Contemplation in action — a friend remembers Father Charles Brandt

Contemplation in action — a friend remembers Father Charles Brandt

Photo Caption

Contemplation in action — a friend remembers Father Charles Brandt

BY BRUCE WITZEL

Father Charles Brandt occasionally liked to quote his fellow monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The Buddhist teacher once was asked what we needed to do to save our world. “What we most need to do,” he replied, “is to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.”

How do we then respond to this call of the Earth’s cry, the people’s groaning? In this unprecedented moment of history — a worldwide pandemic coupled with increasing forest fires, floods, superstorms and mass migration of the Climate Emergency —doing nothing can no longer be an option.

Charles Brandt has left us many hints. His gifts and example of contemplation amidst action may well be an essential guide for us in echoing and raising our own voices.

“Where does contemplation lead one? Since it finds the Ground of Love in all reality, it leads to one’s sisters and brothers — it creates social consciousness, it leads to a deeper unity and love with and for the earth. Contemplation leads to transformation.”  ~ Father Charles Brandt

It’s been two months now since Father Charles Brandt died — just three months ago, I last saw him alive. He was in good spirits as we sat on the porch of the hermitage overlooking his beloved Oyster River. “There is hardly a portion of her banks from the estuary to the snows that I have not travelled by foot,” he wrote in 1972. “Her music, her rhythm is a background to my life and work.” I was just a teenager then.

My father, Mac Witzel, befriended Charles upon his arrival to Vancouver Island in 1964. Or maybe it was the other way around. Charles had become a member of the newly formed Hermits of St. John the Baptist who lived alongside the Tsolum River. As we now know, not long afterwards the river was terribly poisoned by the copper mine up on Mount Washington.

Antelope Canyon, Utah | Father Charles Brandt photo

The group of hermits were quite poor and lived in roughhewn cabins — true to 60’s I think. Many local people were initially dubious of them, these non-conformists. Who were these monks struggling in the woods? Shouldn’t they pray in a monastery?

The hermits disbanded within a few years and most of them moved away. Charles was one of the exceptions. A wealthy benefactor helped Charles obtain 27 acres of land by the Oyster River which had been logged a couple of decades earlier.

His cabin was loaded onto a flatbed trailer and moved to its new site. My father was foreman of the local BC Highways Department and helped during the process. At one point the posts on the bridge across the Tsolum River blocked the cabin’s passage. They were cut shorter to let it through — “No one ever knew,” Charles later admitted.

~~~~

During those years as a youngster, I barely saw or knew of Fr. Charles Brandt. He was a hermit after-all. Our friendship really began years later during the 1980s at a weekend meditation retreat that he led on Spirituality and the Environment.

“Follow your bliss” he said while conveying the comparative religious thought of Joseph Campbell. In explaining deep ecology, social ecology, integral ecology and cosmology Fr. Charles spoke about Fritjof Capra, Simone Weil, Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme.

The retreat eventually helped me to make a decision to leave my well-paying job on the booms of the Port Alice pulp mill. For eight months I went to live and work with the poor in the mountains of Mexico. “What can privileged people do to help?” I asked the local Padre. “First, pray,” he said. “Secondly, don’t use more than you need to — thirdly, defend the human rights of the poor.”

Work was at the base community level with campesino farmers, health workers, and other local organizers. We discussed Liberation Theology during training workshops about helping with people’s nutritional needs or even pouring concrete together. We promoted alternative methods of cooking by building solar ovens or efficient “rocket stoves” with local carpenters.

According to the World Health Organization an estimated 2.4 billion people, generally among the world’s poorest, rely on biomass like wood or dung for their heating or cooking needs. Solid fuel dependency exacerbates deforestation and climate change. Breathing interior smoke is responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.6 million people annually. More than half of these deaths occur among children under five years of age.

~~~~

Over the next 30 years I cherished occasional visits with Charles when I travelled to Comox Valley. My wife Francis once said to me when I was feeling down, “why don’t you call Charles?” Another time he described to me verbatim, the Buddhist eight-fold path. This was the essence of Charles Brandt —clearheaded sage wisdom magnified by his caring soul and quiet calm presence.

Charles loved the world and its creatures. He was an expert birder and had assisted setting up the renowned bird recording lab at Cornell University in the late 1940s. He believed that the poor and disparaged of the earth included all these creatures and we need to reaffirm the dignity of the poor, human and non-human.

