I first considered reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain when Robert Lax’s editors suggested that Merton held Lax in the highest esteem and praised Lax in his seminal work. I wondered if gaining more insight into his character would offer further insight into Lax’s poetry. Later when I read that Jean Vanier’s life was changed by reading Merton’s work, I decided it was time to read it. But it was only as I actually read The Seven Storey Mountain that I realized I must have been destined to read this book. I was amazed to find several references to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a book I recently finished reading and still hadn’t decided how to discuss, particularly since Merton’s early life reminded me of the life Joyce portrays in his biographical novel. I was equally amazed to discover multiple references to Merton’s love of Blake, especially since I’d just recently bought Blake’s Complete Works, a book of his drawings, and two critical reviews of his work in anticipation of a mini-course in his poetry. Turns out that it is just plain a great read, too, even if you’re not entirely converted by Merton’s conversion. My only complaint was that I didn’t have the time to just sit down and read it from cover to cover.
Today, though, I’m going to limit myself to discussing Merton’s portrayal of Lax, because I want to get back to Lax’s works and finish up that discussion before circling back and relating Merton’s views of Joyce to my own impressions. Despite the hype from Lax’s editors, there’s not really too much about Lax in The Seven Storey Mountain, though Lax does seem to be one of Merton’s closest friends and was pivotal in getting Merton’s poetry published after he entered the monastery. We first see Lax waiting for a poetry professor to show up:
Taller than them all, and more serious, with a long face, like a horse, and a great mane of black hair on top of it, Bob Lax meditated on some incomprehensible woe, and waited for someone to come in and begin to talk to them.
Lax was apparently one of Merton’s “serious” friends; at this early stage of Merton’s life Lax might have been one of his few serious friends because Merton seemed to take partying more seriously than his studies. I suspect that the phrase “meditated on some incomprehensible woe” is the most significant phrase for Merton, at least seen from the perspective of when he wrote this biography.
I’m still not sure what Merton means in this later description,
To name Robert Lax in another way, he was a kind of combination of Hamlet and Elias. A potential prophet, but without rage. A king, but a Jew too. A mind full of tremendous and subtle intuitions, and every day he found less and less to say about them, and resigned himself to being inarticulate.
perhaps merely that Lax was a reluctant prophet. I certainly never get a sense from Lax’s poetry that he considers himself a “prophet” at all, though the poetry is quite often limited to “subtle intuitions.” His poetry certainly reveals rather than tells.
Although I don’t really consider Lax a Catholic, or even, for that matter, a Christian poet, all of his poetry has a spiritual overtone to it, for as Merton notes:
And the secret of his constant solidity I think has always been a kind of natural, instinctive spirituality, a kind of inborn direction to the living God. Lax has always been afraid he was in a blind alley, and half aware that, after all, it might not be a blind alley, but God, infinity.
Unlike Lax, Merton was conflicted by his desire to publish, fearing that it was a self-indulgence and manifestation of ego that conflicted with his desire to serve God:
Lax rebuked me for all this. His whole attitude about writing was purified of such stupidity, and was steeped in holiness, in charity, in disinterestedness. Characteristically he conceived the function of those who knew how to write, and who had something to say, in terms of the salvation of society. Lax’s picture of America— before which he has stood for twelve years with his hands hanging in helplessness at his sides— is the picture of a country full of people who want to be kind and pleasant and happy and love good things and serve God, but do not know how. And they do not know where to turn to find out. They are surrounded by all kinds of sources of information which only conspire to bewilder them more and more. And Lax’s vision is a vision of the day when they will turn on the radio and somebody will start telling them what they have really been wanting to hear and needing to know. They will find somebody who is capable of telling them of the love of God in language that will no longer sound hackneyed or crazy, but with authority and conviction: the conviction born of sanctity.
The line “They will find somebody who is capable of telling them of the love of God in language that will no longer sound hackneyed or crazy, but with authority and conviction: the conviction born of sanctity” reveals much about not only Merton’s writing but about Lax’s writing, too. It’s easy to see how most, if not all, of Lax’s poetry serves this purpose as clearly as Merton’s religious-oriented writings.
Even though Lax didn’t convert to Catholicism until after Merton had become a monk, Lax dispels Merton’s doubts and leads directly to his conversion:
“What you should say”— he told me—” what you should say is that you want to be a saint.” A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said: “How do you expect me to become a saint?” “By wanting to,” said Lax, simply. “I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.” But Lax said: “No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.” A long time ago, St. Thomas Aquinas had said the same thing— and it is something that is obvious to everybody who ever understood the Gospels. After Lax was gone, I thought about it, and it became obvious to me.
Not many people could make that statement, even less college students, but it says worlds about Lax’s character, even in his early years. No wonder Merton saw him as even more religious than himself.