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An Uncommon Life

Rather casually I opened the website to a weekly periodical I read.  It is one of those things I read just because I want to know what is going on in that particular world of religion.  I never go to it knowing what is in it.  And I scan almost all the titles and, then, read a few of them.  It is one of the things I enjoy doing.  I am not doing it for any special end.

And so it was this time when I opened it.  Almost immediately, my eyes were drawn to a photo.  I was taken aback because I recognized one of the two men in the photo.  It is not someone I know real well, so I had to read the caption below the photo to be sure.  And it was the guy I know.  It was Michael McGregor.  I would not expect anyone reading this to know whom Michael McGregor is.

I met Michael at a conference on the monk, Thomas Merton, about whom I write so much.  Even though Merton died a half century ago, his writings still have a significant influence around the world---literally in all corners of our globe.  Merton has not only influenced by spirituality, he also has influenced Michael’s life.  So a dead monk brings together two guys on a few occasions and we have now become casual friends.

When I first met Michael, he told me he was working on a book.  I learned Michael teaches English at Portland State University in Oregon.  He is an affable guy and so I pursued the conversation.  He told me he was writing a book about Robert Lax.  That intrigued me.  I knew Lax was a friend of Merton’s.  They met when both Merton and Lax were students at Columbia University in the 1930s.  They became friends and the friendship lasted until Merton’s death in 1968.  They both converted to Catholicism.  Lax had been Jewish.  Both were poets.  Only Merton joined the monastery, so their friendship was carried out mostly through letters, although there was the occasional visit.

So when I opened the website and saw the picture of Michael, I immediately knew the other guy in the picture was Robert Lax.  The photo was from 1992 and was taken in front of Lax’s house in Pasmos, Greece.  It was then that I remembered Michael telling me about visiting Lax who lived in Greece.  And now I realized what I was about to read was a review of the book Michael has now finished.  Eagerly, I began reading.

Michael entitled the book, Pure Act: the Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.  I knew Lax was fond of the great medieval Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas.  And I knew St. Thomas understood God to be “Pure Act.”  Hence, I understand the title.  As I read the review, I knew I was going to buy the book and read the whole thing.  The review told me enough to whet my appetite.  I felt like I was beginning to get to know Lax and I’ll share some of that.

I remember that Lax was the one who told Merton he ought to be a saint.  Certainly, Merton was not a saint in any of the ordinary definitions of that word.  And I don’t think the Catholic Church will canonize him any time soon---if ever.  And as Lax comments, even he changed his definition of what a saint should be.  I like his later definition.  Here is the revised definition of saint: “What I'd mean by it now is be, hope to be, hope to get to be, the person you were created to be."  Simply, a saint is becoming the person you were created to be.

For those of us who believe in the Holy One and believe somehow God is creatively responsible for our lives, to be a saint is to be the person God created us to be.  With this definition it is easy to see why Lax chose to simplify life.  As the reviewer put it, “Lax spent much of his life stripping away all that was inessential. He ate little, possessed almost nothing, and lived in the sparest accommodations.”  Much of this appeals to me.  I do think stuff can get in the way of holiness!

The reviewer does not think many people will follow the way Lax strived to be saintly.  But his key question should be our quest: what does it mean to be fully human?  If we think the answer to that question is spiritual, then we will find ourselves at odds with much of our culture.  That is why I am sure Michael McGregor chose his subtitle: the Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.  To be a saint is to opt for an uncommon life.

The uncommon life in our culture is a life that is not egotistical.  The uncommon life is not in it for all we can get.  We are not interested in accumulating stuff, accolades or any other form of earthly glory.  Instead we commit to a life of simplicity, of justice, of peacemaking and so forth.  To live an uncommon life is a crazy choice by our cultural standards.  And by spiritual standards the uncommon life is perfectly common.

Knowing about it does not make it happen.  I would like the uncommon spiritual life.  Now I know choose it and live it one day at a time.

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