The strong connection Charles made with many people who knew and loved him was this — a common care for the earth and its people — oneness with the Sacramental Commons, as Charles put it. Yet in spite of this steadfast believe and his gentleness, Charles was never one to suffer fools gladly. Although he rarely displayed it, his critique could be quick and sharp. His vocation was clearly prophetic — somewhat like his mentor the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who once wrote — “Nothing has ever been said about God that hasn’t already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.”

Such was the person of Father Charles Brandt.

~~~~

Now on that crisp fall September day a few months ago, here I was sitting with Father Charles and a mutual friend, Willa Cannon. As a retired nurse, Willa with her husband Jim helped Charles in a myriad of ways. Their earlier work together with the Tsolum River Restoration Society had bonded their goodwill.

The annual meeting of the Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society had been delayed for months because of COVID 19 protocols. Though we had the support of at least a dozen friends, Charles called for the meeting to be small — only three of us. We began with making clarifications about the direction of the Society. Charles wanted to put more emphasis on contemplative prayer and he spoke of the need to be conscious that “Only the Sense of the Sacred can Save Us.”

It was agreed to add this to our vision. It follows as thus: 

The Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society seeks to fulfil the explicit wishes of Father Charles Brandt, that: The forest and house of the Hermitage is to be preserved as a peaceful centre for contemplating the spiritual foundations of ecology and nature as a sacred commons, and as a home for a designated Catholic hermit or other contemplative person dedicated to the environment and a life of contemplative prayer, who shares this vision.

The human community and the natural world will go forward into the future as a single sacred community or we will perish in the desert. Only the sense of the sacred can save us.

~~~~

We then briefly discussed the land conservancy for the forest and hermitage that had been put in place with the Comox Valley Land Trust in January 2019. In this regards, Charles expressed his gratitude for the work of two of our early directors, biologists Kathryn Jones and Loys Maingon. Then Charles affirmed the person called to be the new contemplative resident at the hermitage — Karen Nichols, a Benedictine Oblate.

Charles told us how Karen had helped years before archiving the library of Bernard de Aguiar upon his death. Bernard had been an assistant to Thomas Merton before becoming one of the original Hermits of St. John. He later became a potter on Hornby Island. Karen’s mother had been a conservationist and passed that value onto her. Her mandate will be to archive Charles’ extensive files and continue on — in Karen’s words — for the hermitage to be “a place of prayer and meditation and of conservation awareness”.

As our meeting closed Charles reached across the table to shake my hand. I reminded him we weren’t supposed to. He grinned and attempted an elbow bump but the table blocked us. With folded hands, I bowed to Charles, and then he to me. Without a word, each of us knew — the Sacred in me recognizes the Sacred in you.

