OUR LIVES, WELL LIVED – Charles Brandt, at 94
A Single Sacred Community:
An Interview with Charles Brandt – Hermit, Bookbinder, Ecologist
(photos by Charles, except as noted)
Charles Brandt has turned 94 on Feb. 19th, 2017. Speaking about contemplation or to the local meditation group he facilitates, he often quotes his fellow monk Thich Nhat Hahn…
(bruce witzel photo)
In Being Peace, Nhat Hahn says,
“Our world is something like a small boat. Compared to the cosmos, our planet is a very small boat. We are about to panic because our situation is no better than the situation of the small boat in the (stormy) sea… Humankind has become a very dangerous species. We need people who can sit still and be able to smile, who can walk peacefully. We need people like that to save us… You are that person… each of you is that person.”
The Catholic monk Thomas Merton once described Thich Nhat Hanh as “more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality because he and I see things in exactly the same way.”
In the mid 1950’s when Charles had intended to enter the Abbey of Gethsemini where Thomas Merton was novice master, he was advised by Merton “Don’t come here. We could make a good monk of you, but not a good contemplative.” Charles did become a Trappist, but in 1965 he left for Vancouver Island.
The well known Canadian activist Bishop Remi de Roo, who is now a good friend of Charles and also turns 94 on February 24, ordained Charles to the priesthood as a hermit monk in 1966 – the first time this happened in over 200 years.
This past November 21, 2016 Charles Brandt celebrated 50 years of his vows to the extended community of people and the earth. His testament on that occasion can be found here in Charles Brandt Speaks (part 3). At the event there were no less less than 10 tributes shared including Ecology, Spirituality and Sustainability (part 1) and These Fish, This Land, This Water (part 2).
A unique interview was conducted with Charles Brandt on Friday, February 12, 2016, and recently published in the Thomas Merton Annual Review. Below is a condensed version.
Conducted by Donald Grayston and David Chang
Charles Brandt is a Roman Catholic priest and hermit, a bookbinder and paper conservator, and an award-winning ecologist.
Since 1965, he has lived the hermit life, mostly at Merton House, his hermitage at Black Creek, British Columbia (a few miles north of Courtenay on Vancouver Island).
When working elsewhere as a conservator, he would make his urban apartment his hermitage, always intending during those years to return to Black Creek.
Now 94, he says this: “I’m looking towards eternity now. . . . I’m not going anywhere. I love this spot. I’m permanent. I feel steady, in a sense, with life, and with my calling.”
He is a beautiful old man…
Donald Grayston: First of all, thank you very much for giving us your time, and let’s cut right to the chase: why be a hermit? How do you explain yourself to yourself?
Charles Brandt: Part of it, I think, is tradition. You know I was a Trappist monk for eight years at New Melleray, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to making final vows. During Vatican II [1962-65], monks were trying to discover their roots. So there was a kind of a movement among the Trappists to explore their roots, and they discovered the hermits. We went back, just trying to discover our roots as monks.
DG: That was then, as the teenagers say, and this is now: so why be a hermit in the twenty-first century?
CB: It still has its place, and I think that anybody who prays benefits the whole body of Christ. Prayer touches everybody. The person next to me is affected by whatever I do. If I pray, that helps them, and it also helps the natural world. I’m very keen on the natural world, and I think that the human community and the natural world must go into the future as a single sacred community or perish in the desert, as Thomas Berry says. Praying, living a life of solitude and stillness, quiet, is good for my soul; it’s good for everybody, I think.
David Chang: Did your interest in spirituality and your interest in the natural world – matters of ecology – did they always go hand in hand, or did one come first and feed into the other?
CB: I was a Boy Scout, and I spent some time in the summer at Osceola Scout Camp in Missouri, where I was called into the tribe of Mic-O-Say. The Osage Nation lived in that part of Missouri; they [the Scouts] had braves and runners, and they called them Mic-O-Say. You would come down as a camper, and if you did well, and showed exemplary character, you were called into the Mic-O-Say; and so I was.
Roe Bartle, the mayor of Kansas City, was the chief, and said to me, “You’ve been called, you do not know why, nor will you ever know, but thus far you’ve been considered worthy”; and then he gave me something to drink, bitter with the sweet, turned me around several times, and told me to keep absolute silence for 24 hours. Then I was to report to Blue-Eyed Otter, the medicine man of the tribe. He told me to go out and sleep in the wild, and to make medicine, and to take vows to God, to [my] mother, and [my] country. In terms of country, I wasn’t thinking of Missouri or America; I thought of the earth, and that was a revelation to me.
So it was through birding and Scouting that I got into contact with the natural world, and it always seemed to go hand-in-hand with what I was thinking about. And when I was about five years old, we moved out of Kansas City to a farming area, in the countryside, in the wilderness. Every tree had a bird’s nest in it. It was amazing to me, my real first contact with the natural world, moving from the city to a farming area.
DG: So it was important for you to grow up on a farm, and then have this exposure through Scouting.
CB: Very much so. And were you asking about the natural world and the spiritual?
