Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

By S.T. Georgiou
Novalis, 288 pages, $14.95
Edited by Arthur W. Biddle
University Press of Kentucky, 448 pages, $34.95
By Robert Lax
Overlook Press, 228 pages, $26.95
A poet, a monk and a journalist

Books revive interest in trio of writers, friends: Lax, Merton Rice

Reviewed by ARTHUR JONES

Three new books in the past four years suggest a revival of interest in an all-American trio of Catholic writers: Robert Lax, the poet; Thomas Merton, the monk; and Ed Rice, the journalist.

The most recent one is S.T. Georgiou’s The Way of the Dreamcatcher: Spirit Lessons with Robert Lax: Poet, Peacemaker, Sage.

It was preceded by Circus Days and Nights, which collects Lax’s circus cycle trilogy. And there’s When Prophecy Still Had a Voice: The Letters of Thomas Merton & Robert Lax, edited by Arthur W. Biddle, which is intriguing and sometimes baffling.

Merton-Lax-Rice were a Chinese puzzle as bound together in life and mutual imaginings as the earlier Chesterbelloc (G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc). And as Catholic.

Robert Lax’s sister called them “the first hippies.” If so, they became “hippies for Jesus.” Merton and Lax were both converts.

They were hippies who could write -- initially for each other, then for wider audiences, always to each other and, finally, cumulatively, to the future as epilogue and epitaph writers for their generation.

Most of all they were friends. As friends and writers, they’re worth a first visit or a return visit. More, they were a trio of writers who captured a moment in American and Catholic time. Their lives were a letter to Rome and the world about America and its way with belief.

At Columbia University, the three young men collided with a bang as big as a galactic accident. Lax and Merton were Class of ’38; Rice was two years behind them. They met through writing and Columbia’s Jester magazine.

“My first impression of Merton was that he was the noisiest bastard I had ever met,” wrote Rice, after he heard “an incredible, noisy barrelhouse blues piano drowning out everything else [in Columbia University’s John Jay Hall].”

Lax was taken to meet Merton by the editor of the Jester, which Merton, Lax and Rice somewhat dominated for a while and Rice later edited.

Lax wanted the meeting because he considered Merton’s Jester articles to be those of “a mature writer. We really hit it off immediately,” he said. “I hadn’t met many people anywhere who would be so open, and so ready, and so friendly to meet and to talk,” said Lax, as quoted in When Prophecy Still Had a Voice: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax.

Of Lax, Rice remarked, “I don’t think I’ll ever figure out what was going on in his head.” While of Lax, Merton wrote, “He was a kind 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.”

The minimalist poet in the making.

Young and old, theirs were lives dominated by books -- reading them and writing them. “Joyce was their literary hero; jazz their music,” wrote Mary Cummings in Columbia College Today in May 2001.

Merton’s book was early and famous. The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) was a runaway best seller. Four-plus decades later, Rice’s equally heralded 1990 biography, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, similarly sold widely.

Lax’s slim volumes of minimalist verse (Circus of the Sun; A Thing That Is) may prove to be the more enduring, though who dare predict.

The men are all dead now. The stocky, exuberant Trappist, Merton, first and tragically in Thailand in 1968 at age 63. The octogenarian Lax, tall, lean, El Greco-conceived, wandered his Greek island lanes with staff and blue denim bag into his 80s. He died in his birthplace, Olean, N.Y., at 84 in 2000.

The tall and wiry, peripatetic Rice, a late-in-life painter of some popularity, died last, in 2001, in his farmhouse on Long Island at age 82.

Rice opened his Burton by stating: “Few books are written in isolation.” Few lives are lived in isolation either. In the case of Merton-Lax-Rice, the passage of time continues to provide deeper insights into how the friendships formed them.

In 2002, the year after Rice died, S.T. Georgiou’s late-in-Lax’s-life memoir, The Way of the Dreamcatcher, was published. Dreamcatcher is an extended magazine-style interview, none the worse for that.

From Georgiou’s book, it is obvious that even 60 years on, it was the friendship equally with the faith and the poetry that had sustained Lax.

Same with Rice. In May 2001, only three months before his own death, Rice, Merton’s godfather, told the college magazine interviewer “not a day goes by when I don’t think of him.”

