Paul (Mogador) Cristiani. Lax was fascinated, too, by Limnina, the rug weaver on the Greek island of Kalymnos and the local fishermen/sponge divers who persisted in their age-old, dangerous practice of sinking deep into murky waters to retrieve their catch. Each – the acrobats, the rug weaver, the sponge divers – presented Lax with a contemporary expression of Thomas Aquinas’ notion of God as pure act: “when we act consciously and yet spontaneously, . . . we become pure act ourselves – we become like God. If, that is, we act in love” (25).

Lax’s extended years on Kalymnos offered him the physical and psychic space he longed for, and he often sent poems and journal entries to Mark Van Doren, whom he considered his ideal reader (273). Sadly, by 1967, his Columbia friends were dying (Ad Reinhardt, Bob Gerdy, John Slate), and also his brother-in-law Benji Marcus, followed in 1968 by the death of Seymour Freedgood and Lax’s soul-mate Thomas Merton. Lax and Merton had spent six days together the previous June with Lax planning to return to Greece and Merton to travel to Asia. McGregor remarks that after so many deaths, “the tenderness and concern between them must have been palpable” (291). Now Lax was more alone than ever. By 1972 he was shuttling between Kalymnos, Lipsi and Patmos, his three favorite islands, mourning the death of Van Doren, his primary audience, reading in the mornings, journaling in the afternoons and talking to the locals – reminiscent of what Thoreau called his “morning work” – a balance of wakefulness and work. Greek life, Lax said, taught him how to pray (314).

Lax’s journey to New York State’s Art Park for a month-long residency two days before the 1973 political coup on Cyprus, however, reinforced the islanders’ suspicion that this gentle man who chatted with everyone and took notes on all he was seeing was in reality a spy. His eventual return to the island two years later did not completely reinstate their trust; consequently, at age sixty-six, Lax settled on Patmos for the last years of his life – when fortuitously he met Michael McGregor. Only when his health declined in 2000 was Lax persuaded by family to return to his home in Olean where he died on September 26, no doubt surrounded by memories of the late 1930s when Lax, Merton and Ed Rice spent summers there as “literary bohemians” in their “Himalayan kindergarten” (80-81) reading Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and writing their own novels.

Presenting Lax as an embodiment of the “wisdom of simplicity” (11) and himself as a “naïve boy who had washed up on his shores” (13), McGregor becomes both unobtrusive character and reliable narrator in this text, connected to Lax by the author’s own need for personal searching. McGregor’s fifteen-year acquaintance with Lax, his voluminous research, and six years of constructing the twenty-six chapters of Pure Act entitles him to offer credible insight into the trajectory of Lax’s life. This is a readable biography interspersed with snippets of poetry, and pertinent passages from Lax’s journals. The text follows a loose chronological order, with chapters focusing on themes, then looping back to Lax’s life pilgrimage where, says McGregor, Lax had finally found “his own way of walking. His own way of singing the song. His own way of being pure act” (393).

I strongly recommend reading (and enjoying) this book, especially before the June 15-18, 2017 Fifteenth General Meeting of the International Thomas Merton Society at St. Bonaventure University, when participants will be able to visit the Lax family cottage as well as to steep themselves in a special exhibit of Lax’s poetry and journals curated by Paul J. Spaeth, Director of the Library and Curator of the Lax Archives.

Monica Weis, SSJ received the ** “Louie” award for service to the International Thomas Merton Society. Emeritus Professor of English at Nazareth College, Rochester, NY, she is the author of Thomas Merton’s Gethsemani: Landscapes of Paradise (2005) and of The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton (2011); her new book on Merton and Celtic spirituality will be published later in 2016.