Prophetic Voices: Martin Luther – William Barclay – Robert Lax

Luther's Fortress 001On October 31st, 2016 Pope Francis will take part in a joint ceremony with the World Lutheran Federation in Lund, Sweden. This marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s attack on the Roman Church which launched the Protestant Reformation. The Pope released a statement, “I want to ask for mercy and forgiveness for the behavior of Catholics towards Christians of other churches which has not reflected gospel values.” Even for a man known for radical departures from traditional norms, this is a quantum leap which can only benefit us all. Martin Luther was a true prophet, his vision embarked many in the Christian community in a new direction. He saw clearly the dangers inherent in a strictly celibate priesthood and the blatant corruption involved with selling indulgences.  Luther’s Fortress by James Reston, Jr. captures the pivotal year in Luther’s life that resulted in his greatest triumph.

Luther's Cell - Wartburg 001.jpgIn 1521 Martin Luther was hiding, under sentence of death, holed up in a tower room at Wartburg Castle which he referred to as “his Patmos.” It was in this room, for the next ten months, Martin Luther began his Bible translation, bringing a discordant collection of Latin versions into a coherent German comprehensible to the average man, albeit many of whom could not read. An English priest, William Tyndale, journeyed to Germany and met with Luther. Tyndale translated Luther’s Bible into English. Copies had to be smuggled into England, over 90% of the King James Bible derives from Tyndale’s translation. Luther’s Reformation led to a mass revolt of peasants in Germany and Austria against the societal constraints that left them in perpetual misery. Thousands of the revolutionaries were slaughtered and the leader,  Thomas Müntzer beheaded. Martin Luther threw his support behind the ruling class.

Likewise Jorge Mario Bergolio swung the Roman axis on its heels when he became the first Pope Francis - Vallely 001Pope from the America’s and the first Jesuit ever so honored.  When he also, of his own choice, became the first Pontiff to take the name Francis the world was served notice that the Catholic community now had a leader fearless enough to face the Lords of Capitalism and call them by their rightful name – Shameful. In our insular American bubble television poses as culture and a ‘reality’ show host a politician. Growing up in Venezuela in the 1950’s the disparity of wealth between the haves and the poverty of the have-nots seared itself into my mind stream. What is tragic is now that disparity has become the norm in the United states. Like frogs in boiling water we have watched society morph into a Dickens tragedy without notice. Thank God, literally Thank God, Pope Francis notices. For a clear accounting of Bergolio’s route from chemical technician to priest-archbishop-cardinal and then Pontiff read Paul Vallely’s masterpeice, POPE FRANCIS: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism.

William Barclay - Ordination 001.jpgWhen God has told you what you ought to do, he has already told you what you can do. William Barclay lived his life based on the tenets of this quote from Walter Savage Landor. I am indebted to my good friend Reverend Alfred Twyman, Ministerial Program Coordinator for the New York State Department of Corrections, for introducing me to Barclay. Born in Wick, Scotland in 1907 by the time he died in 1978 William Barclay was one of the world’s most widely read and studied religious personalities. His New Testament Commentaries, The New Daily Study Bible, are exemplary in their combination of faith and scholasticism. Trained at the Church of Scotland’s Trinity College Barclay was solidly grounded in classical theology, versed in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. He understood, and fought for, the belief that we lose our spiritual umbilical cord when we toss aside the linguistic roots that led to our present beliefs. Likewise, there can be no true practice of Vajrayana Buddhism if we lose our facility with Sanskrit and Tibetan.

Robert Lax (1915-2000) is most commonly remembered as the friend and classmate of Thomas Merton who brought clarity to Merton’s life with one famous question. In a quiet moment when Merton wasn’t banging on a piano, or bongo drums or the sensibilities of his house mates Lax queried, “What do you want to do, anyway?” Merton responded, “I want to be a good Catholic.” As Merton tells us in THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN:  The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all. Lax did not accept it. “What you should say” – he told me – “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.” A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said: “How do you expect me to become a saint?” “By wanting to,” said Lax, simply.

