I’D BEEN MEANING to call him for days and hadn’t, but that afternoon something made me search for a phone. The same something, maybe, that had led me to Robert Lax in the first place fifteen years before. My wife and I were walking through a small Turkish town where all I could find was a cheap payphone halfway up a dirt alley. Connections between Turkey and Greece were bad in those days and this phone looked especially dubious, but I pushed my coins into the slot and dialed his number. The usual clicks and beeps filled my ear, then the low, drawn-out brrrrrs as his line rang. I counted them carefully, knowing that even if he was there he wouldn’t pick up until the fourth one. How many times had I sat in that whitewashed room high above the harbor and watched his face—the slight smile on his slim lips, the sheepish look in his aging eyes—as he followed his ritual? It was like theater or maybe the circus, the way he turned a simple call into an expectant act. Would he pick up at all this time? I wondered. Or was he already gone?
During my visit the year before, his mind had been sharp and his laugh quick, but his lips had been tinged with blue and his legs hardly worked anymore. Our conversations had covered the usual subjects—his friendships with Thomas Merton and Jack Kerouac, the ups and downs of my teaching job, another book of his poems about to be published—but for the first time he’d struggled to locate words. On one of our last days together he told me he’d had a dream in which I assured him “that peace is a good thing to seek and love does conquer all”—a sign, I think, not of doubt but of hope that I would carry the flag he and Merton had picked up so long ago. When we hugged goodbye, he held me for longer than I expected. He was eighty-three years old and his body was breaking down, but his words had guided me for so many years that I couldn’t imagine living without them.
Words—those wonders he wielded better than anyone else, requiring “remarkably few” to “weave awesome poems,” as critic Richard Kostelanetz put it.
Words—those specks of speech he parceled out like perfect pearls—one per line in later poems, or maybe just a syllable.
“Write as though sending a telegram in which every word costs a dollar,” he said more than once, paraphrasing Joyce, his literary hero. “Never use a single word more than necessary.”
His breakthrough as a writer—his transformation from mainstream poet into experimental minimalist—had come from a single word. A single object. A single act. In New York City in 1961, twenty-four years before I met him, he’d seen a stone on a sidewalk and picked it up. A few years before that, he had lingered in Europe for the first time, living on little money among immigrants and drifters near the Marseilles harbor, then in a seminary high in the French Alps. He’d returned to New York for work because he’d run out of cash, but after living so simply, so relatively quietly, the words that whirled around him there—the words he and others used so blithely both in poetry and conversation—bothered him. He wondered how many he or anyone understood.
Then that day he saw the stone. That undeniably physical and natural object in an uncomfortably abstract, unnatural world. As he picked it up, he thought only: stone. Stone, he realized, was one word he felt sure about. One word he could write down and feel confident a reader would understand. Standing there, he started a poem that began:
and i am
as i lift
Although he’d written unusually vertical poetry before, publishing some in the New Yorker, this was his first poem in what critics would come to call his minimalist or concrete style. He wrote more—dozens in the days ahead—feeling freer every time he set one down. A year later, Emil Antonucci, an artist who had collaborated with him before, published a book of them called simply New Poems.
Some who’d praised his earlier work, particularly The Circus of the Sun—his lyrical, clearly biblically inspired cycle comparing creation to a traveling circus—were baffled or dismayed. Others, like Denise Levertov, recognized that words had always been his prime concern. Writing about “Sunset City,” one of the main poems in the Circus cycle, she’d noted: “It is composed—as music may be out of a certain set of tones—from a relatively small number of key words which are used over and over, not in idle repetitions but in a progression of phrases which take resonance and increased meaning from one another….” Although she wasn’t entirely comfortable with the change in his work, she could see that in a poem like “Sea/Sun/Stone,” composed of those three words alone, “the repeated words, when the poem is read aloud properly, bring about in the imagination a more profound sense of their meanings till by the end of the poem we are hot with the sun on stone and our ears are filled with the susurrations of the sea and our eyes with its dazzle.”
