Saturday, April 21, 2012


HARPOS´ PROGRESS: Notes toward an Understanding of his Ways
by Robert Lax

Presented at the Maritain-Merton Symposium: Spirituality in Secularized Society (September 25-26,1980) Louisville, Kentucky

(The event was conceived by José Rafael Revenga when I attended with my wife Alba a conference of The International Institute Jacques Maritain at Venice, Italy on December 1978. I also arranged funding. The encounter was put together admirably by Anthony O. Simon).

Robert Lax reads from his poem "Harpo´s Progress" at Thomas Merton´s hermitage on the last Sunday of September 1980. A beautiful day.
Robert Lax with Daniel Berrigan. Both attended the symposium held at a hotel in Louisville, KY 
Robert Lax and Raymond Panniker at Thomas Merton´s hermitage on the last Sunday of September 1980. I made a especial point to invite Panniker.

HARPO´S PROGRESS: Notes toward an Understanding of his Ways

[Harpo is a pseudonym which Merton used in writing his anti-letters to Lax]

There was a hermit who lived in the woods. He spent his days and nights in prayer, and in peaceful works that gave praise to the Lord. Though his spirit rested always in the heart of his Creator, his hands and feet were eldom idle, and neither was his mind. It might be said that the hings he made were useless (he didn´t weave baskets, he didn´t make shoes), or if useful, only to the spirit: only to the soul in its journey toward God.

What were his works? Tracts, translations, poems, fables, drawings, photographs, dancing and drumming. So many works and all of the spirit? So many works, and all from a single source, toward a single end. 

His tracts were concerned with mystical theology, both the problems and the glories of the contemplative life: but the language in them was always as simple as possible, and his examples and illustrations clear. No problem ever seemed too complex for him to tackle, and he never  dropped one  until he had found a solution: an insight, at least, that he was capable of explaining.

His translations: some were from Latin, from the writings and sermons of the early Church fathers; but just as many were from French, Spanish and even Chinese: poems and fables he´d found and admired and wanted to put into English so others could read them. 

His own poems and fables, dramas and songs were works of the spirit, praise of the Lord, particularly of his mercy: sometimes directly, sometimes by inference; sometimes simply by  the fact of their being. Ever creative, seldom didactic, they were always superabundantly alive. 

The drawings, the photos? Filled wit that same joy (the joy of David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant): a cause for rejoicing.

The dancing, the drumming? Now dancing, now drumming: now song for the Lord. And (once when he travelled) the hermit and his friends, all dancing, all drumming, all rejoicing in his love.

Did he write letters, too? He wrote them and he wrote them. Some light, some heavy. Some addressed to problems in the world, others purely to matter of the spirit: some only to include a song, some only for laughter. Yet all from a single impulse of the heart.

Where find the time for so much writing? He rose early and had no other work but to praise the Lord. 

A new kind of life, and a classic one too. In all the ages of Christianity there have been at least a few joyous hermits who have filled the world about them with divinely inspired joy. And this hermit, without at all forcing his way, is of their number.  A dolphin-like personality with a lively approach to all matters divine is not new in the Christian tradition, yet each time one appears it´s as though a new star were in the sky. 

How did his work relate to his prayer? The work took its rise from prayer and returned to prayer. The work itself was prayer and was informed by prayer. There was no conflict between work and prayer: if conflict arose it was solved by prayer. It was resolved (turned from conflict to creation) in the poet´s --the hermit´s-- full dedication to contemplative prayer: to union with God. 

Drumming: surely it´s possible to pray witout drumming; but not (for this hermit) to drum without praying.

Dancing,  the same.
Singing,  the same.
Preaching, photographing, drawing: The same.

And so with the employment  of all his gifts and talents. He might, and often did, pray without visible movement. But none of his outward actions were ever unaccompanied by prayer. Nor was the final purpose  of any of them less than the ultimate goal of his whole life of prayer.

It was the force, the strength, the weakness, too, of this whole life of prayer that gave life to the works, and gives life still, even though the hermit appears, at least for the moment, to have left the woods.

Being given entirely to the love of the Lord
he did what he did with joy and energy
he did not doubt, since there was only one goal in
mind: to serve the Lord

and who is the Lord and how should he serve him?
he learned  more and more each day

he learned to express himself more and more clearly
on the nature of this love, on the meaning of the life 
he had entered upon, as a river runs into the sea

When a river runs into the sea it stops being a
river: its molecules are invaded by the molecules of
the sea, and while it loses nothing, it gains new
being in the sea

the closer he came to knowing God, the closer he came
to knowing himself, his true self

the closer he came to knowing God and himself, the
more clearly he saw how they were related: how like
they were, and how unlike 

his work was work                          did he play
his play was pay                             seriously?

his play was work                           he played
his work was play                           seriously

his work and play                            lightly and
were prayer                                     seriously
                                                        at once?

his prayer was                                 lightly
work and play                                  and seriously
                                                         at once

he played lightly


he looked for him                             if he is the
and found him                                  ruler

found him                                         it is the
living                                                 ruler
within his                                          i must
own heart                                          find

he hadn´t gone                                  all the skeins
to see him                                         that had been
to steal                                              twisted
                                                         now came straight
                                                         for him

he had gone
to see him                                         all the knots
because he                                        that had been tied
knew he                                            now came
should                                               undone

he knew he had

the one he

and now
could speak

could point out
a path

that others 
might take

to find
the one

he had

the road moved
in only 
one direction

(once one
had found it)

the paths
through the 

which led
to the road


one needed
a guide

for every
of the

whom would he have gotten along with
in history?

with rabelais?

with donne

with blake
yes, yes

with augustine?

chaucer, shakespeare?

louis armstrong?

how would he have felt
about the abbey of

he might not all 
have disliked it

not by wanting
but by doing

not by doing
but by being

not by being
but by growing

he grew to be
the person

he knew
he was

he chose
and kept 

chose and
stood firm
by his

took on
the jobs
he was meant
to do

took on,
and carried
them through

and can say
what he sees

the closer
he comes

to the
of the 

the better
he sees 
the whole

with speed and

and joy

he bowls
down the

like a
of light

or, sitting
at ease

his back

he plays
the bongo
between his

hands hover,
fall and fly

his fingers                                           on the
fly                                                       white

his thumbs
beat out
the rythm

what do his
drawing brushes

fly, too

flight and 

they leave
a character

that of the

      What of his dancing? His dancing
was a dance of grace and wit; a ritual that
consumed itself in perfomance. Not just
anyone´s dancing, but his own: own limbs and
sinews responding to the music of his spirit:
a celebration and a cause for joy.

And so, in all he did, he praised the
Lord; in all he did, rejoiced in the gift of living.

A four-year-old child is seated at a desk,
his feet planted squarely before him. He is
writing or drawing; absorbed his work. His 
sitting position is erect; his expression serious.

Events will interrupt this moment, but it will
be resumed years later, when seeds of this early
planting flower.

he rejoices                                    and the song
in the Lord                                   leads back
                                                     to the
rejoices in                                    source
the liberty
of the children                             his world
of light                                         is just like
                                                    the one
rejoices in                                    we know
it and turns
it to song
                                                    but it has
                                                    more dimensions
and turns it                                  his world
to light                                        contains
he draws                                     and wonders
his song
                                                    news, good
from the                                      news, that
 wells                                          rings
of contemplation                        with joy

a child                                         in praising
of light                                        him
in light                                        we praise
                                                    the Lord

he lives,
not he.
but Christ
lives in him;



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