There are saints who walk among us and we don’t even know them. Perhaps they choose their anonymity, working without the fanfare and distraction that prominence and fame can bring. They are often disguised, hidden as ordinary persons, working quietly in places of need. Every tradition has them. Here I will tell you about one of the lesser-known saints, a former Jesuit monk named Bob who had spent the last 37 years of his life in Cambodia.
Bob ended up in Cambodia on a whim and a bet, made whilst sharing a cold beer with a fellow Jesuit brother. They had been watching a news report on the refugee camps in Cambodia. Under the cruel regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s almost a third of Cambodia’s people were killed or died, and camps were now burgeoning with the traumatized survivors of the darkest period in Cambodian history. These two young monks, who were also trained as health care workers, looked at one another and one said to the other, “Wanna bet we can be there within a week?”
The rest of the story I heard from Bob himself. In order to meet him, we were told, we had to send a hand-written letter to a post office box in Bangkok. Bob had no phone, and he didn’t use a computer. He lived in Cambodia but would walk to Thailand to fetch his mail, which meant that our letter might not reach him for months. He used the money he saved on bus or train fare to buy soap for prisoners in Phnom Penh’s prisons where he sometimes served as a translator. Our desire and curiosity to meet him intensified.
Bob worked in the refugee camps for years among starved and weakened survivors of torture and forced labor. Over years he tended to thousands who had TB, mysterious fevers and infections, all made worse by the heat and moisture of a tropical jungle and a people who were hungry and full of sorrow. Many had lost limbs from the land mines that lay buried in fields throughout the country. He worked himself to exhaustion, and even got the shit kicked out of him by Thai soldiers on Valentine’s Day, he chuckled once.
Bob eventually left the despair of those camps and decided to stay on in Cambodia to come to know the people of this land better. He moved in with a family of rice farmers. He lived as they did, planting rice, barefoot in the water paddies, sleeping on straw mats, eating simply and very little. “Not an easy life,” he told me.
A year later, Bob met one of Cambodia’s great Buddhist monks, Maha Ghosananda. A deep friendship of mutual respect developed and they came up with a tender-hearted idea. They would lead a walk for peace throughout the countryside announcing to villagers that peace had finally come. These walks, often attracting hundreds or even thousands, began to take place annually. Healing was needed, and bearing witness to the suffering of a people can help them to heal.
Years later, his monk’s cloak and Jesuit way of life long faded away, he was left only with the grief and love that burns away any outer identification, the experiences in life that melt away the last remnants of pride or self-centeredness. He is humble. He also loves to laugh and has a sharp wit and a wild, kind sense of humor. In a recent letter, he wrote that he needed funds for some monks to put a roof on their library. He added a PS: “Bank robbers welcome, we can be discreet”!
He still hangs out with the Buddhist monks, volunteering at a monastic university in a northern province. He teaches them English, but mostly he does the cleaning. The school can’t afford a janitor, he says.
Bob is no longer interested in religion. He wears a t-shirt, simple cotton pants, and the flip-flops, a size too small, of a wandering ascetic. The Sufi poetry of Rumi is what he reads, or he sits in silence, which is his preferred mode of communicating. There is something about his eyes. So much has been stripped away, that only the empty space in his big heart is present, making room for a mystical love to move freely to where it is needed.
His tall and slender frame, fair skinned and hair burnt blond by the Cambodian sun, can still be seen walking along the roads of Cambodia. He carries a simple bag with all his possessions slung over his bony shoulders. Now in his sixties, he sometimes accepts a ride. He told me a truck picked him up one day. The overjoyed driver was close to tears. “Remember me? You gave me some soap when I was a kid back in the camps.”
By Marianne Marstrand. Originally published by Creator at WeWork
(Some of you have asked how to send a contribution to Bob for him to pass on to people in need in Cambodia – if you wish to do that please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Very little goes a long way there.)
Categories: Articles on Contemplative Leaders