It was this ability to anchor a reader in a specific moment, to reestablish—through the selection, ordering, and rhythmic repetition of a few elemental words—the transcendental reality of the world around us, that gave his poetry its spiritual power. Without ever using “spiritual” words, he evoked spirituality, showing us, as critic R.C. Kennedy suggested, the power of one man’s faith:
These compositions have the force to imply that everything is capable of being transformed into symbolic meaning by coming into contact with a passionate human being. Nothing is too small and nothing is too great to be comprehended—or to transmit the meaning which is beyond meanings and which defines itself by remaining incomprehensible. Lax has chosen to write about the common experience in order to avoid seeming to be an elected person. Sanctity is meaningful to him only if it belongs to everything; to sea, sky, minnow and god.
Back in the States after my visit that summer, I’d told his niece Marcia Kelly about his condition. The time had come, we both knew, for him to leave the Greek islands he had lived on for almost forty years—the islands he had moved to shortly after that breakthrough in New York, staying first on Kalymnos and then Patmos, where I would meet him two decades later. It was there on those islands that he honed his poetic approach and found a lifestyle to match it—one that inspired me and many others. Living among poor Greek fishermen and sponge divers had freed him from the American obsession with money, the expectations of editors and writer friends, and the need to maintain anything anyone might call a career. It had allowed him to write as he wanted to write and live as he wanted to live—a life of what he called pure act among people he saw living that way naturally.
The concept of pure act had come to him by intuition long before he understood what it meant. In the late 1930s, when his lifelong friendship with Merton was just beginning, the two of them became obsessed with jazz. Taking breaks from their Columbia College studies, they’d travel to downtown New York clubs on weekend nights to watch their favorite musicians jam. In sessions that went on for hours, sax would flow into bass, bass into piano, the different sounds, the different instruments and styles, rising and falling in turn without discussion or planning. Every musician was in the moment, listening, reacting, blowing or thrumming without hesitation or self-consciousness. Life was pouring forth.
A few years later, when he met the Cristiani circus family, he saw something similar in them, not only when they performed, but when they interacted with each other as well. Everything they did was both spontaneous and confident, flowing the way a river flows. This way of being in the world came from years of practicing their art but also from a deeper well of knowing. They had been acrobats for several generations and the way they moved, the way they were, seemed bred in the bone. He found himself wanting to be a poet in the same way they were acrobats, his poetry flowing from who he was by nature, without the artistic calculations that kept it from being pure.
When they offered him the chance, he traveled with the family through western Canada, performing as a clown sometimes and taking notes for what became his first long work, The Circus of the Sun. By the time he traveled with them he had read Saint Thomas Aquinas and found words for what he felt. God has no potential in him, Aquinas wrote. He is pure act. Pure living. Pure I Am.
That should be our goal as people of God as well, thought Lax, who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism several years before: to live in God so thoroughly, so unselfconsciously, that we become pure act, too.
In his Circus cycle, in comparing creation to a traveling circus, he equated God’s people with acrobats. How do God’s people move on the earth? Here’s his description of Mogador Cristiani, the book’s central character and Lax’s good friend:
He walks the earth like a turning ball: knowing
and rejoicing in his sense of balance:
he delights in the fulcrums
and levers, teeter-boards, trampolines, high-wires,
swings, the nets, ropes and ring-curbs of the natural
Beneath his feet the world is buoyant,
thin and alive as a bounding rope.
He stands on it poised,
a gyroscope on the rim of a glass,
sustained by the whirling of an inner wheel.
He steps through the drum of light and air, his
hand held forth.
The moment is a sphere moving with Mogador.
