Ecology, spirituality and sustainability – Tribute to Charles Brandt (part 1)
~ the Brandt Series ~
Father Charles Brandt – 5oth Anniversary of his ordination to the
sacred priesthood and consecration to the hermit life
Photography and text by Charles Brandt and Bruce Witzel (with exceptions)
Between 375 and 425 of the common era, there were over 5000 hermits living along the Nile River, in Palestine and Syria. After the Peace of Constantine in 313 one could live the Christian life without offering incense to Caesar. Those who wanted to live as Christians found that the city of Rome was too corrupt so they fled to the desert.
Among these were the first hermits. When a hermit would meet another hermit he would say: “Brother give me a word” seeking some Spiritual wisdom from the other hermit.
My word to you is: “Only the sense of the Sacred will Save Us.”
Frater M. Charles Brandt, November 5, 2016
~ Ecology, spirituality and sustainability are connected ~
Bruce’s tribute to Fr. Charles, Nov. 5, 2016
Charles Brandt was 4 years old in 1927, when the Jesuit palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote in The Human Phenomenon:
“Our faith imposes on us a right and a duty to be passionate about the things of the earth.”
Charles has always lived this faith.
In 1966 I was an altar server in Courtenay, but I don’t recall that autumn day when Father Charles was ordained a hermit priest.
None of us then could envision how Charles’ life would so touch our own – and the land, the rivers and the human creativity around us.
During carefree years of the 1970’s, my friends and I loved to swim in the rivers of Comox Valley. Except for the Tsolum River. We we not not impressed with its brownish copper tone.
Who could imagine it was so polluted with copper leachate? Charles did.
So often we just don’t get what’s going on around us.
Charles says, “we are a society that is hard of hearing.”
Well then Charles – you are like hearing aid for us. All of us, let us pray and act that we don’t go deaf. But even then Charles wouldn’t give up – he’d just start using more sign language!
Over the last 30 years or so, I have spent time with Charles on just a few handful of occasions – yet I consider him a close friend, and a mentor.
My father was also a friend of Charles. When he died, Charles listened to my grief and anger.
And at times I’ve despaired about the earth, or the church, or society. But Charles has always helped me see the bigger picture, that which is universal and beyond myself – beyond each of us.
In the early 90’s I attended a meditation retreat given by Charles, on Spirituality and the Environment at the Bethlehem Retreat Centre in Nanaimo.
The basic contemplative message of that retreat still rings true today. Charles asks each of us to work to find out – who are we meant to be? Charles’ mentor Thomas Merton, calls it “finding our true selves.” The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr calls it “recognizing our inherent dignity.”
This is the continuing life work, for each of us.
Back in those days I worked in the log plant and booming grounds of the Port Alice Pulp Mill. I was also part of the Environmental Protection Committee. The problem was, I didn’t really enjoy the work.
Like many mills, it was good pay – but now it’s closed down.
A year or so after the meditation retreat, I quit the mill and travelled to Mexico. I volunteered with a group of Christian Cooperatives and Itinerant Missionaries that included health workers, seminarians, legal experts and poor campesino farmers.
My work involved building and teaching about Solar Box Ovens. They’re a simple device, just an insulated box with glass on top that traps heat from the sun that cooks the food.
People everywhere are amazed how easy it is to cook using sunshine. I was amazed at the fine craftsmanship of the campesino carpenters.
After six inspiring months, I returned to Canada. By then I had realized my own passion for carpentry and took it up full time. I have the Mexican campesinos and Charles to thank for all that!
In the 23 years since then I’ve been together with my wife Francis, a novelist and retired educator, along with two step children and two grand children. Charles generously shared his famous cougar photo with Francis, to grace the front cover of her 3rd novel, Chasing Down the Night.
As Charles tells the story about the cougar, he was walking in the woods and could hear that the robins in the trees were quite excited. As he entered the door of the hermitage Charles looked back. A cougar had sat down at the bottom of the stairway. So Charles picked up his camera. After a few moments the cougar lay down on the grass. Then, he – the cougar that is – dozed off.
Bishop Gary Gordon photo
This past June when Charles asked me to speak here today, we were visiting on the porch of the hermitage. It was chilly and he offered me a jacket.
A bird sang from the trees beyond.
Charles said with a twinkle in his eye,
“Listen! Do hear him – it’s a Swainson Thrush – a male, I think.”
We all know that Charles love of nature and conservation is immense, as well as his love and conservation of books and the arts.
Later as I departed Charles grinned at me. Without realizing, I was leaving with his jacket. He’d repaired it numerous times, he told me. It was as old as the hermitage.
This reminded me of the time in the late 1980’s when Charles visited Saint Theresa’s Parish in Port Alice. His homily included explaining the 3R’s. First, reduce our consumption and use just what we need to. Second, repair or reuse what we are able to (like Charles does with his jacket, and books). Third, recycle everything else.
Charles, throughout his life, has never wavered in his commitment for conservation, restoration and preservation of this beautiful earth that abounds and surrounds us. Today, after 35 years of collaborative work, the Tsolum is no longer a dead river. The salmon have returned. This is a testimony from Charles and others, to what we can do if we care.
Healing and transformation is possible. But how does such destruction happen in the first place? In Pope Francis’ encyclical, On Care for Our Common Home, he explains that “a true ecological debt exists, between the global north and south.”
Francis speaks of the world’s commercial imbalances and how the rich countries consumes so much more of the worlds resources.
The Pope even mentions the years of mercury pollution from gold mining by the northern industrialized nations.
A heartbreaking example here in Canada is how the Grassy Narrows First Nation, north of Kenora, have been affected by mercury, though it came from a pulp mill. In the early 1970’s, the mink, the otters and the eagles were being poisoned from eating the fish. The wildlife couldn’t walk, swim or fly normally.
Now, the Grassy Narrows people themselves are suffering horrible deaths from brain damage caused by mercury poisoning.
Charles says “we have to stop this destructive, addictive and oppressive behaviour.” Pope Francis has called specifically for the mining sector to undergo a “radical paradigm change.” And, as Charles says, “we seek a new way of life.”
Indeed, our whole social, economic and spiritual viewpoints need to change.This is most evident with climate change. Humanity needs to quickly reduce our carbon emissions.
Canada and the United States together use about 25% of the worlds fossil fuels, yet we are only 5% of the world’s people.
Scientists have looked at the past 150 years of the worlds development and found that the rich nations have created by far, the lions share of climate change.
This is part of the ecological debt that Pope Francis speaks of.
The economist Fritz Schumacher said this about solving difficult tasks – “Perhaps we cannot raise the winds. but each of us can raise the sails, so when the wind comes we’ll catch it.”
As I begin to close this tribute to Charles, I’d like you to picture this. It’s an editorial cartoon.
Cars are backed up on the freeway, planes fly near numerous stacks that belch black smoke.
It’s not a pretty sight and a crowd of people are protesting. They hold signs that declare –
“End times are coming!”
Another person stands apart from the crowd. He’s alone, and a little wild looking, with long hair and a beard. And he’s wearing a sack cloth, like John the Baptist – or maybe like Charles.
His sign says “Repent . . . . . .”
To conclude, I believe the essence of Charles’ message is this – ecology, spirituality and sustainability are connected.
And, there is really only one prayer – the stream of love. The great cosmic river of love.
When Charles invited me to speak, I was doubtful and hesitant. Then he said to me quietly,
“Well, think about it.”
Each of us, will do well to think about it!
Thank you Frater M. Charles Brandt, ERM
for your love, your passion and giving us your word,
“Only the sense of the sacred will save us.”
cheers to all,
Bruce T.J. Witzel
November 5, 2016