The Mystic from Morningside Heights
It’s hard to imagine a life more beautiful and strange than that of Robert Lax. Readers familiar with Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain will remember Lax as Merton’s friend and fellow convert to Catholicism. The two met as students at Columbia University, where both underwent a religious transformation (though Lax would not act on his until after graduation) and remained friends for the rest of their lives. After Merton entered the Trappists, they kept their friendship alive through the exchange of letters—decades’ worth of witty, poignant, hilarious correspondence that reveals the intimacy of their relationship, based in their shared love of the written word and their shared journey of faith.
Nov. 30 is the 100th anniversary of Robert Lax’s birth, and it seems fitting that his centenary is marked by the publication of a delightful new biography, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, by Michael N. McGregor. To read McGregor’s book is to learn that Lax was a searcher and a mystic, a poet with a profound love of life and almost instinctive ability to find God in all things. Growing up in a largely nonpracticing Jewish family, Lax was free to explore the variety of religious traditions available to him in New York, and finally found a home in the Catholic Church, though Lax’s lived experience of Catholicism would prove to be like no one else’s.
One also learns the wild and wonderful trajectory of Lax’s life—his unhappy first job with The New Yorker, his brief stint as a film reviewer for Time and an even briefer one as a Hollywood screenwriter, and, most notably, his month-long adventure with a traveling circus and the deep friendship he developed with a family of acrobats, the Cristianis, who would shape his view of holiness, community, and beauty for the remainder of his life. We learn of the gradual pull he felt eastward, toward Greek culture and the Greek islands, where he eventually settled and lived his life in silence and meditation as a poet, a philosopher and a spiritual mentor to pilgrims who came from near and far to make his acquaintance.
Among those pilgrims was young Michael McGregor. His first meeting with Lax in 1985 led to a friendship that would flourish until Lax’s death in the year 2000. Given the length and closeness of that relationship, it comes as no surprise that McGregor’s book is no ordinary biography. It is a shared narrative—one that faithfully traces Lax’s life in all of its fascinating detail—but also one that traces the development of the biographer as he comes to understand this brilliant, complex, holy man. In a sense, we as readers accompany McGregor on that journey, as his path of discovery mirrors our own. With him as our narrator and guide, we move along that road as fellow pilgrims. I never had the chance to visit Robert Lax on the island of Patmos, but somehow, in reading this book, I feel as if I have.
The occasion of a centenary is a hopeful enterprise. It gives us the opportunity to look back, but it also inspires us to look forward, inviting us to re-evaluate not only the life but also the work that lives beyond the artist. Just as he was an extraordinary man, Robert Lax was an extraordinary poet. There is nothing conventional or predictable about his poems. Their subjects are by turns visionary and ordinary, celebrating the apocalypse of the everyday. The later poems are spare and strange; their stripped down simplicity engages sound and sense and sight, inviting the reader to see and hear the world anew and to revel in the wonder of the word. The joy in Lax’s poetry embodies his own interior joy and his discovery of it, almost everywhere, in the exterior world.
There is joy in Lax’s life and joy in Lax’s work—and that same joy pervades Pure Act. Michael McGregor’s book memorializes the most memorable of men, not only in terms of its content, which is faithful to fact, but also in terms of its spirit. It is appropriate that we celebrate this strange and beautiful life in November, the month of All Saints. Among the most famous stories about Lax is the one Merton recorded in The Seven Storey Mountain. Lax queries Merton, just after his baptism, “What do you want to be?” Taken off guard, Merton replies, “I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.” But Lax immediately corrects him: “What you should say is that you want to be a saint!” With these wise words, Robert Lax expressed the true vocation of every Catholic as well as the goal he sought—and arguably achieved—in living out his own, uncommon life.