Lax was amazed by that “whirling of an inner wheel,” in others and himself. Earlier in the poem cycle he had written of the “whirling dance” of Love’s compass tracing “a sphere of love in the void.” He wanted the whirl of his own life to be as balanced as that of the compass, as confident and full of love. He wanted to live among people whose entire life was a whirling dance, a balanced dance, a dance of love. He had caught glimpses of this way of living in many places but it had remained a theory to him, an ideal, a picture of life in God’s celestial city, until he arrived on Kalymnos, until he saw the fishermen and divers and their families there, living like a whole community of jamming jazz musicians. Attuned not just to each other but to God, to history, and to the natural world, they seemed to live as if each move—each word or act—was both natural and inevitable.
Here was a place to settle, he thought. A place to learn. A place to be a poet and a child of God as simply and purely as the islanders were Greeks and fishermen.
I don’t know how his niece convinced him to leave the islands, but she did—and when she had, she asked if I would help him move. I was back in school by then, but I said yes, if the timing was right. If I could do it during a school break.
When the call finally came, it came at night, not from her but from him. That voice that had pleased me so many times over the years entered my ear, small and fragile.
“Can you come?” he asked, so meekly my heart hurt.
Being asked to accompany him as he left Greece was like being asked to join Moses for his last look at the Promised Land. I had met him there when I was young and full of questions, searching for a way to live simply as a writer loving God. He had seemed old to me already, on the other side of those decisions that make us who we are. He had shown me—by being who he was, living as he lived—that what I desired was possible. So when I heard his question, I wanted to drop everything and fly to Patmos, give myself over to helping him in whatever way I could. But I had four classes of twenty-five students each. It was the middle of the term. I couldn’t leave them.
More than a decade has passed since that night, but I still remember it clearly: The look of the kitchen light. The weight of the phone. The feeling of wanting to say anything but what I was saying. I pictured him hearing my words as he sat on his bed, swollen legs tucked under him. I imagined the cold in the room, the winter wind rattling the window. He saw me as capable. Dependable. Someone who loved him and knew his world. He understood why I couldn’t come, of course, as he understood everything. Someone else would take my place, some other plan work out. That kind of understanding—that kind of faith—came with living as he did.
The last I’d heard, his niece and her husband Jack had gone themselves to help him. Complications had kept them from moving him right away, however, and when the summer came, there was a chance they’d all still be on Patmos.
So there I stood in that Turkish alley, listening to his phone. When the fourth ring came, the line clicked…and once again I heard his voice, closer now and stronger. “Hello?” he said in his half-questioning way.
I couldn’t believe it. We were only a few days from Patmos. It seemed I’d see him there again. It was his turn, though, to disappoint me. He was leaving, he said, within the hour. Two local men were waiting outside to carry him down to the harbor. He thanked me for calling—glad, it seemed, that mine would be his last call on Patmos.
The rest of our time in Turkey, as we made our way to the coast and crossed to Greece, a sadness never left me. Years of annual visits to Patmos, visits with Bob, flooded my mind. He was alive and I would talk to him one more time, weeks before he died, but for me Greece and he, Patmos and he, were indivisible.
Anyone who’s read the Book of Revelation has read about Patmos. “I…was on the island called Patmos,” John writes in Chapter 1, “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet, saying, ‘Write in a book what you see….’”
European art is sprinkled with paintings of John on islands called Patmos that look nothing like the real thing. In one by Jean Fouquet, John sits placidly in a lush red cape on an island no bigger than he is. It was a postcard of this painting in a room he rented in Marseilles that drew Lax to Patmos the first time, long before he settled there.
What drew me is less concrete. I didn’t remember Patmos from the Bible or the paintings I’d seen in dozens of galleries during a five-month trip through Europe. I headed there only because it was the first stop for the last ferry leaving Piraeus that Friday afternoon. A friend of a friend in Athens had said it was beautiful so I decided I’d go there. It was the middle of winter, a few days after my twenty-seventh birthday, and I was going to write a novel in what I’d imagined would be balmy Greece until I saw the snow like white berets on the oranges in Athens.