Chinese puzzles come in separate pieces.

Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France, near the Spanish border in 1915. As a 3-year-old he was taken to his mother’s home in Douglaston, N.Y., where, three years later, his mother died of cancer.

He spent three years in Bermuda with his father, returned to France and enrolled in school. At 13 he was in England, at boarding school. Within three years, his father died, also of cancer.

In 1935 Merton entered Columbia. Three years later he was baptized a Catholic, with Rice as godfather, but Lax was always present, Merton said, as his “spiritual superior,” a man “born with the deepest sense of who God was.”

Merton entered the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Ky., in 1944, the same year his Thirty Poems was published.

The Seven Storey Mountain was published in 1948, and Merton was ordained in 1949.

He remained a Trappist, although he struggled to bind the conflicting tugs in his life and faith together, a struggle Rice captured superbly yet succinctly with the title and contents of The Man in the Sycamore Tree: The Good Times and Hard Life of Thomas Merton.

Merton was a pacifist to the core; an involved and committed man whose observations -- unlike Lax’s more abstruse philosophizing -- had to be practically nailed down to the page they vibrated so much. One example from 40 years of writing -- a letter to Lax shortly after the 1963 March on Washington: “It is the only march that makes sense … and I have reason to regret not being in [it]. I am trying to find some way I can get nationalized as a Negro [he was naturalized a U.S. citizen in 1950] as I am tired of belonging to the humiliating white race. One wants at times the comfort of belonging to a race that one can like and respect.”

Merton died in Bangkok on Dec. 10, 1968.

Robert Lax, after studying at Columbia, worked as a radio announcer and a staffer at The New Yorker, which published his early poetry. He volunteered at the lay Catholic-run Friendship House.

In 1942, he taught at the University of North Carolina, where he studied philosophy. In 1943 he was baptized at St. Ignatius Church in New York City.

After teaching again, he traveled with the Cristiani family circus in western Canada. That experience led to Circus of the Sun (1959).

Lax moved to the Greek islands in 1964 and remained there for almost four decades. When memoirist Georgiou visited Lax in Patmos, he asked him: “Don’t you think you deserve far greater recognition than you’ve received thus far?” The poet replied, “It’s not my nature to seek attention.”

Ed Rice was born in Brooklyn in 1918. Columbia College Today magazine said, “Rice probably covered more ground -- intellectual, artistic and geographic -- than any 10 of his Columbia classmates, even if you count the extraordinary circle of nonconformists who were his friends.”

A fine essay on Ed Rice can be found at:

In 1953, Rice founded the groundbreaking Catholic magazine, Jubilee, an eclectic, provocative Catholic meeting ground for all religions, which he kept alive for 14 years. Rice was the only one of the trio to wed. He had two children.

After he sold Jubilee in 1967 and his marriage collapsed, Rice took off around the world for two decades as a freelance photojournalist. It has been suggested that perhaps because he was a photographer with only one working eye, his left, at a time when cameras were made for right-eyed people, that his work always possessed an ethereal quality.

His 1970 book, John Frum He Come, on the Pacific Island cargo cults was widely reviewed; his 1990 Burton was declared a “masterpiece.” He wrote more than 20 books.

One, American Saints and Seers: American-Born Religions and the Genius Behind Them, has particular relevancy. The acute reader may find in American Saints a subtle object lesson for Rome regarding the Catholic church in the United States. It is a church that the Vatican has chosen to fear since Leo XIII wrote his apostolic letter Testem Benevolentiae, which warned against some matters in the American church that the pope thought needed correction. Few succeeding popes have been able to see around the blockage Leo’s letter created.

Merton-Lax-Rice in all their offerings have much to say. They’re worth a year of your time, dipping into their works and works about them.

Separately, their lives are relevant to today. And there’s the promise of more to come. Lax’s close friend James Harford, who wrote NCR’s obituary of Lax, published in the Oct. 20, 2000, issue, is “working on a book about the long friendships of the three of them.”

Lax loved Greece, and the early Greeks said it well: “Health is the best that Heaven sends; next, to be young among one’s friends.”

Merton-Lax-Rice were young together, even when they were old.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s Baltimore-based editor at large.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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