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
his prayer was lightly
work and play and seriously
he played lightly
he looked for him if he is the
and found him ruler
found him it is the
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
he had gone
to see him all the knots
because he that had been tied
knew he now came
he knew he had
the one he
could point out
the road moved
had found it)
to the road
whom would he have gotten along with
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
he was meant
and can say
what he sees
with speed and
fall and fly
his fingers on the
what do his
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
he rejoices and the song
in the Lord leads back
rejoices in source
of the children his world
of light is just like
rejoices in we know
it and turns
it to song
but it has
and turns it his world
to light contains
he draws and wonders
from the news, that
of contemplation with joy
a child in praising
of light him
in light we praise
lives in him;