Before I made that first trip to Europe, I’d spent three years writing about the world’s poor for a Christian development agency in Seattle. It was my first job after college, and I wasn’t prepared for what it did to me. The first person I interviewed on my first reporting trip to Asia was a beautiful young Vietnamese woman who’d been raped repeatedly on her way to a refugee camp in Malaysia. I didn’t know what to do with her tears. Nor did I know what to do with the maimed beggars in Calcutta, the boys in Thailand who’d lost their eyesight to polio, or the mothers—so many mothers in refugee camps, garbage dumps, and makeshift villages—of children shrunken and bloated by disease.
Feeling woefully ignorant, I read everything I could in those days on illness and poverty rates, the histories of Third World countries and the words of writers like Ron Sider and Jim Wallis who called for a more compassionate, socially active Christianity.
I wrote about all of these for the agency’s magazine, but the more I wrote, the more inadequate my writing seemed—the more inadequate everything I or anyone else was doing seemed. The world’s poor weren’t poor because of disease or drought alone, and certainly not because they had too many children, as some people claimed. They were poor because history had made them poor or kept them poor while others grew rich. They were poor because the world was set up the way it was, with structures in place that kept the wealthier nations wealthy. America was part of the problem, of course, but so was Europe. Most of the history I’d been reading, in fact, was a history of European occupation, European extraction of natural resources, European imposition of cash-crop farming and enslavement or virtual enslavement of native populations. The question that tortured me was: What should I, as a child of God, be doing? I wanted to do more, to know more, to understand the problem well enough to know exactly what I should do.
So I quit my job, sold my car, and left for Europe. I wanted to learn its history, its cultures, its attitudes. I wanted to learn about myself, too. And I wanted to write a novel. I believed, as only the young can believe, that what I wrote might change people’s thinking—might even change the world.
I’d never read anything by Thomas Merton, but I was thinking of him as I shopped for last-minute items in Athens before boarding the Patmos boat. One of the books I’d been reading mentioned that in his monastery Merton stayed in touch with current events through letters from friends, the same way I’d been keeping up on news from home. I was thinking that I should read The Seven Storey Mountain when I returned to the States. Little did I know, I wouldn’t have to wait that long. While browsing through an English-language bookstore that morning, I saw it there on the shelf: an unread 1950s paperback version displayed by itself.
In the coming days, I would think of this as the first, or maybe the second, miracle.
Less than twenty-four hours later, after a scramble to find my ferry and a chilly nine-hour ride across the Aegean, I landed on Patmos in the dead of night ten thousand miles from home. By the next evening, I’d rented an apartment for three dollars a day and was banging away on a portable typewriter I’d picked up in Athens. That night, looking for the next book to read, I found myself drawn to the Merton. As soon as I started it, I knew it was the right choice. Here was a soul mate, I thought, a young writer searching for the best way to live his love for God.
Impressed as I was with Merton, however, one of his college friends impressed me more: Robert Lax. He was a Jew, but he seemed to know more about the Christian God than the Christians in the story. In one of the book’s most famous scenes, he asks Merton what he wants to be and Merton says he wants to be a good Catholic. “No,” Lax replies, “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.” When Merton balks at this, Lax chides him, “Don’t you believe that God will make you what he created you to be, if you will consent to do it? All you have to do is desire it.”
Lax’s words had a profound effect on Merton, causing him to take the question of his vocation more seriously. They affected me as well. I started hoping he’d appear again (he did—several times) and then wishing for a friend like him, someone sharp and wise, a seeker himself. I made a note to look for him in other Merton books back home. Once again, I didn’t have to wait that long.
Over the next several weeks as I pounded away, the temperature sank until it hovered near freezing. My apartment was a summer apartment, with concrete floors and walls and no heat. I begged a heater from my landlord, but it was small and cheap. My allergies kicked in and I started sneezing. Spring wasn’t far off, so I decided to return to Athens where hotels had heat and try Patmos again in a couple of weeks.
