Magazine article The Christian Century

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

Magazine article The Christian Century

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

Article excerpt

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

By Michael N. McGregor

Fordham University Press, 472 pp., $34.95

My interest in Robert Lax and his uncommon life has for many years exceeded my interest in his poetry, which at its best can open up language and its attendant mysteries in surprising and lovely ways, but at its worst can seem a little silly, and even occasionally a waste of paper. For those of you who don't know the poetry, I offer this example of the best from an early collection, Circus of the Sun:

   The Lord, who created them,
   Leaves them in slumber until it is time.
   Slowly, slowly, His hand is upon the
      morning's lyre,
   Makes a music in their sleeping.

One of his worst poems, from a later collection--Poems (1962-1997)--consists of a sequence of alternating tercets, each simply repeating the word no or yes.

One might wonder why a poet with so engaging a voice, so rich and compassionate a vision, would forsake a promising literary career for an isolated vocation worked out in obscurity, writing texts that few besides himself might savor.

Michael McGregor offers something of an explanation: Lax--beloved friend of Thomas Merton, most gifted student of Mark Van Doren, early and frequent contributor to the New Yorker, and a man who could count E. B. White as a fan--suffered no shortage of ambition, but it was a profoundly unusual sort. Early on in their friendship he told Merton that "all he had to do to become a saint was to want to be one." Lax appears to have honored his own counsel.

McGregor's title, Pure Act, alludes to an observation by Thomas Aquinas: "God, Aquinas wrote, is pure love and pure act, while all else in the universe languishes in potentia [sic]. When we act consciously and yet spontaneously, Lax thought, we become pure ourselves--we become like God. If, that is, we act in love."

McGregor tells us that from his youth Lax experienced a love of God that would not abate. Initially he embraced Judaism, leaning into a more Orthodox practice than the Reform Judaism of his childhood home. He also began to read the Bible--both Old and New Testaments--slowly and carefully and came to see that "Judaism and Christianity were not contradictory but complementary." He was not yet a Christian, but he became enamored of Jesus, so much so that when he saw the United States being drawn into World War II, he could not find it in his heart to justify killing for any reason, and he especially rejected the argument that one might kill virtuously. Lax "chose instead to believe, without dilution or emendation, what he read in the Bible, what Jesus taught: that in all circumstances, without exception, we are called to live a life of total love."

In August 1940 the U.S. Senate passed a bill authorizing the draft. Lax wrote the following in his journal: "I believe this. That the world will be good when men cease from evil, that other men cease from evil when you do, and that you can be good more and more easily by wanting to: by 'loving the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might.'"

Even beyond the repercussions of being a conscientious objector in a country set on war, Lax's unwavering resolve did not result in an easy life. …

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