Some Unusual Religious Views

I think most Catholic readers would read The Way of the Dreamcatcher from a very different perspective than I did. Instead of focusing on Lax’s religious views, I focused on his inter-religious views and how those are manifested in his poetry. At times it almost seemed to me that S. T. Georgiou was trying to fit Lax into the Catholic mould even though Lax seemed not to be anything but a typical Catholic. Perhaps, however, Georgiou was asking those question to illustrate Lax’s particular viewpoint, that his roots and his studies had enabled him to draw from many religious sources without losing his Catholic faith.

Knowing how close Merton and Lax were, Georgiou asks Lax if he ever wished to join a monastery:

Since you knew that you always had a strong spiritual and contemplative inclination, did you ever wish to enter a monastery, as did Merton.

No, and that's because of the three monastic vows: Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. Poverty, I was familiar with. Chastity I could get used to. But one thing I could never get used to was Obedience. I don't like being bossed around! Being obedient to a superior really wasn't a part of me. I remember when I graduated from grade school, my mother wrote in my autograph book, "To thine own self be true." So she brought me up, right from the beginning, to be true to myself, and that's an important lesson to get early in life.

I immediately identified with Lax’s answer. I’ve never liked taking orders, especially not on spiritual matters. For me, at least, there’s no higher truth than “To thine own self be true.”

The Christian Scientist/Unitarian in me tends to believe, like Lax, that all faiths can lead to their own form of salvation.

But exactly how do we share, especially when so many faiths differ? Do you believe that all paths to salvation are valid.

Well, I think if you live gently, honourably, focusing on the cultivation of your heart, good things are sure to follow. And I have posted a note on the wall up there which might help to answer your question. It goes like this: "There are as many paths to salvation as there are people willing to be saved."

That sounds faintly like the Japanese Zen poet Ikkyu, who said, "Many winding roads and paths lead to the top of the mountain, but at the peak, we all gaze at the single bright moon. "

Very good, yes, I've heard of that. I do appreciate the ecumenical and interfaith approach. We were meant to connect with each other, to take care of each other, to check up on each other. It's all about communication.

I’ve never felt a need to justify my own religious beliefs or to convert others to my view. I’ve seldom had the chance to get to personally know anyone who’s not Christian or Jewish, but I suspect people deeply involved in their faith tend to be happier than those that aren’t. I do know that some of my favorite students over the years were quite religious. I’ve even envied other people’s absolute faith at times, though I seem to moe of a “doubter” by nature.

As an artist, Lax finds many ways to celebrate his religion:

What if one can’t pray?

Then go to some quiet, scenic place and rest. Listen to a bird's song. Take in the stillness. Or do something creative. Sing, dance, paint, smile. Help somebody. You know, feel the morning's presence in every leaf. Share your joy. I feel all of that counts as prayer, especially if it proceeds from a joyful, loving heart.

I think I’ve mentioned previously that in many ways poetry served as my “religion,” particularly poets like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson or even earlier English Poets like Blake or Donne. Later in life, I’ve turned more and more to Taoist and Buddhist poetry for inspiration. On the other hand, I know many birders who consider “birding” their church.

I’ll have to admit that I was a little shocked when Georgiou made this statement near the end of his book:

In his quiet, poetic resonance, he reminded me of an Eastern sage, the "True Man" of Chuang Tzu, the Man of Te who in motion is like water; at rest, like a mirror; in response, like an echo; who in his stillness, remains pure. Lax naturally possessed what the Asian mystics term "Beginner's Mind," wherein all things are possible. Like Patmos itself, his presence was a place to start from, to be reborn and begin a revitalized understanding of the world.

I’m not entirely sure I agree with that assessment, but I’ll look for those elements when I re-read some of his poems. Perhaps it was an aspect of his writing that subconsciously attracted me and I just wasn’t aware of it.

S.T. Georgiou’s The Way of the Dreamcatcher

When I recently received a note from a blog reader Scott thanking me for posting earlier entries on Robert Lax’s poetry, I decided it must be the right time to read S.T. Georgiou’s The Way of the Dreamcatcher which has been sitting on my desk waiting to be read for a month or two at least. I still don’t remember exactly why I bought the book, though I suspect that Amazon suggested it since I had purchased several of Lax’s poetry books there five years ago.

It didn’t take S.T. Georgiou long to remind me why I had liked Lax so much when I first encountered him in 2005. The preface provides a succinct summary of three traits I most admire in Lax’s work. The one Lax is best known for is his spirituality,

In looking back at our meetings, what especially stands out for me, aside from Lax's emphasis on the transformative and renewing power of love, is how much the poet was spiritually "ahead of his time" — a major reason he had so impressed me, and inspired my course of study. Long before it was popular to draw wisdom from various faith traditions and learn about Yoga, Zen, Sufism, and Kabbalism, the future hermit was actively engaged in a wide array of spiritual exploration.