These were my final moments with frater Charles A.E. Brandt.

~~~~

Only 10 days later Charles fell at the hermitage. He emailed people for help, if you can imagine that. A neighbour came over along with another friend who is a retired doctor, Bruce Wood. During many of Charles’ last 19 days in the hospital, Willa Cannon was often with him. Not long before losing consciousness he reached out and took Willa’s little hands and engulfed them with-in his. The last embrace of a dying man — he gave of himself, as always. Father Charles Brandt was true to his Christian faith to the last.

Bruce Witzel wrote this article on behalf of the Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society in the hope to continue on with the work and gifts Charles has left us. He is a co-director and chairperson of the society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FATHER CHARLES OYSTER RIVER HERMITAGE LANDS PROTECTED WITH COVENANT

The Comox Valley Land Trust (CVLT) holds a conservation covenant over 27-acres of wild land on the banks of the Oyster River. The land was the home of spiritual leader and conservationist Father Charles Brandt, 95, who asked the CVLT to protect the mature forest and riparian areas for future generations. Father Charles died earlier this fall.

 
 
 

Father Charles Brandt, or “Father Charles,” had lived in his hermitage on the 27-acres bordering the Oyster River since 1970. As the first ordained Catholic priest-hermit in two centuries, he asked the CVLT to hold conservation covenant over the property to safeguard the values of conservation and ecological stewardship.

“The covenant will ensure that these mature forests and riparian areas, as well as the plants and wildlife that call them home, are protected for future generations in perpetuity,” says Tim Ennis, executive director of CVLT.

Father Charles donated the land to the CVRD as parkland (allowing pedestrian-only public access). A registered society will lease back the hermitage building for use by a contemplative individual to carry on in the priest-hermit’s tradition.

“We must fall in love with the Earth, and we only save what we love,” says Father Charles. “It is my deep love of contemplation and communion with the natural world that has led me to act in its defense.”

Funding required to complete the project was generously provided by Judy Hager (in memory of Bob Hager), the Oyster River Enhancement Society, members of the Tsolum River Restoration Society, and other local community members. 

— adapted from the Comox Valley Lands Trust website

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Decafnation newsletter.

More Environment | News | Special
Father Charles Brandt honored by Canadian Museum of Nature

Father Charles Brandt honored by Canadian Museum of Nature

Father Charles Brandt on the front porch of his Oyster River hermitage  |  Grant Callegari photos

Father Charles Brandt honored by Canadian Museum of Nature

By Guest Writer

When the Canadian Museum of Nature announced the finalists for its
2020 Nature Inspiration Awards, there was only one name in the Lifetime Achievement category: Father Charles Brandt.

A well-known environmentalist in the Comox Valley and Strathcona regional districts, Father Charles was nominated for the award by the Comox Valley Land Trust.

Father Charles has devoted his life to protecting and preserving natural habitats and has inspired generations of volunteers to work together to protect and preserve forests and rivers.

As a spiritual leader and conservationist, Father Charles helped establish the Tsolum River Task Force, which ultimately became
the Tsolum River Restoration Society. At age 97, he continues to act as one of the society’s directors.

Father Charles Brandt

Father Charles was also instrumental in creating the Oyster River Enhancement Society, contributing to the return of salmon and trout stocks on that also once-decimated river. He served as an ORES director and remained active in the society until 2014 when he was appointed a director emeritus.

Beginning in the early 1990s, he was also part of the Oyster River Watershed Management Committee, a roundtable of
government, industry and citizen representatives advocating for improved forest management activities. Father Charles remained active with the ORMC until it disbanded in 2012.

Father Charles’ home is along the Oyster River. In 2019 he granted a conservation covenant on his 27-acre property to the Comox Valley Land Trust. This action will protect the mature forest and riparian areas in perpetuity. Father Charles intends to donate the land to the Comox Valley Regional District as parkland.

Reacting to news of the Canadian Nature Museum’s award, Father Charles wrote, “With [cultural historian] Thomas Berry I can only say that the human community and the natural world must go into the future as a single sacred community. This is a step in that direction. Thank you.”

“We are pleased to see Father Charles recognized on the national stage for his work here on Vancouver Island,” said Comox Valley Land Trust Executive Director Tim Ennis. “His decision to leave his property to the CVRD as parkland, with a conservation covenant held by the land trust that will protect it forever, sets a strong example for others.”

Father Charles will receive his award when the winners in the other six categories are announced on November 25. Winners in each category receive $5,000 they can designate to a nature-related program of their choice.

FURTHER READING: Father Charles: A Long and Winding Journey

 

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Decafnation newsletter.

More Environment | Special

School Board Comments

Respondents to Decafnation’s Local Government Performance Review comment on District 71 school trustees

Father Charles Brandt: a long and winding journey

Father Charles Brandt: a long and winding journey

Father Charles by a writing desk on the main floor of his original cabin  /  George Le Masurier photos

Father Charles Brandt: a long and winding journey

By George Le Masurier

Father Charles Brandt made a long and winding journey from a farm in rural Missouri to the Comox Valley. Along the way, it took him through New York, Louisiana, Mexico City, Oklahoma and Iowa, with side trips through Switzerland, Italy, England, Ottawa and Winnipeg.

