Sunday, February 18, 2024

In Memoriam: Bob Christian (1941-2023)

I'm breaking my February hiatus from blogging to offer a eulogy to a mentor of mine who recently passed away, Mr. Bob Christian. Bob was a spiritual giant, one of the few people in life I've personally known whom I sstrongly suspect was a saint. I was graced to know him for 20+ years, from my infancy in the Church right up to the present day. In this post I will offer some reflections on his life and legacy.

Bob Christian's influence on me was deep, but difficult to quantify. Some of my mentors (like James Larson) have nurtured me in an intellectual sense through their ideas and writings; but Bob's influence was by way of example. It was an influence entirely in the spiritual realm, for Bob was no public figure, left behind no writings, and never promoted any grand theory of anything. He was simply a man who deeply loved God and impressed this love upon everyone he met. While I am grateful for my intellectual mentors, Bob's passing reminds me of St. Paul's words in the Epistle to the Corinthians, "For though you have countless teachers in Christ, you do not have many fathers" (1 Cor. 4:15). The world is full of teachers, but to find a spiritual father, ah, that is another thing entirely.

Bob was right there when I began my journey into the Church in 2001. He was a regular fixture of my Novus Ordo parish, where he always sat in the front pew, generally by himself. His manner of assisting at Mass was edifying; he'd simply sit there with this look of subdued awe, like it was clear he recognized he was in the presence of an unfathomable mystery by his facial expressions. That was my first impression of him was as a man who deeply loved the Mass.

He must have been in his early sixties then, but he seemed aged beyond his years. Life had not been easy on Bob. I heard through the grapevine that he had once been someone important in the corporate world, that he had reached the pinnacle of wealth of influence. Success proved destructive, however, and Bob became an alcoholic. His habits cost him his family; his wife left him and he grew estranged from his children. Eventually he could no longer keep his career together either and he wound up a homeless addict, alone and tossed upon the stormy waves of the sea of life.

What dark years these must have been for him. Eventually he came to the Lord—I know not by what means, for Bob seldom spoke of it how I wish I would have pried the story out of him during our long acquaintance!) Under the gentle impulse of grace, Bob ordered his life, put away his vices, and was able to reconcile to some degree with his family (though his wife never returned). He became a model Christian, and there were plenty of puns about his last name; he often introduced himself as "Bob the Christian." 

This was his state when I met him in 2001. He had a lumberjack sort of demeanor in those days, work slacks with a button down flannel shirt. His voice had a unique quality that is hard to describe to those that didn't know him; it was incredinly raspy and grinding, the way a pile of gravel would talk if it had vocal cords. He was a short, portly man, clean shaven save a broad mustache he wore most of his life. He had a subdued smile, wide face, and jowly cheeks that rippled when he talked, giving him an overall "Mr. Belvedere" appearance (here's a link for you Millennials and Gen-Zs who don't know who Mr. Belvedere is). 

But I am dwelling too much on the superficial aspects of Bob's character, for it was his spiritual insight that made him such a treasure. Bob would sit in on my RCIA classes, usually just listening while holding a cup of coffee, sometimes chiming in with his two cents. He genuinely loved the Church and loved the process of conversion, being intimately interested in the details of how people came to the Lord and why. I think he liked to frequent the RCIA lessons just to witness how grace was saving other people even as it had saved him. I first realized what a spiritual bulwark he was when he was asked to give a talk on spirituality for the RCIA catechumens. It was a brilliant talk, full of humility and salt-of-the-earth advice, but also deeply penetrating, reflecting the life of a man who not only knew the Beatitudes but lived them daily.

A few years went by and I eventually switched parishes in favor of a more conservative church where I had recently been hired as DRE and Youth Director. I didn't see Bob for a few years and kind of forgot about him until he suddenly reemerged at my new parish under very coincidental circumstances. My parish is a small country whose rectory is a very large, old Victorian era farm house. The rectory was originally designed for four priests (imagine even a small country parish having four priests back in the day!), and our pastor found the upkeep of the rectory a bit much for him. He was somehow made aware of Bob and invited him to stay in the rectory as a kind of live-in housekeeper. I had no idea about this arrangement until one day I was walking into Adoration and saw Bob standing on the steps of the Church. It had been over five years since I'd seen him; he was considerably older, kind of stooped, with shaky old-man hands and gray hair, but he was as bright and jubilant as ever. And he'd adopted what I would call more "monastic" appearance—instead of work slacks and flannel shirts, he wore a pair of dark trousers with open toed sandals and a brown hoodie reminiscent of a Franciscan habit. He also wore a huge cross around his neck; and by huge, I mean, like maybe five or six inches? It was a simple wooden cross on a piece of twine. He wore this outfit consistently; for all intents and purposes, it was his habit.