The night I picked to leave was the coldest of all. The boat was late and there was a chance it wouldn’t come at all. I huddled in a doorway by the harbor, shivering. Why not go back home? I thought. Try again another night. Just then, though, I heard a voice, not outside but somewhere deep inside me, say, Use this time to focus on God. I wasn’t used to hearing voices, but during my month on Patmos I’d had any number of dreams that came close to being revelations, so I listened. I did my best to pray, thanking God for the cold and the wait and whatever I might be learning from them. Then I heard the voice again. If you will endure, it said this time, God will bless you. And the blessings will be all the better because of the privations you have withstood. The words sound stilted to me now, but they are exactly what I heard. I know because I wrote them down.
And so I did endure, and less than twenty minutes later the boat appeared. I boarded beside an older man with an Australian accent who asked me what I was doing on Patmos. When I told him, he said he was a writer, too. “A lot of writers have come to Patmos,” he said. “In fact, there’s a poet living there now who has been quite well received in America. His name is Robert Lax.”
My first thought (after leaping out of my seat with excitement) was that I was moving away from Patmos, that Lax might not be there when I returned. My next thought, though, was: God has connected so many dots already, why would he stop now? The Australian man told me the islanders called Lax “Petros” for some reason, so when I returned from Athens, warm and refreshed, I asked the woman who sold me groceries if she knew a man named Petros.
“Yes,” she replied, “he comes in here every day.”
But he didn’t come in that day…or the next day…or the next.
Finally, on the fourth day, he did. “He said that he goes to the post office every day at ten,” she told me. “You can meet him there.”
I was so excited I didn’t sleep that night. When the next morning dawned, it was raining and no one on Patmos went out in the rain, but I trudged down to the post office anyway and when the man they called Petros wasn’t there, I left a note asking if he could meet me at a nearby taverna at six that night. Then I went home and slept.
It was twilight when I returned to town. The rain had stopped, but there was no one around and the taverna was closed. Disappointed again, I was turning to go when a voice behind me said, “Hello?” As soon as I looked, I knew it was him—not just a Robert Lax, but Merton’s.
He stood an inch or two shorter than me with bushy white hair that struggled out from below a neat gray cap. His face was long (“like a horse,” Merton wrote) with a pleasingly proportional nose and sharply etched cheeks. His yellowed teeth were original and flashed amid the peppered white of a bushy goatee. His eyes, though dark, shone with life and his voice and skin suggested a man half his sixty-nine years. A beige down jacket and desert boots made him look surprisingly American.
We searched for a place to talk and settled finally into a noisy restaurant where I ticked off the coincidences—the miracles—that had brought me to him before declaring, “God must have something for you to tell me…or me to tell you.”
He smiled as if used to that kind of thing.
From then on we just talked. About him. About Merton. About me. About writing, faith, and life. As we did, he mentioned name after name I recognized: Daniel Berrigan, Ernesto Cardenal, Jack Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, all of whom he’d known. He told me he’d come to Greece twenty years before and stayed, after working as a professor, a film critic for Time magazine (“I sat and watched four films a day until a doctor told me I was losing my eyesight and had to get out”), and a screenwriter in Hollywood. (“What films did you write?” I asked. “Oh no,” he said. “Maybe I’ll tell you after I know you better. They were the worst movies of all time.”) He told me he had lived in Paris and Marseilles, too. And of course New York. His poetry, he said, was usually about nature. (“Simple things like sun, sun; moon, moon. I like to write in a way that can’t be misunderstood and when you write things like ‘red, red’ or ‘black, black’ there aren’t too many ways people can take them.”)
I tried to steer away from Merton because there were so many other things I wanted to know about him, but it was clear that Merton was the subject most people asked about. I soon realized that they’d been more than college friends, remaining close until Merton died. (A book of their letters published in 2001, When Prophecy Still Had a Voice, runs to over four hundred pages.)