He eventually found his way to the Tsolum River where he lived with a group of hermits and, a little later, on his own 27-acre hermitage along the Oyster River.

This week, just 19 days before his 96th birthday, Father Charles donated a conservation covenant over his land to the Comox Valley Land Trust. The covenant protects the land from development, logging or other activities in perpetuity, regardless of any change in ownership over time. The CVLT will hold the covenant, although Brandt plans to gift his property to the Comox Valley Regional District for a public park.

It’s a remarkable donation, not only for its charity or its demonstration of love for nature, but also because it happened at all.

The boy who was raised as a Methodist and converted to Anglicanism, was once on track to the Anglican priesthood. But as his interests in communicating with God through nature and in living as a hermit grew, Brandt later converted to Catholicism. He was officially ordained as a hermit-priest, the first in 200 years, in the Roman Catholic Church in Courtenay in 1966.

But Brandt told Decafnation in an interview just over a month ago that he wasn’t always so certain about his future vocation. He had many questions and doubts along the way.

Still, Brandt said, he subconsciously knew he wanted to live a contemplative life within nature.

As a young Boy Scout he slept in the wild and kept absolute silence for 24 hours. He had a passion for birding, which with scouting, were his first connections to the natural world. He studied ornithology at Cornell University. He became an internationally known master bookbinder. By the age of 13, he had read Henry David Thoreau’s epic book, Walden.

Uncertain early beginnings

Charles Brandt was born on Feb. 19, 1923 in Kansas City, Missouri to his Danish-English parents, Alvin Rudolph Brandt-Yde and Ann Chester Bridges, who were Methodists. When the family moved to a farm outside the city when Brandt was five years old, Brandt had his first experiences with the natural world.

“Every tree had a bird’s nest in it … it was amazing to me,” Brandt said in an interview published last year on Academia.edu. “When I was quite young, I felt we should have contact with God … it was just kind of an intuition.”


“The monastery life doesn’t provide enough time for meditation and prayer. They’re workaholics.”


And when a relative introduced him at age 13 to the works of Henry David Thoreau, he read Walden, which he now says was his first awareness of the hermit life. But the idea didn’t have time to fully sink in.

After graduating from high school in 1941, he started post-secondary studies at the University of Missouri. But that was interrupted by the draft and a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force. He trained primarily as a navigator, but also bombardiering, something he questioned with a military chaplain. But the chaos of war didn’t give him space to think more about it.

Brandt says now that he wouldn’t consider himself a conscious objector. He calls himself nonviolent, but ready to take a stand when there is a reason.

“If I had known what was going on in Germany, I would have been there from the beginning,” he said.

After the war, Brandt chose to study at Cornell University in New York State because they had an ornithology department. But he quickly decided against pursuing that course of studies, and was, for a time, uncertain about his vocation.

Brandt had come into contact with the Anglican Church while in the military. So when he attended a summer religious retreat during his second year at Cornell, at age 25, he began thinking of the Anglican priesthood and was ordained into the church in 1948.

Brandt meets Merton

But after reading the book The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton he started thinking about the monastic life, and becoming a Roman Catholic. So after visiting a Catholic priest in Louisiana and carrying on to Mexico City to visit the shrine of the Lady of Guadalupe, Brandt decided to study theology with Benedictine monks in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He spent a year there as a choir monk, and was officially “received” into the Catholic Church.

Brandt’s next stop on his journey to the Comox Valley was a religious order farm in Bardstown, Kentucky, known as the Abbey of Gethsemani. He learned bookbinding there and met one of the great influences on his life, Thomas Merton, in person.

Brandt then spent eight years as a Trappist monk in the New Melleray monastery in Iowa. He honed his skills as a bookbinder there, eventually taking charge of the bindery. But he found the Trappist life too rigid. Brandt had become more and more interested in a contemplative life.

So Brandt wrote a letter to Thomas Merton, who responded that he should try it.

“He (Merton) told me the monastery life doesn’t provide enough time for meditation and prayer. It’s too busy,” Brandt said. “They’re workaholics.”

The responding letter remains a treasured possession of Brandt’s.

“I had just heard about some hermits on Vancouver Island,” Brandt told Decafnation. “I visited them in March of 1965 … and never looked back.”

Since that time, Brandt has practiced a different and little known kind of Christian prayer. It’s a type of Christian meditation advocated by Merton, and made popular by the Trappist monk Thomas Keating.

“By comparison, it makes traditional Christian contemplative prayer feel outdated,” Brandt said. “It’s a willingness to be present to God, to accept his actions within us.”

Brandt continues to host a monthly meditations for a select group of about 10 people at the Oyster River Hermitage.

Covenant decision not easy

Although Brandt owns his property — he purchased it for $9,000 in 1965 — he needed the blessing of the Bishop of Victoria, who briefly considered bringing another hermit to live there.

“I thought it would be difficult to sign the document for the covenant,” Brandt said. “I lose a little security making the covenant, but I still own the property and could sell it, but for much less value with the covenant on it.

“Kind of a temptation,” he said.

But when the covenant was offered to him he said, yes, because, “It’s always good to say yes … just the idea leads to things we don’t know about.”

Brandt will continue to live in the small cabin — sometimes called The Hermitage or Merton’s House –that he built from lumber salvaged from a house he tore down in south Courtenay. Former Vanier Principal Hank Schellink found the house for him, and Brandt lived there while dismantling it.