This exchange captures eloquently the noble complexity of Robert Lax’s mind that found Pure Act - Robert Lax 001.jpgtrue expression in simplicity. Michael McGregor’s new biography, PURE ACT: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, is a wonderful read. More importantly it is an indispensable read for anyone who is drawn to a writer’s life, and we are blessed by the author’s personal friendship with Lax who he met on the island of Patmos, Greece made famous as the home of the Apostle John when he wrote the Book of Revelations.

McGregor tells us, “Merton was a man who needed answers, while Lax was content with questions . . . Lax told me once that whenever the two of them went to a new place, Merton would set off immediately to explore and get his bearings, while Lax would find a coffee shop and contemplate the place from there . . . Where the two met was in their thirst for understanding, their desire to do good, their intelligence, and their humor. McGregor calls, “pure act, a natural living out of one’s God-given abilities and potentials without the splitting-off of consciousness that might question or judge.”

Robert Lax outlived Merton by thirty-two years, a living exemplar of Merton’s notion of one monk in his cell praying being the sole thread preventing the dissolution of the yarn the world is spinning.

Martin Luther based his revolution on faith. For Luther faith alone held the key to salvation. For I say none of the saints, no matter how holy they were, attained salvation by their works. Salvation does not lie in our works, no matter what they are. It cannot and will not be effected without faith.

Referring to the Bible, Sir Walter Scot said, “there is but one book for the true Scot.” Wlliam Barclay was certainly a true Scot. Clive Rawlins who authored the definitive, authorized biography of William Barclay states that Barclay “was first and foremost a Bible preacher. His power derived from logically arrayed detail, delivered eloquently with reverence, a Love of God and deep respect and Love for Man his creation.” Like Martin Luther William Barclay spent his life seeking every available means to share his faith and bring the message of Jesus to life for common people.

Zeffirelli - Jesus & Centurion 001.jpgWhen the classic Franco Zeffirelli film JESUS of Nazareth (1977) was released William Barclay was asked to write a companion book replete with photos from the film. My favorite Jesus story on the subject of faith concerns the centurion who asked Jesus to cure his servant. As Barclay tells the story: “Lord,” said the centurion, “I would like to ask you a great favor. I have a servant in my house who is very dear to me, more like a son than a servant. He is very sick, dying I fear. Lord, in all humility I ask . . .” Jesus broke in, “. . . that I should come to your house? Very well, I will come.” “No, Lord,” the centurion said. “I am unworthy that you should enter under my roof. I know that if you say the word my servant will be healed. I am a man who knows all about discipline and authority. I myself have authority over 100 soldiers, and if I say to one, ‘Do this’, I know that he will do it. If I say to another, ‘Go there’, I know that he will go. I need not see, I know. So it is enough that you give your word, and it will be done.” Jesus was deeply moved. He turned to all to those present and pointed at the centurion. “Did you hear this man? I say to you all, I have not found faith like this among many in Israel” . . . He laid a friendly hand on the centurion’s shoulder. “Go home,” he said “your faith has cured your servant.”

William Barclay wrote, “It would be both possible and natural to hold that ‘Thy Kingdom come’ is the central petition of the Lord’s Prayer, for it is quite certain that the Kingdom of God was the central message and proclamation of Jesus . . . The announcement of the Kingdom was nothing less than the purpose for which Jesus came into the world . . . The initial message of Jesus was a summons to repent . . . literally, a change of mind (metanoia) a turning round and facing the opposite direction . . . The Kingdom of God starts with the smallest beginnings. Men do not enter in crowds, they must enter as individuals . . . That is why the growth of the mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, into a tree symbolizes the Kingdom.” From The Lord’s Prayer by William Barclay.

Let us all go forward with our lives, day by day, and see the face of Christ in all those we meet, and pray they see the face of Christ in ours.


Tibetan Buddhist center in Columbus, Ohio, Karma Thegsum Chöling, struck by arson. Please help the rebuilding effort.



One thought on “Prophetic Voices: Martin Luther – William Barclay – Robert Lax

  1. Pingback: Michael N. McGregor » Review of PURE ACT in The Catholic Worker and Other Online Lax Posts

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