by David Ian Miller (SFGate.com) February 15, 2005
“The goal in martial arts is not to injure your opponent but to shock him awake.”
Most religious traditions emphasize the importance of finding a spiritual guide or mentor, but identifying that person can be tricky business. Some people spend their lives searching for that certain someone to light the way. Others get waylaid along the path by false gurus and other mystical pretenders.
Steve Georgiou, a writer and a teacher of religious studies who practices the Eastern Orthodox faith, met the man he calls his mentor seemingly by chance. For him, it was like the old proverb that says: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”
Georgiou’s mentor was Robert Lax, a successful minimalist poet whose life and work influenced famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton, as well as Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Lax had dropped out of the public eye in the 1960s to live alone on Patmos, a Greek island where the ancient Eastern Orthodox Monastery of St. John is located.
When Georgiou visited Patmos in 1993, the two men began a wide-ranging conversation about religion, art and other topics that lasted, on and off, for seven years. Georgiou eventually wrote a book about his experiences with the poet-hermit, who died in 2000, called “The Way of the Dreamcatcher.”
Recently, I spoke with Georgiou about spiritual life in the Eastern Orthodox church (a Christian faith that dates its origins from the time of Jesus and his apostles) and his relationship with Lax.
Did you grow up Eastern Orthodox?
Yes, I was born into a Greek family. My mom’s side came from Asia Minor, my dad’s side from mainland Greece. They both practiced the Orthodox faith, and I naturally fell into it.
What did your religious life look like as a child?
It was pretty much what a lot of kids go through — going to church, reading Scripture with parents, Sunday school, things like that.
What elements of Eastern Orthodoxy particularly resonate with you as an adult?
I’ve always appreciated the church rituals, which integrate art and spirituality in a beautiful and mysterious manner. There are many icons that inspire meditation, poetic hymns, lots of incense, wonderful chanting — it’s all very colorful and moving. In that beauty, I relax, let go of my worldly cares and anxieties and more easily identify with the spirit of God within me. An Orthodox mystic once said, “Acquire the spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved.”
Do you pray a lot?
I try to practice the Jesus prayer as much as possible, which basically says, “Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me.” It’s thought to be one of the earliest prayers of the Christian church. I think it’s a good way to still the mind, like saying a mantra over and over again. I also like worshipping near water. Maybe it has something to do with baptism, or the idea of being near a living stream, the flow of things — I’m not sure — but after being in a church and really feeling the wonder of the liturgy, I like to go to the ocean.
What do you pray for?
We’re all part of one big package. There’s an ongoing relationship between the Creator and the whole of creation. Many Orthodox fathers emphasize the biblical view that ever since the creation of the world, God’s glory abounds in the things that have been made. If you’re a conscious person and are sensitive to all that’s around you, you pray for everything. I see myself like a servant of God who prays for people, creatures, animals, all things.
Tell me about Robert Lax, the poet-hermit you met in Greece who became your mentor. How did the story begin?
Back in 1993, I’d had a couple bad breaks. I was encouraged to apply for a teaching position at a college here in the Bay Area, but at the last second, they gave the job to someone else. I also went through the breakup of a relationship. I became very depressed. I needed some spiritual uplift. I had been writing to a monk over on Patmos for a few years. He suggested I go there.
Why Patmos? What was there?
It’s an Eastern Orthodox island. It’s been called the “Jerusalem of the Aegean” because of its association with St. John the Apostle. It also has an ancient monastery and many early Christian pilgrimage sites. It’s a very beautiful place.
So you decided to go. What happened?
I went there on a spiritual retreat. The goal was to meet with the monk, but when I got there he had gone to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), because that’s where the patriarch of the Orthodox Church holds office. I was left without passage into the monastery. So I stayed in a guesthouse for a while. One night, I was walking along the dock, and I happened to meet a young Greek who asked me where I was from. I mentioned I had recently gotten a graduate degree in humanities and that I was a teacher, and he said, “You ought to meet this man named Pax. He’s a hermit. He’s a poet. He lives up in the mountains in a little blue-and-white house.”
Pax? Don’t you mean Lax?
Yes, but this guy said “Pax,” which, interestingly, means “peace” in Latin. Anyway, that night I went to look for him.
And you eventually found him. What were your first impressions?
I go a lot on intuition. I suppose it’s the artist in me. As soon as I met him, I felt a strong sense of calm and collectiveness come over me. It’s as though I were looking into a candle and saw that nice, warm light, that aura. I felt he really was a manifestation of what peace is all about.
What did you know about him at this point? Did you know that he was friends with Thomas Merton?
I didn’t know anything, really. When I first met him, he told me he was a poet. He didn’t say much else about himself. Afterward, when I came back to San Francisco, I happened to look up Merton’s writings, and Lax was listed in the index of his book, “The Seven Storey Mountain.” Merton had called him “a man who had an inborn connection to the living God.”
Lax had been a successful poet who influenced a lot of people. What led him to become a hermit on Patmos?
Back in the 1960s, he was a roving reporter for Jubilee, a Catholic magazine. He was traveling around Europe doing stories, and one day, in Marseilles, he saw an icon of St. John writing the Book of Revelation on Patmos. That was a sign for him to go to there. He loved the place and decided to stay.
But why become a hermit?
He told me he wanted a quiet place to write, a place to meditate, to hear God’s voice. He also said that writers need the quiet and the space to best hear themselves think.
What did he teach you?
He broadened my theological interests. He was born into a Jewish family, converted to Catholicism as an adult, yet remained open to all religions. He practiced yoga long before a lot of people and studied Zen and the Kabballah. He died a Christian, but a Christian who respected all paths to God. He opened my mind to other faiths, other ways of appreciating the divine. He also encouraged me to study theology in a more formal way, so I went on to earn my Ph.D. at the Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley.
You mention in your book on Lax that he had a peripatetic teaching style. How would you describe that?
He and I would walk and talk by the sea. After we were done, I would duck into an alley and write down everything he had told me [laughs]. Sometimes we would have dinner afterward. It was wonderful being with somebody who was so present with the moment. Whether he was chopping vegetables or picking up a book, he would become part of the activity. I felt a real strong sense of holiness around him. I wanted to do good because he was good. Goodness radiated from him in a very real way.
Do you think of him as a kind of guru?
He was more of a mentor. Lax, in his humility, would never say, “I’m a guru.” He would say, “I’m just a poet.” He didn’t want to draw attention to himself.
Lax died in 2000. Do you know his views on death and the afterlife?
He saw it as a transition, part of the flow. He believed that though we cry and shed tears for loved ones who have passed on, we ultimately trust that better days are still ahead, hopefully for all.
Is that what you believe?
I do feel there is a life beyond, as the Resurrection indicates. Ultimately, though, it’s a mystery. But I think that there is a strong indication that the cosmos was formed through an act of love, and people are born to be microcosms of that love. If they love intensely, then they will go on to a new creation.
Do you ever see yourself becoming a hermit like Lax?
I’ve been applying for professorships lately. It’s hard. There are few openings. I’ve been teaching part time for over 10 years and written some books. I thought I would have found something by now. I suppose if nothing works out as a teacher, I might go to some quiet place by the sea and continue writing. We’ll see. If you have faith, all kinds of things can happen.
During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.