“They (doctors) hold immense power,” he said. “Not being able to drive would hold me down.”


Before his moved his cabin from the Tsolum area to the Oyster River property, the local Knights of Columbus built a foundation for him. And they used a low-bed trailer to transport the building.

“But the posts on the bridge across the Tsolum River were blocking our passage,” he said. “So they cut the top off the posts to get the cabin across — no one ever knew.”

While the protective covenant covers the whole property, Brant’s cabin and the road to it will be held by a private society comprising members of his Hermitage Advisory Committee. The group helped Brandt navigate the complex legal paperwork required, and to assist in raising the $20,000 to pay for it.

The possibility remains for a new hermit to someday live in the cabin.

“It wouldn’t necessarily have to be a monk, it could be someone with a little monastic training and an environmentalist,” he said.

Bookbinding

Brandt has supported himself mostly through bookbinding, a skill he first learned at the Gethsemani Abbey and later perfected at an Iowa monastery. But it was his interest in learning more about archival paper conservation that changed his life.

Through a friend, he left the hermitage to study paper at the New England Document Center in Massachusetts, and quickly rose to the head of its bindery division within a year. That led to an offer from a bindery in Ascona, Switzerland, where he went to learn more about paper and binding. And that, in turn, created an offer to work as a conservator on many of Canada’s art treasures at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, where he spent five years and earned a small pension. From there, Brandt moved to Winnipeg to set up an conservation centre for the provincial government.

He lived away from his Oyster River hermitage from 1973 to 1984, an absence he likens to St. Paul, who travelled building tents.

“I bound books,” he said.

Brandt found bookbinding to fit perfectly with his contemplative lifestyle.

“I found it very meditative, especially sewing the book together. It’s very relaxing,” he said. “And I was preserving humanity, its culture, something I thought quite worthwhile.”

Next steps

As Brandt prepares for the end of life, he’s trying to get all of his affairs in order. Yet, he’s troubled by a few things.

He’s unsure what will happen to his collection of 20,000 digital photographs and his “stacks of slides” that contain images chronicling his time as a hermit.

“Whoever moves in here will need to catalog them,” he said. “They might be historically valuable in time.”

But with his 96th birthday looming on Feb. 19, his biggest concern centers on his driver’s licence. It’s a topic his doctor has raised.

“They (doctors) hold immense power,” he said. “Not being able to drive would hold me down.”

After two hours of conversation, Brandt apologized for ending our interview. He had an important meeting in Campbell River. So, refusing help to descend his deck stairs, the nearly 96-year-old bookbinder and hermit-priest climbed into his Westfalia van and drove off.

 

 

 

HERMITS

Hermit, also called Eremite, one who retires from society, primarily for religious reasons, and lives in solitude. In Christianity the word (from Greek erēmitēs, “living in the desert”) is used interchangeably with anchorite, although the two were originally distinguished on the basis of location: an anchorite selected a cell attached to a church or near a populous centre, while a hermit retired to the wilderness.

The first Christian hermits appeared by the end of the 3rd century in Egypt, where one reaction to the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Decius was flight into the desert to preserve the faith and to lead a life of prayer and penance. Paul of Thebes, who fled to the desert about 250, has been considered the first hermit.

 

THOUGHTS ABOUT
FATHER CHARLES

Decafnation asked Chris Hilliar for his thoughts about Father Charles’ protection of his land and its potential gift to the public. Hilliar is a member of the Hermitage Advisory Committee

“No one who has known Father Charles will be surprised at the recent announcement of his gift of property as future parkland for the Comox Valley Regional District. This gift is, I think, the final expression of his love for the Earth. It is entirely in keeping with both his character and his philosophy of life. Seldom will you speak with Father Charles that at some point he won’t paraphrase Thomas Berry as saying that, “the human community and the natural world must come together in single sacred harmony or perish in the desert”. I think he believed this to the very core and he lived it too.

“The Hermitage as his house and land became known was his own privately owned property. Charles logged it. I do not think he thought his land should be a pristine wilderness devoid of the touch of mankind. Rather, I think he wanted to log his land to show that it could be done sustainably, that the forest could have trees removed and still be a healthy forest. I think he wanted to at least prove to himself that he could benefit from his property but still live in harmony with it and be a healthy member of its ecosystem.

“I think he achieved his goal. Whenever I visit Charles I always park my truck at the outer gate and walk the long, winding gravel road to his house. It is a contemplative walk and I intentionally breathe deeply and am mindful of my steps. By the time I reach the house I am calm and relaxed, (as I should be to visit a hermit priest). And this of course is a small part of the daily walk that Charles has taken on his property over the past decades. He walks, he communes with nature, and he lives his philosophy.

“People of the Comox Valley will benefit from his parkland gift for years to come, but Charles has also taken steps to ensure that the Hermitage will remain a house of contemplation after his passing. This too is a wonderful legacy for the Comox Valley.”

 

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Decafnation newsletter.

More Environment | Special

School Board Comments

Respondents to Decafnation’s Local Government Performance Review comment on District 71 school trustees