A Saint Named Bob

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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 info@gpiw.org. Very little goes a long way there.)

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31 thoughts on “A Saint Named Bob

  1. Bob is my cousin. My name is Donna Levison. He has always been a saint. I love him and miss his smile and that laugh. Wondering would you know How I could contact him? I would so love to contact him! Please let me know. Thank you!

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    1. Donna, I count Bob as a very dear friend who I have known since his days working with refugees on the ‘Border’. It has been my privilege to edit some of his writings. I thought you may be interested to learn about the short book I did with Bob. It was produced to highlight the poor in Cambodia and draw attention to the need for peace and reconciliation.All royalties go to help the poor in Cambodia through the health care charity Transform Healthcare Cambodia.

      The Amazon reference is:

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      1. Thank you for replying to me! I would love to buy the book! Please let me know what I need to do. When did you see Bob last? Thank you, Donns

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      2. Donna, great to hear from you. I last met with Bob a year ago in Phnom Penh and the year before in Battambang. He is not easy to arrange to meet as he has no phone or electronic communications….. or even a watch! I communicate with Bob through what he calls ‘snail mail’ sent to either Thailand or Phnom Penh. It does require patience as the turnaround of any mail is about 3-6 months.

        Donna, I do not know where you are living but the book is available on the Amazon internet site.The American site is http://www.amazon.com
        The book can be downloaded on kindle or bought as a paperback. Let me know if you have any difficulty . I know you will be moved by Bob’s writings. There is a little about me also on the Amazon page so you can see me in context.

        Are you able to share your email address so we can communicate directly?

        Best wishes,
        Edwin

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    2. Dear Donna

      Greeting from Cambodia, I am Socheat LAM, Director of Advocacy and Policy Institute, I am very close friend of Bob Maat .

      I can tell you how to contact him, if you can tell me his true full name of his passport.

      Best regards
      Socheat

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      1. Hi. Thank you for contacting me. My father John Cuozzo was Bobby’s mom’s brother. To be honest I don’t remember what is on his passport. I promise you if you tell him it is me he would give you permission to share his contact info. Thank you, Donna

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      2. Hi! Wondering have to been able to speak with Bobby about connecting with me. Thank you for helping me. Donna

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      3. This is Donna Levison, I am Bob Maat’s cousin. You have reached out to me last year. Could you please let me know how Bob is doing? My parent’s were Bob’s godparents. I would be so appreciative if you would let me. If you see him please tell him I was thinking of him and missing him.

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    3. I just received a beautifully hand-written letter from my dear friend Bob…it brought tears to my eyes when I read it. These were tears of profound joy, as Bob and I would spend hours talking about the research I was doing with Theravada Buddhist monks and their Buddhist monk-led organization called Buddhism for Education of Cambodia (BEC). But we mostly talked about life in general. Bob taught me a lot, and one day I learned an interesting story about Bob Maat from a complete stranger while helping Buddhist monks from BEC build a home for a poor family in Battambang, Cambodia. When I learned that this Cambodian man was in the refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border, I asked him if he knew of an American named Bob Maat. The older Cambodian man replied with a sense of pride; “everyone knows Bob.” This complete stranger continued by saying: “Bob Maat would stand in front of a loaded rifle to protect a Cambodian.” Bob is indeed a gift of generosity to the Cambodian people, who love him dearly…as do I!

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      1. Thank you so much for sharing. I just pray his health is ok. He truly is a treasure to this earth. I so miss talking to him. We had so much fun when we were kids. If you have the privilege of seeing him again please tell him. I love and miss. miss him. Would love to see him. Thank you, Donna

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      2. Bobby is my cousin. If you can please tell him Donna is always praying for him. One last request please ask him to come home to the USA for a visit. I will pay for his journey. I have breast cancer and doing fine but I will always love to see him.

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      3. I am so sorry it took me so long to reply to you. I thought I had sent an email. I told Bobby when he came home about 10 years ago he just needed to come back before we both die. Please if you have any contact with him please let him know I will pay for him to come home to visit. I have breast cancer but I am doing just fine. Just would love to see him again. We were inseparable as kids. Funny and laughs. He is a Saint and always has been one. Thank you for responding to me. Please just let me know if you received this email. Thank you, Donna Levison

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      4. Philip, have you heard from Bob Maat. I am concerned about him. My cousin has been writing him with no response from him. If you know anything please email me back. Thank you, Donna Levison

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  2. Wonderful… I met someone who might have been Bob… some 30 years ago, a then young Jesuit working in refugee camps in Asia popped into our newly established Amnesty International office to the UN in Geneva in 1988 or so… and made a lasting impression on me.