CB: When I was quite young, I felt that we should have contact with God, that we should be able to communicate with God. Nobody told me anything about that, it was just kind of an intuition. I would ask pastors, do you know God? And it was kind of embarrassing, you know, it was sort of hem and haw, and I took it for granted that they should be able to communicate with God.
DG: Do you know The Way of a Pilgrim?
DG: The pilgrim goes to his priest and then the bishop and neither knows what to say; finally he meets somebody who teaches him the Jesus prayer. You had a similar experience.
CB: Then somebody told me about The Man Nobody Knows, by Bruce Barton; and it was the first time I realized that Christianity was more than just an ethical thing, that Jesus was really Son of Man, Son of God, he was God, and that was a revelation to me that he was divine. He never says he’s God [laughs], but that’s the theology . . .
DG: Divinity and humanity together.
CB: That’s right.
(thomas merton photo – detail of abbey church)
DG: You did tell us in your Time Line that you started reading Thoreau when you were 13. Now, what kind of a kid reads Thoreau at the age of 13?
CB: My mother’s brother’s wife, my Aunt Hildred, did book reviews for The Kansas City Star. She did one on Walden, and I read it, and I got interested then in Henry David Thoreau. He went to the woods to find out what life was all about, and that was really quite exciting, and a real challenge for me; and I wanted to do something like that. That was probably my first inroad into the hermit life. Then again in high school, we had to do a project on what was our vocation; and I wanted to be a fire-watcher, to live in a tower. So again, I guess that was sort of leaning toward a solitary life.
DG: Which was something that Thomas Merton discussed with Dom James (his abbot) about doing at one point.
CB: That’s right. Dom James thought that would give him kind of a footing.
Thomas Merton, original painting by John Giuliana
DC: I want to ask a question about Thoreau. The first time I read Thoreau, I had a particular view of him. A couple of years later, I read him again, and I appreciated him differently. Did you find that? Or, have you revisited him?
CB: I think the big thing about Henry David Thoreau – I’ve been to Walden Pond, and I saw where the hermitage was – was that he went to the woods, and gave us a deeper appreciation of the natural world, what’s out there. We take it for granted, when they [the colonists] first came to America, they came to use it, and to conquer the First Nations people, and to use the land. But Henry David Thoreau went out just to appreciate what was there. I think that’s perhaps his great contribution, and I think that’s a big thing we could do today: show people the natural world so they fall in love with it. That’s the only way we’re going to save the world: to appreciate it. It’s sacred, and we only love what is sacred. I think Thoreau helped us, along with John Muir and Emily Dickinson.
DG: In your second year in high school, you became quite interested in bird study, and you had a very special experience with a stream of warblers.
CB: It was Sunday morning. My Dad was not very appreciative of my not going to church, but I really became interested in bird study, and I was out along the Blue River. I saw birds of different colors, maybe five or seven different species. These were warblers of different species which migrate though in the spring, different species each with its own coloration, oftentimes moving through together. It was a quite amazing thing to me that that should exist, and that I should see that, and it was kind of a breakthrough for me. It was an experience that lifted me out of the ordinary run of life…
DG: Aldo Leopold spent a lot of time observing birds. Do you still do bird-sound recording at all?
CB: I don’t, but I have a friend in the valley who does. You need some really special equipment for that. At Cornell, we had a sound truck with a parabolic reflector. When I was at Cornell, I won a scholarship in bird-sound recording.
CB: When I was in the Air Force, I learned to build radios, so I did a lot of work with preamplifiers, built a couple of those. That was my primary work for the bird-sound recording at Cornell. At the time, they had finished pretty much all the birds, and they were getting into recording amphibians, voices of the night, frogs and toads and crickets and things like that.
DG: That’s what Merton calls “the huge chorus of living beings.” It’s a wonderful passage, in which he describes the sounds of the night.
DC: What is it about birds that provide an entry point to a larger ecological consciousness?
CB: There’s something really magical about birds. The fact is, they can fly, they can move. That’s really an enchanting thing, but I think once you get interested in any part of natural history, then it opens you up to everything, to rivers and trees and plants.
DG: Because it’s all connected.
CB: It’s all connected . . . our community here by extension includes plants and soil and all sentient life, so it’s everything that’s connected.
DG: Do the Buddhists have something to teach us about that?
CB: Oh, absolutely. What do they call it? . . . dharmakaya? . . . everything is connected, everything is compassion, and everything is emptiness, but I think the big thing that Thomas Berry – I’ve read a lot of Thomas Berry – would say is that the big thing with the Buddhists is their respect for life; that all life is precious, and that’s really influenced me. I’m a fisherman, and I used to do fishing, catch and release, and I’ve given that up now, because I realized that once that hook gets into that mouth, they feel some pain, and the Buddhists want all pain to cease, all suffering. Thomas Berry was quite keen on Buddhists because of that…
DG: Back to you. You entered active service in the US Army Corps, and later the Air Force, and you had a number of military experiences, including bombardier training.
CB: I was a navigator officially, but I did have bombardier training. You had to have bombardiering to be a navigator, so you could understand what the bombardier was [doing] .
DG: How do you feel about that now, looking back on that military period?
