I’m nearing the end of what I expect to be the final revision of a memoir I’ve been working on for a number of years. It’s focused on a year my wife Sylvia and I lived in the woods on an island off the coast of Washington State. I was on my first sabbatical as a professor and was hoping for a peaceful year dedicated to writing and living simply. But that year turned out to be something else entirely. It was, as the book’s subtitle says, A Year In the Wilds of Nature, Death and Art.
With its meditations on solitude, simplicity, living a life of meaning, and the healing power of nature, I’m hoping the book will resonate with people who have spent the past year contemplating those kinds of things.
Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:
As I neared the fawn, it settled down, not in a conscious way but in the manner of dying. A leg twitched. Then its jaw. Then it lay still. I studied the white patch on its side, the way its sable hair gave way to its black hooves. The eye I could see was still open but I didn’t want to look at it. I didn’t want to see the dimming, the dullness, the loss of lucidity I’d seen in the deer that grazed around the cabins. In the end, I looked anyway, and what I saw moved me deeply. The eye looked limpid, liquid, and peaceful, like water I could see to the depths of, and it had a quality to it I hadn’t seen in the living. There is this, at least, in death it seemed to say: an absence of pain. Of fear. Of worry. It seemed the kindest eye I’d ever seen, the kind I wished to turn myself toward animals and trees and people.
In addition to my two weeks as a writing coach at the Collegeville Institute this summer, I’ll be there for another six weeks in the fall as a short-term resident scholar, recipient of a Kilian McDonnell Fellowship. The fellowship will support my work on a book about writing for a broader audience, intended primarily for those who write from a spiritual perspective but with plenty for anyone who wants to write well for the general public.
The genesis for this book is my summer writing coach work, particularly my presentations to those attending my Writing Beyond the Academy week the past two years. Of course, my 22 years of teaching creative writing to both graduate and undergraduate writing students have given me plenty of material too.
If you’re interested in attending either of my summer weeks this year, go to the Collegeville Institute Summer Writing Workshops home page. There’s still time to apply for these all-expenses-paid weeks but the deadlines are in February!
Liturgical Press has just released a new Thomas Merton book, A Course in Christian Mysticism, edited by Jon M. Sweeney, with an introduction by me. Here’s a description from the book’s Amazon page:
“Thomas Merton’s lectures to the young monastics at the Abbey of Gethsemani provide a good look at Merton the scholar. A Course in Christian Mysticism gathers together, for the first time, the best of these talks into a spiritual, historical, and theological survey of Christian mysticism—from St. John’s gospel to St. John of the Cross. Sixteen centuries are covered over thirteen lectures. A general introduction sets the scene for when and how the talks were prepared and for the perennial themes one finds in them, making them relevant for spiritual seekers today. This compact volume allows anyone to learn from one of the twentieth century’s greatest Catholic spiritual teachers. The study materials at the back of the book, including additional primary source readings and thoughtful questions for reflection and discussion, make this an essential text for any student of Christian mysticism.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Christian mysticism or want to go deeper in your own contemplative experience, this book is for you. Here’s a quote from my introduction:
“Although these lessons are heavy with intellectual content, with history and reasoning, what they are leading to is simple. Therein lies the dichotomy at the heart of the Christian mystical tradition: training leads only to being. As Merton writes in his essay The Contemplative Life in the Modern World, ‘Contemplative wisdom is then not simply an aesthetic extrapolation of certain intellectual or dogmatic principles, but a living contact with the Infinite Source of all being, a contact not only of minds and hearts, not only of “I and Thou,” but a transcendent union of consciousness in which man and God become, according to the expression of St. Paul, “one spirit.”‘”
Available directly from Liturgical Press or from Amazon or from your local independent bookstore..
If you live in or near Boston, I hope to see you at my reading from Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax at 7 p.m. this coming Thursday. The reading will be at the great independent bookstore Brookline Booksmith at 279 Harvard St. in Brookline.
I recently received the note below from a Canadian reader. It expresses so well the kind of response I would hope for–to my book and to Lax–that I had to share it.
“Thank you so very much for writing Pure Act! Like Robert Lax’s poetry it’s a welcoming place to go to as the competition, chaos and anxiety of the 21st century become ever-more overwhelming. At 66, I don’t think I’ve ever read a biography or memoir that is both so enlightening and comforting—one of which I can say, ‘This is thoroughly necessary.'”
I’ve added quite a few events to my appearance schedule in recent weeks. Check the Talks page for a full list. If you’d like to discuss a possible talk or reading in your area, please contact me using the Contact form on the About page.
First look at the paperback version of PURE ACT: THE UNCOMMON LIFE OF ROBERT LAX. The publication date is April 3 but it’s available for pre-order now: https://www.amazon.com/Pure-Act-Uncommon-Catholic-Practice/dp/0823276821/ref=mt_paperback?_encoding=UTF8&me
I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been selected to be the Spring 2017 Lenna Endowed Visiting Professor at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, New York. I’ll be on campus for the last two weeks of March, giving talks, visiting classrooms, meeting with students, and chatting with the Franciscan friars.
I’m especially honored to receive the Lenna Professorship because the first recipient of it, when it was established in 1990, was Robert Lax. St. Bonaventure is in his home town and, as those who’ve read my biography of him know, he and his mother went there often. The friars were an important early spiritual influence on him.
The dates for the public talks haven’t been set yet but they should be soon. I’ll post them in the Talks section of my website. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come!
I didn’t know this was available online but found it yesterday: It’s a video of my editor, Fred Nachbaur, talking about the acquisition, design and selling of my book, PURE ACT: THE UNCOMMON LIFE OF ROBERT LAX. It was presented at a conference as an illustration of what university presses can do beyond their usual markets:
The image here is of the bottle of vintage French wine Sylvia and I opened to celebrate signing my book contract with Fordham University Press two years ago. Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax has been out in the world just over a year now, and what a year it has been. The unofficial end of the book’s debut year came three weeks ago when we attended the Washington State Book Awards in Seattle. Pure Act was a finalist in the Biography/Memoir category. It didn’t win but it was a great honor to be recognized in my home state.
All told, Pure Act was a finalist for four awards: the WSBA in Biography/Memoir, the Religion Newswriters Association Book Award for best religion book of the year, the Association of Catholic Publishers’ Excellence in Publishing Award in Biography (it won second place) and the Catholic Press Association’s Book Award in Biography (it received an Honorable Mention). It has been nominated for an Oregon Book Award too, but the finalists for that won’t be announced until early January 2017.
For a big book by a first-time author about a little-known poet published by a small publisher, it has done pretty well. It’s in its third printing and a paperback version will be published in March 2017. It was favorably reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement in the U.K., Publishers Weekly, the Oregonian and over 20 other publications. The American Association of University Professors recommended it as one of ten nonfiction books and only two biographies (the other was of Mark Twain) in the area of American Studies for libraries to purchase in 2016. I’ve had a chance to read from it at bookstores, universities and community events across the country. And it has led to my being asked to be a keynote speaker at the 2017 International Thomas Merton Society conference at Saint Bonaventure University.
I’m reluctant to let this wonderful year end, but time marches on, of course, and I’ve already drafted my next book, a memoir about a year spent in the San Juan Islands. A huge thank you to all who were part of a marvelous experience.