Though Lax was born and raised a Reform Jew, his uncle, Henry Hotchner, was a high-ranking Theosophist who over the years had exposed his nephew to diverse ways of spirituality. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism had intrigued Lax, but his growing interest in Christianity, (prompted by early Franciscan influence), and his deepening friendship with fellow student Thomas Merton while at Columbia University in New York, led to his eventual baptism in the Roman Catholic Church. Lax felt that he could be perfectly faithful to Christ while learning from other traditions. His inter-religious aspirations, extant long before Vatican II. distinguished the sage. He was a committed peacemaker who understood that the very fate of the earth depended on the world's major religions engaging in regular and sincere dialogue. Like the early Church leaders, he understood that Christ the Word (the Logos) is accessible in seed form in both non-Christian and pre-Christian belief systems. How Christ works outside of Christianity Lax treated as a sacred, unspeakable mystery. In this way he emphasized the absolute freedom of God, who, in his divine work of providence and redemption transcends all limitations. For Lax, all inner roads grounded in wisdom and compassion ultimately led to the apophatic core of the Heart.

though as you’ve probably figured out if you’ve been here many times before, it’s the idea that “all inner roads grounded in wisdom and compassion ultimately led to the apophatic core of the Heart” that most appeals to me.

I’m really not sure I ever noticed Lax’s concern for the environment in his poetry when I read it the first time, but perhaps I did subconsciously because it’s certainly one of my major concerns:

The poet-sage was also intensely concerned about the welfare of the environment, and this decades before the "Green Movement" of the early 1970's and the current eco-crisis. He felt there to be a profound sympathia (a deep and abiding inter-relationship) between the macrocosm (the universe) and the microcosm (the human being). Since the time of Genesis humanity had been given the most holy task of stewarding creation, and this through love. To best balance heaven and earth, Lax felt it important for every caretaker of the cosmos to be as healthy as possible, hence his lifelong interest in prayer, meditation, diet, and exercise — concerns that would become socially popular from the mid-70's on.

When I re-read some of Lax’s poetry and read another book coming this week I’ll watch closer for these ideas in his works.

I remember, though, I was originally attracted to Lax by his poetic style, not his ideas per se.

Lax also seemed to have anticipated Minimalism, the modern art movement of the 1950's and 60's which emphasized purity, clarity, and elimination of non-essentials. His sparse verse — ascetic and mantra-like melded well with his philosophy, "less is more." Even as a budding poet. Lax had strongly believed that basic elements in both art and life help to shape one's meditative clarity. Superficiality and excess are consequently jettisoned, leaving the aspirant to better focus on the divine Source of All, the Fount of Life and Light — certainly sound advice, especially in our depressed financial times. The worldwide recession is forcing many to re-evaluate their values and priorities, particularly in terms of worldly goods. Such reductionist concerns hearken to Lax's perennial plea to "slow down," "relax," and "simplify."

Lax's devotion to the minimalist ethos ultimately centered on the holiness of the moment. He believed that if the seeker welcomes each moment with the fullness of love, he or she "takes care of all time." Like the power of a single word, each moment is meant to be nurtured and cultivated slowly, gently, that its seed might wholly blossom in the hearts of those receptive to it.

That last idea of focusing on the moment takes on added significance since I’ve read more Buddhist literature since I first read Lax. However, I was really attracted to his minimalist style because it reminded me of William Carlos William. In a later discussion, when asked which modern poets have most influenced him, he replies

But the name that comes most clearly to me is William Carlos Williams. His words are so well chosen, so visual, so rhythmic, and resonant. He an economy of expression that is not tight-fisted. His words are liberating. He flows. He’s musical. I remember him saying something about how vital poems are for the health of mind and body...

Even later, he talks about Haiku, another personal favorite and my entrance into Eastern thought:

“With regard to literary influences, Haiku showed me how minimal text can have maximum effect.”

Although I occasionally got the feeling that S.T. Georgiou is trying to pigeonhole Lax into the Catholic faithful, it’s a revealing book, one where I got a different perspective on Lax then I got from reading three of his poetry books. I’ll have more to say in the next few days.

Lax’s “Mogadar’s Book” and “Voyage to Pescara”

When you read "Mogadar's Book" and "Voyage to Pescara" in Circus Days and Night, you can begin to understand why Jack Kerouac might call Robert Lax "_one of the great original voices of our times" . Unfortunately, it's difficult to capture the style of these two sections of Circus Days and Night in a few quotations.