Talking with Bob was always instructional. A simple hello could blossom into a deep spiritual conversation. And it usually did, but it was never unwelcome. Bob never made himself a burden; if conversation turned deep, it was because his character was so attractive that it naturally drew you out, churning up the "secret places of the heart" (Ps. 51:6). And he never overdid it; some people—even the brightest and best—often suffer from not knowing when to end a conversation and weary their hearers with too much pontificating. Bob had a keen intuition of where this threshold was, and he always knew when a conversation had reached its natural termius. He was content to spend as much time as necessary planting his seeds, but he was attentive enough to know when the job was done. It was thus always pleasant and never burdensome to get caught in one of his spiritual conversations. You felt lucky afterwards.

While at my old parish Bob was always eagerly in the front row, at the new parish he sat in the rear, in a chair against the back wall, hearing Mass with a Rosary wrapped around his hand. His eyes would often be closed, but he was never sleeping, for his lips were always moving, his fingers always sliding from bead to bead. I have mused on how different his demeanor of hearing Mass was between the two parishes, but how both were deeply reverent in their own way. After our parish began offering the Traditional Latin Mass in 2009, Bob would be found at the TLM as well. He loved the Traditional Latin Mass, but he would be equally found at either form. With Traditionalists, he decried the loss of things like Latin, Gregorian Chant, and the traditional liturgy, etc., but he also never seemed to be thrown off by having to sit through a new Mass. Quite simply, nothing phased him. He would give you his opinion if you pulled it out of him, but I never heard him complain. He had the same demeanor in Mass regardless of the form and you never got the sense that anything perturbed him. He was too focused on the spiritual realities to be bothered one way or another. As a man who had known the depths of worldly despair, to the end of his days he felt lucky to be at any Mass, no matter how impoverished. Perhaps you find it admirable, perhaps not, but it seemed to suit him well.

His status as live-in housekeeper at the rectory made him an ideal person to keep an eye on the church, especially during Adoration. Bob was a universal back-up in case someone missed their Holy Hour; even if they didn't, he was generally there all the time anyway. He always signed up for the hardest hours, the 3:00 AM slots. There were times I showed up around 6:50 for a 7:00 AM Mass the day after Adoration and Bob was already there; I suspect he had been there all night. 

His piety was profoundly Christocentric. Any discussion with him always returned to the person of Christ—looking to Jesus, trusting in Jesus, imitating Jesus, recalling the words of Jesus. The man lived and breathed the Gospels. It was always refreshing, becuase a return to fundamentals is so often the balm we need. "I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready" (1 Cor. 3:2).

Bob was also deeply eschatological, but not in a sense I found alarmist or unhealthy. When you ran into him, he was often carrying a copy of some old commentary on Revelation, or some saint's book of locutions, or some old beaten up TAN Book about the visions of some obscure blessed. He was keenly interested in understanding "what the spirit says to the churches" (Rev. 2:7) and there was always an eschatological bent to his insights. But whereas so many Catholics let their reason get warped when they immerse themselves in this sort of thing, getting too bogged down on details and prognostications, Bob apprehended it in a much healthier way, abstracting the general principles he found in common across multiple authors and using them to help him better understand the principles of the Gospel. He was able to seamlessly interweave the visions of the saints and texts of Revelation with both testaments of the Bible. He was one of the few Catholics I liked to discuss eschatology with and actually learned from.  In this sense, Bob was really a model for how to read apocalyptic literature in an edifying way.

Bob lingered around at our parish for several years before he decided it was time to prepare for his end. Around 2010 he took leave of us and relocated to the tiny town of Chassel in the Keweenaw Peninsula. For those unfamiliar with the Midwest, the Keweenaw is the most remote and inaccessible part of Michigan (at least from the perpsective of a Lower Michigander; it is the area in red on this map).

In 2012, some guys friends and I were talking about we missed Bob and two of us decided to make a pilgrimage up to the Keweenaw to visit him. It was no small feat; people often don't realize how big Michigan is, and the drive from where I live to Bob's place was about 9 hours. Just reaching Bob to let him know we were coming was a challenge; he intentionally kept his exact whereabouts on the down low, and only a few people had a way to contact him. In fact, you had to use an intermediary. You had to call a woman who lived up north near Bob, tell her that you wanted to get in touch with him and leave her your number, and she would go tell Bob, "so-and-so wants to talk to you," and he would call you. This was because he only kept an old-school flip phone, and he seldom turned it on unless he wanted to make a call. So if you just called him out of the blue and left a voice message, he wouldn't see your call until whenever he powered up his phone—which, for a septugenarian hermit, might be weeks.