After insisting on paying for dinner—because, he claimed, he had invited me out—he showed me where his house was. He had asked if I’d come the next day to help him pack for a show of his work the next month in Stuttgart. We looped our way through dimly lit alleys with him stepping cautiously aside, almost flattening himself against a wall, every time he heard a motorbike. Everyone we passed as we climbed to the top of the small town hailed him familiarly, calling out “Yah-soo, Petros!” (“When I first came here someone asked me my name and I said ‘Robertos,’” he told me. “‘Petros?’ the man said, and I said, ‘Yes, okay,’ and I’ve been called that ever since.” He said it with a shrug as though resigned to his fate, but the smile on his lips suggested he secretly enjoyed the nickname.)
Before we parted that night, he invited me into his small main room and thrust a book into my hand: Merton by Those Who Knew Him Best. There he was on page sixty-four, looking just as I’d found him, cap and all, the first entry in the section titled “Merton the Friend.”
Looking up from the book, I took in the surroundings I would come to know so well in the years ahead. The only furniture was a single bed, a makeshift sofa, and two rickety-looking tables. An old metal typewriter sat on one, surrounded by books and papers. The other held a similar array. The walls were a monstrous sea-slime green but you didn’t really see them; the rest of the room was far too interesting. Photos of the fourteenth Dalai Lama merged with snapshots of Merton and their college friend Ed Rice, postcards, drawings by children, and letters from people around the world, all taped to the walls.
As I left, I peeked into the only other room besides a small bathroom and an alcove full of books and boxes. It was a makeshift kitchen with a counter holding a tiny gas stove and another unsteady table, this one filled with items normally kept in a kitchen cupboard—spices and teas, biscuits and olive oil. In their randomness they looked like art. A recently sliced half-lemon lay on one corner. It seemed to epitomize Lax and his house—simple and natural, evidence of a domestic act that didn’t interrupt but rather was central to his process of creation.
I spent a week with Lax that first time, going up to his house every night and talking to him, just the two of us, while drinking tea and packing boxes. He lent me books of his poetry and read some of mine. He told me to write every day—“bundles and bundles of things before you go back and reread anything.” He had been doing that so long, he said, it was as important to him as breathing. He described his poetry as an attempt to capture the language of his soul as it talked to itself. “My ultimate desire is to do what it says in the Psalms,” he said. “‘Sing a new song unto the Lord.’ I think most people who read that verse miss the word new.” From there we moved on to one of his favorite ways of looking at life, through the Hegelian theory of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis,” which he said could be traced back to the Jewish Kabbalists. We talked about religious history and the fusing of religions—“Everything that goes up, converges,” he said, rising to what he called the “one-pointedness” of true holy men. Merton, of course, bobbed up more often than ever in these discussions.
I told him I had been trying to live so immersed in God that life was a free-floating movement in which he carried me along. What happened the cold night I waited for the boat was one example of what had come from this approach. I wanted my conscious mindset to be: God is here; God has led me here; all moments are the same with God, although each is distinct and a joy in itself. Nowness was a recurring theme in our discussions—the nowness of living each moment as a moment before God.
Several times during these discussions Lax stopped me and told me to write as much as I could, to write about everything. “When you’re back in the States and you’re in a situation where all of this doesn’t come so easily, you will have something to remind you. Not memories, but the habit of writing, and that will carry you through. As Saint Thomas said, ‘Every virtue is a habit.’ Then you will be able to see life as continuous and not be prone to the pitfalls around you.”
The night I first met him, I’d told him I thought God had something for him to tell me or me to tell him. I didn’t know what he got out of our week together, but his encouragement of my thinking and especially my writing seemed to be what God had in store for me. More than that, though, I thought God intended for us to be friends.
I’d like to say that I followed his example unswervingly in the years ahead, but I didn’t. When I returned to the States, I didn’t feel the questions that had led me to Europe had yet been answered, and there were many places I still wanted to see, so I accepted a job leading European tours. For the next decade or so I wandered for almost half of each year, searching and yet becoming less grounded each time I left home. Two things kept me tethered through these years: my writing and my yearly visits to Patmos. Eventually, I met the woman who would become my wife, entered an MFA program at Columbia University—Lax’s alma mater—and found what was for me the closest I could come to Lax’s idea of pure act: a life made up mostly of teaching and writing.
