ST. BONAVENTURE, NY — The cover of Michael McGregor’s paperback “Pure Act” is a black-and-white photograph of Robert Lax sitting in a chair with his legs crossed, holding a cat in his lap.
Attendees of McGregor's March 27 Souper Monday presentation at St. Bonaventure University passed the 400-page book around while listening to McGregor’s recollection of writing a biography of his friend Lax, the Olean-born poet and mystic who lived most of his life in Greece.
“I had this romantic idea that I was going to go to Europe and write a novel by the sea. That was not the case,” McGregor, a professor of English and creative writing at Portland State University, said.
As the Spring 2017 Lenna Endowed Visiting Professor at St. Bonaventure and Jamestown Community College, McGregor has several speaking engagements including in St. Bonaventure's Swan Business Center Room 209 at 1:15 p.m. Friday.
McGregor recalled that while he was in high school he watched a movie set in Greece and decided he wanted to travel there. One winter, many years later, he traveled to the Greek island of Patmos with intentions to write a novel by the Aegean Sea.
“It wasn’t romantic at all. It was cold, and it surprised me how windy it was,” McGregor said with a smile to the 28 attendees.
A story ensued, despite the wind.
“When traveling in Athens I came across this English language bookstore," McGregor said. "Before I had left for Europe I knew I was going to be alone for a couple months and wanted some reading material. A friend recommended 'Seven Storey Mountain' written by Thomas Merton, and there it was in this English language bookstore. It was very odd that it was right there on the shelf. I felt like it was a sign that I should get it.”
Reading Merton's autobiographical book, McGregor was attracted to the spirituality of Merton’s friend Lax. Three weeks after finishing "Seven Storey Mountain," McGregor discovered that Lax lived on the island of Patmos.
“I met him for the first time down in town. I knew it was him when I saw him,” McGregor said. “He wore a gray Irish cap, had white hair and a goatee and wore desert boots. He looked very American, but his face looked timeless.”
McGregor had dinner with the man he had read about in Merton’s book, and Lax invited him to his house.
“He lived on top of this hill in a fairly small place," McGregor said. "I think it was 20 by 20 and had a main room, little bathroom and an alcove where he kept his books. There were papers everywhere — all of his writings and things people had given him, quotes, children’s drawings, postcards. I think he liked these things because that was part of life for him.”
McGregor's friendship with Lax grew and continued through the last 15 years of Lax's life. McGregor's biography on Lax encapsulates the "history of Lax as a spiritual being." As the author of “Pure Act,” McGregor told St. Bonaventure faculty and staff that Lax had been born into a Jewish family, spent most of his adult life as a Catholic and believed in going beyond these things to live simply and embrace that all in life is spiritual, truthful and surrounded by the same God.
According to McGregor, Lax lived an uncommon life of travel and writing poetry, aiming to live a simple life while helping others in any way that he could.
Lax died in Olean in 2000.
“He was a poet and a mystic,” McGregor said.
Lax believed that God is love, McGregor told his audience before ending the presentation and signing books.