Thankfully we were able to touch base with him and made the 9 hour trek to the diminutive little town of Chassel where Bob had chosen to spend his final days. Small towns in the Upper Peninsula generally exist along a single main drag, and Chassel was no different. Bob lived in an old motel that had been renovated into apartments. He received my friend and I with kindness. By now the ravages of age had clearly taken their toll; he had lost weight, seemed even shorter than I remembered him, and had the mannerisms of a doddering old man. He took us into his apartment, which was about as big as a Holiday Inn suite with a kitchenette and looked no different; I mean, it was literally a converted motel. Its decorum was spartan; he'd been there for over a year but he owned so little it looked as if he was just a traveler passing through. Though his body was wearing down, his mind was sharp as ever, with the same gravelly voice, albeit a bit more wheezy. We pulled up chairs and started talking about the Lord. It was the same old message, but ever fresh, perhaps with more of an emphasis on holding close to Jesus during the dark times that would inevitably come. He also told us a bit about his daily routine: he said he woke up before sunrise to pray, and attended daily Mass at a parish within walking distance. And the rest of the day was spent in spiritual reading. It was a beautiful life for him, and it was clear that he intended to finish his days this way and die in obscurity. 

We talked for an hour. He gave me some books. We prayed together and parted ways. My friend and I visited some other sites in the Keweenaw and stayed the night in a hotel. The next day, we wanted to get an early start back since the drive home was so long, so we got up and left around 4:00 AM. Around 4:45 we passed through Chassel. Since Bob's place was on the main drag, we drove by it. His kitchen light was on. As we passed his apartment, I could clearly see him at his kitchen table, crucifix propped up against a pile of books, head resting against folded hands in prayer, aware of nothing but himself and the Lord.

That visit was the last time I had any real conversation with Bob, although he clung on for another nine years. I saw him one more time when I vacationed up north the following year; he was house-sitting a friend's cabin on Lake Superior for the winter, just keeping the water running and utilities on. I talked to him for ten minutes; he said that he occupied his time alone reading and praying and catching mice. I asked how many mice he had caught so far that winter; he non-ironically said, "Not many. Only seventy-two."

My parents actually stayed in touch with Bob closer to the end of his life. My mother had known Bob from the parish years and when she and my father would vacation up north they would stop in Chassell and see him. Bob made a big impressoion of my dad. My dad was a non-believer, an agnostic at best who was skeptical of organized religion. Bob took to him right away and would speak with him about spiritual things in a way that resonated with him. My dad used to praise Bob's insight, which is not surprising; Bob had a way of relating everything back to Jesus in a very easy, understandable way. In my dad's case, he really helped my father to grasp the "big picture" of world events, seeing them not merely as geopolitical happenstance but as manifestations of the struggle between the City of God and City of Man. My dad is no longer an agnostic; I'd call him a Catholic-friendly theist. He has committed to belief in God, and even in Christ, and I'd say he favors the Catholic Church above all other churches, but has not jumped the Tiber. He's still on his journey, though, and I think Bob's influence was a big part of that.

Bob wanted to finish his life in obscurity and he did. His death was so obscure that I didn't even find out about it for months after the fact. He died back around Thanksgiving, but it took awhile for word to trickle back through his old acquaintances. By the time I found out, he'd already been in the ground for months. I found his sparse obituary in the Detroit Free Press. He never had any kind of memorial or viewing; "Bob requested no services be held," the obit read. 

Thus passed Bob Christian from this world at the age of 83. His example of humility, grace, and joy were always inspiring. His conversation was edifying, his manner of life wholesome. His prayers untiring; for the last decade of his life he lived a routine of continual immersion in prayer and study that no ascetic would be ashamed of. He was a model to me of what living the Beatitudes looks like. I can still hear his gravelly voice in my mind, and though I have many memories of him, I think I shall always remember him as I saw him at 4:45 A.M. that morning in 2012, leaning against his folded hands in prayer at his kitchen table. 

Requiescat in pace, old friend.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Phil for writing this....true representation of who Bob truly was. We will miss him here and hope to be united together someday in Heaven. May we strive to love God above all things which Bob always tried to do. He was a great witness of Christ's love to all of us. May we express our love and gratitude for him by our prayers for his soul and may he rest in peace! Thank you...Bernadette

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I obviously never knew Mr Christian but greatly appreciate the pen portrait. I will pray for his soul today.

Anonymous said...

This is my favorite of all your posts. Thank you for this.