"Mogadar's Book," though it's not a continuous piece reads more like a single poem than a collection of poems. There are no titles in this section and though there are some obvious breaks, it's not clear what these breaks indicate. Though there are several brilliant passages, they often do not seem to stand well on their own, only shining in their original context.

Perhaps the closing paragraph/poem best suggests the thrust of this section:

We are wanderers in the earth, but
only a few of us in each generation
have discovered the life of charity, the
living from day to day, receiving
our gifts gratefully through grace,
and rendering them, multiplied
through grace, to the giver. That
is the meaning of your expansive, out-
ward arching gesture of the arm in
the landing; the graceful rendering,
the gratitude and giving.

For Lax, it is the circus performers, at least the best of them, who receive their "gifts gracefully through grace" and, in turn, give them back to their audience.

"Voyage to Pescara" is equally unusual, a strange mixture of journal and poetry, an Americanized haibun, as it were, that concludes with a long journal entry. In some ways, the section reminds me a lot of my favorite bloggers, blending personal events, personal reflections, and reflections on life in general. In many ways, it reminds me of Kerouac's posthumously published some of the dharma, both in its unevenness and in it's attempts to combine poetry and prose in a journal.

At the very least, the work allows us to see Lax's work as a whole in a clearer light, particularly passages like this:

The performer's entrance is the place of the most (magic) activity. It is between the world of performance and preparation.

The moment before flowering (long) after planting. A moment before the bursting of the bud; almost the moment of bursting. When the flap opens, it is the bud unfurling; the green bud of the flower. A charmed place. It is within the tent, not of it. It is intimate with the tent, but has a wide door to the backlots.

To the audience
it is the tabernacle
from which
the
awaited
enters.

For the performers
it is a place
for a moment's
rest.

It doesn't seem far-fetched to me to identify the circus performers with all artists, particularly writers, of course, whose sacred duty is to bring the sacraments to their audience.

I wish I'd read Circus Days and Night before, rather than after, I read Love Had a Compass because I prefer that work to this one because I'm sure reading this one would have given me a greater understanding and appreciation of Love Had a Compass.

Robert Lax’s “The Morning Stars”

Robert Lax is nearly impossible to define. About the time you think you know his style, he introduces an entirely new style or concept.

Generally, his poems I like best tend to use short lines, one word, or even less, long. They are contemplative poems that force the reader to provide much of the content of the poem.

I was a little surprised, therefore, to find that my favorite poem in the first section of Circus Days and Nights was:

THE MORNING STARS

Have you seen my circus?
Have you known such a thing?
Did you get up in the early morning and see the wagons pull into town?
Did you see them occupy the field?
Were you there when it was set up?
Did you see the cookhouse set up in dark by lantern light?
Did you see them build the fire and sit around it smoking and talking quietly?
As the first rays of dawn came, did you see them roll in blankets and go to sleep?
A little sleep until time came to
unroll the canvas, raise the tent,
draw and carry water for the men and animals;
were you there when the animals came forth,
the great lumbering elephants to drag the poles and unroll the canvas?
Were you there when the morning moved over the grasses?
Were you there when the sun looked through dark bars of clouds
at the men who slept by the cookhouse fire?
Did you see the cold morning wind nip at their blankets?
Did you see the morning star twinkle in the firmament?
Have you heard their laughter around the cookhouse fire?
When the morning stars threw down their spears and watered heaven?
Have you looked at spheres of dew on spears of grass?
Have you watched the light of a star through a world of dew?
Have you seen the morning move over the grasses?
And to each leaf the morning is present.
Were you there when we stretched out the line,
when we rolled out the sky,
when we set up the firmament?
Were you there when the morning stars
sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

These long, flowing lines with their extended parallel structure seem to have been struck directly from Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The ritual of setting up the circus in town after town isn't a just a job, a burden, it is a joy because it is always a celebration of God's firmament. The circus is a microcosm standing for our world where animals and men constantly celebrate God's universe, bringing joy to those who come to watch the celebration.

Though I don't reallly share Lax's romantic view of the circus, I found it impossible not to identify with many of the performers portrayed in these poems and with what Lax clearly sees as their celebration of God and God's miracles. Of course, Lax isn't celebrating just the circus and its performers, but, rather, is celebrating those who celebrate God in their daily work.

For Lax, it becomes clear, there is no separation between everyday existence and God, unless we make that separation ourselves.

In another poem, Lax sees the circus as bringing Eden back to the those who have lost sight of it:

By day from town to town we carry
Eden in our tents and bring its won-
ders to the children who have lost
their dream of home.

If people think they have lost Eden forever, it is not because it is not there, but because people no longer recognize it when they see it.