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    1. Dear Donna,
      Who would have ever thought it would be possible to connect with people who know Bob in this way? I had an email from members of the Japanese order, Nipponzan Myohoji, with whom I have been grateful to do Peace Walks for many years, and work with them in their building of Peace Pagoda in E TN. (the email shared this article, and when I read on down, saw all these messages!) In 2007, an unusual man named Bob Maat turned up to be on a walk, and “the rest is history”. I consider Bob one of my greatest teachers, and call on his guidance from afar. We have been writing regularly for 13 years…now it is even harder, as the Thai border now only allow him to cross twice a year, for his mail pickups:( I am somehow so grateful to see your love for him……there are no words for what he has taught me, teaches me every day , in his writings, his letters…..the books and articles he sends. Glad to be sharing his amazing life with you , and so many others. Jean Chapman

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      1. Thank you for getting back to me. I grew up with Bobby. Sorry that is name for me. I had the privilege for him being my cousin. Always so much fun. If I could visit someone again in my lifetime it would be him. He came to see me many years ago. I just received a letter from him. He is in a horrible situation with his friends with the floods. I would love to have him come home before we both die. My memories of our time growing up are the best. Yes I am crying. Yes he is a Saint named Bob.

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  3. I knew Bob in Nong Samet, when we were volunteers for the American Refugee Committee back in 83/84. I was working in the farthest MCH center near the army camp. Of course my unit was MCH13. One day the 2nd wife of a real ass found herself replaced by a 3rd wife, sending her and her kids into my center for the malnourished where she had to face wife number 1 whom she had replaced, sending that woman and kids into starvation, hence my unit. Furious and ashamed wife no 2 sliced wife 3 in the face so hubby was running down to kill her.. she ran into my clinic grabbed me from behind and starting crying and begging. The clinic was emptied in a-nano second. I went from thinking she was attacking me to realizing she wanted my protection.
    Bun Seat the cambodian supervisor hesitantly stuck his head back inside to translate for me and let me know the husband was outside threatening to kill her. I was just 25 but i have a thing about protecting people. She needed my protection – she got it. Not sure where i got that confidence but i mentally prepared to fight that man figuring i would use one of the exam tables as a shield ( light weight made from bamboo and thatch). Well, he never did enter the clinic. I assumed he had a machete but turns out he carried a russian equivalent of an ak47. Ha! I still laugh about that.
    When Bob drove up to see how i was doing, I said fine and thats the first and only time he smiled at me. I told myself, “ You ARE fine.” And so i was and never spoke of it for 15 years. If you see Bob tell him i say hi. Now i think about it almost daily. And sometimes I laugh till I cry.
    Maureenross@icloud.com

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  4. Bob and I were together for a time in the Jesuit seminary in Detroit. He had then the soul of a saint which I see from this brief biography he went on to live out so fully. He gave me a leather bound Bible that I still use. It’s among my treasures.

    I was an alcoholic still active but secret in my addiction. I just celebrated 48 years sober in AA and was ordained an Episcopal priest later in life with a ministry to addicts. Bob will never be canonized because he was always so very far ahead of the crowd. But those whose lives he touched know he is and was and will remain one forever.

    Fr. Bill W.

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    1. Thank you for contacting me. Wouldn’t be wonderful to give him the recognition that he deserves. He would hate it but to bad. I miss him so bad.

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    2. I worked with bob in Thailand 1984. Very special guy but not knowable. He avoided nonKhmer people for the most part. He was head of security
      One day I was in MCH 13 in Nong samet and a mother from my clinic came in screaming and grabbed me from behind begging to use me as a human shield. The clinic cleared out in 2 seconds except fir me and her. Longer story but her husband was out to kill her. I mentally prepared for a fight to the death. But the man never came in. I stood my ground. He eventually left. She thanked me. About a minute later Bob burst on the scene with his truck spewing up dirt. He got out and asked casually and quietly if I was ok but did not approached me. It turns out the guy had an ak47 not the machete I imagined. So that whole hand to hand combat thing of my imagination would not have gone well. Anyway I said I was fine and he returned to wherever he went but I think he was almost fond of me after that..

      One day he apparently yelled at my roommate for some infraction and it so upset her she left. I thought, heck how bad could it have been? He is such a quiet guy. But then one day he yelled at me and he was so angry I thought he would stroke. I was stunned Took me ten years to forgive him because he was knocked off the pedestal forever. He had his demons. I am sorry he lost his faith. I hope the best for him. He has done much good

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  5. I met Bob in 1993 while volunteering in Thailand and we have always kept in contact with snail mail. Indeed, he is a very precious person. I have not received any letter from him since last year though, does anybody have recent news from him? Thanks, Nico

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    1. Bob is fine as per a photo received today. A bunch of us wire him money at Christmas time.

      I last saw Bob in 2014 when on the Cambodian border for a 35 year reunion.

      I was Director of International Programs for American Refugee Committee 1979-2007

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      1. Thank you for the update. Would there be any way to share the photo. I would love to see it. How do you communicate with him? I would love to have him come to the US. I will willing to pay for his journey. If you have a way to communicate with him could you please share it with me? Thank you

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  6. Donna, Bob wrote on April 1st and said Cambodian mail system is blocked due to the pandemia, so it is difficult for him to send letters. I write to his Phnom Penh address, but it sounds like he is not receiving my letters..In my next letter to him I will add you message ..

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  7. I went to st ignatius with bob and still remember when he said he had gotten his calling… I agree he is truly a saint… nothing but love for bob

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