In 1996, eleven years after I met him, I did an extensive interview with Lax that included his first explanation to me of pure act. I realize now that it was close to the immersion-in-God idea I shared with him on one of our first nights together. From that interview and my years of knowing him, I wrote a profile that appeared the next year in Poets & Writers magazine. It was my first national publication.
One year after Lax died, I started working on a book about him. It wasn’t until I was far into my research that I understood how closely connected his idea of pure act was to his ideas about peace and love—and poverty. During his first sojourn in Europe, while living high in the Alps near the sanctuary of Notre Dame de la Salette, he wrote a long contemplation of poverty, starting with the first of Jesus’s Beatitudes, Blessed are the poor: “He is one of the persons of the Blessed Trinity and at the same time a child born into poverty,” he wrote. “The Kingdom is meant for those who resemble him.”
The paper seemed to be a first draft of something meant for publication, though I found no evidence of a second draft and the ideas were never published, at least not in essay form. As in many of his poems, the parentheses in the following excerpts reveal alternative word choices he contemplated:
He promises us (joy) happiness. More exactly, he reveals to us the conditions of happiness. More precisely still, he describes it to us, he tells us what it is, concretely: in what dispositions of spirit it consists, what kind of life assures it, what sort of person has a chance to possess it…the poor.
…Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven: only poverty brings us close to that openness, that limpidity of the divine Persons. Our familiarity with them, and our happiness will be the measure of our (transparency), our dispossession.
…One must have entered deeply into the first beatitude to be capable of Beatitude itself.
…Blessedness/happiness and poverty are thus from the beginning, from the first word, indissolubly allied.
…Thus poverty inaugurates His message. It occupies a primordial place there. This is not to say, however, that it is the highest value or the most essential. The essential is love.
Here, I realized, was the answer to the main question I’d been asking all along: How should I live as a lover of God in a world of suffering, ignorance and want? It was an answer I’d been given through the Bible as a child, but it took Lax and how he lived for me to understand it.
Bob Lax wasn’t an infallible being, not by a long shot. He had quirky habits like the four-ring rule for the telephone and he was fearful of many things, most notably motorbikes, which, as anyone who’s been to Greece knows, fill the islands. Countless times we’d be walking along, talking about some high spiritual matter, and he’d begin to move away, pressing himself into an alley or the side of a building because he heard a motorbike coming. I have no doubt he was terrified as those men carried him down that narrow concrete path; as his niece and her husband ferried him in a tiny tender to a larger ship, perched precariously in his wheelchair; as he traveled by water and then rail not to Switzerland, where he’d hoped to stay in a monastery that couldn’t take him after all, but to Belgium and then, against his earlier wishes, across the ocean by passenger liner to a house he’d stayed in as a young man, sometimes with Merton, in his hometown, Olean, New York. There, surrounded by family, belatedly pleased that his life had come full circle, he died on September 26, 2000.
That same day, on the other side of the continent, I began teaching writing in the graduate program at Portland State University, where I still teach today.
Six years after Bob’s death, I returned to Patmos and spent a week by myself in his small house, cleared of all his furniture but with his books still there. As I crossed the water from Kos (taking the shorter hydrofoil route instead of the long ferry trip from Athens) I feared I’d feel sad staying there, remembering my many days with him in that small room high above the harbor. I found, instead, that being there—especially in the main room where he slept and met visitors—made me happy, as if he were just beyond the wall in the tiny kitchen fixing tea, or maybe back in the little alcove searching for something by Merton to show me. It seemed his spirit was still there, not only in that room but throughout the island—the Island of Love—just as it is still in my heart and in the world at large—still encouraging lives of pure act, still loving all it sees, still welcoming everyone it meets with that gentle half-questioning “Hello?”
Above photograph of Thomas Merton by Ralph Eugene Meatyard
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.