CB: You know, I never thought much about it. The war (World War 2) was going on when I was in high school. My father was an officer in the Air Force and I’d hear a little bit about the war. I never took it seriously; I never thought about it. Went to William Jewell College, went to the University of Missouri, joined the reserve corps, then I was drafted.
I finally wound up training as a navigator, and then about halfway through the course, I began to think, well what is this about war? Is this really right? Should we be dropping these bombs? So I went in to see the chaplain – and this wasn’t really down on my record, I know that. I said I may be a conscientious objector, I don’t really know, I haven’t really thought it out. So the chaplain said well, you go and think about it for a while. Then, I was shipped out to gunnery training and then finally navigation training.
CB: Things were really moving right along, and I really didn’t have time [to think about it]. Today, I don’t say I’m a conscientious objector, but I’m nonviolent. That’s what Merton was. Merton was nonviolent. That’s where I think I would stand. Merton might say there might be a necessity to take a stand, but he was really nonviolent. So that’s where I stand, and I would be there from the very beginning, I think, had I realized what was taking place…
DC: I was just wondering, whether bookbinding, as a form of practice, has any contemplative value for you.
CB: I think it does. Probably the best contemplative part of bookbinding is sewing the book. It’s a very relaxing, I think a very meditative, contemplative aspect of binding. Literature is disappearing at a great rate from our libraries all over the world, and it’s our written record of humanity. So if you’re preserving that, as I am, you’re preserving humanity, the culture, and I think that’s really quite worthwhile. It’s like preserving the earth. It’s not just a job, it’s something that’s conducive to the prolongation of civilization.
DC: It’s an act of beneficence.
CB: Yes, and it’s a slow, methodical work. You’re not in any hurry, not working with heavy machinery. Merton, that was one of his big gripes at Gethsemani.
DG: Here’s one more question. You spent a number of years away from here, doing archival and preservation work. How does that fit with being a hermit?
CB: After I’d been doing some bookbinding for a couple of years, I realized I didn’t have a lot of experience working with paper conservation, and I wanted to get more experience. I had a friend who had a friend in Massachusetts at the New England Document Center, Dr. Cunha. I wrote to him and asked if I could come, that I knew a little bit of bookbinding, and that I would offer that skill if he would teach me paper conservation.
So I was there for about a year, and I kept getting jobs. I became head of the bindery. But it wasn’t what I came for, and I wanted to learn how to do fine binding, you know what I mean? You do binding, then you put designs on it with tools, and it’s called finishing. I wanted to learn that. They had said, we can teach you that, but they didn’t have anybody there to do that. So I went to Ascona, in southern Switzerland.
While I was in Ascona, I got a telephone call from Ottawa, from the Canadian Conservation Institute, asking me if I would like to be interviewed for a job as conservator. That was a big chance, you know? So they flew me to Ottawa, and I got the job, and then they flew me back to Europe and I finished what I planned to do, and started working for the Canadian Conservation Institute. I did that for five years, and got a pension from that. Then I went from there to Winnipeg, and set up a conservation centre for the [provincial] government there.
DG: During this time, what about the hermit life?
CB: Well, in Ottawa, I had a flat. I didn’t do much parish work, and when I got to Winnipeg, I said a daily Mass at the cathedral there for a couple of years. When I was in Ottawa, I spent most of my weekends in Combermere: that’s where the Baroness was (Catherine de Hueck Doherty, founder of Madonna House, was also a major influence on Thomas Merton).
(thomas merton photo)
CB: So I was really in contact with the life. I wasn’t just secular, and I was, like St. Paul, a tent maker. I was a bookbinder, and trying to live a contemplative life in a busy world.
(bruce witzel photo)
DG: Did you feel stretched by that experience? Did you have a sense of pull back to this place?
CB: Oh yes. I was always moving back. I was always coming back.
DC: At this point in your life, how you would say you’ve grown or changed in your appreciation of spirituality in relation to ecology, and in relation to your place here in Black Creek?
CB: In a way, I’m looking towards eternity now. I’ll be 93 on February 19, , so I’m not going anywhere. I love this spot. I’m permanent. I feel steady, in a sense, with life, and with my calling. And this is my place. I walk out and I know the trees, and I know the birds and the animals. They’re my friends. As I said, the human community and the rest of the natural world has to go into the future as a single sacred community. I feel that I’m part of this community where the natural world and people come and go; and if we don’t, as Thomas Berry says, we’ll perish.
DC: So, you know the birds: do the birds know you? Do they have a sense you are a person who lives in their neighborhood?
CB: I think the deer know me more than the birds, because the birds are more skittish. But in a way, I’m sure they accept me into their community.
It’s wonderful to hear your story. Many thanks.
~ with cheers from Bruce ~
Postscript from Charles:
IT IS NOT CLEAR FROM THE INTERVIEW ABOUT MY SERVICE IN THE AIRFORCE.
WHILE I WAS PONDERING MY POSITION AS A NON-VIOLENT PERSON, THE WAR
ENDED ABRUPTLY WITH THE DROPPING OF THE A. BOMB. I THINK IT IS IMPORTANT
TO MENTION THAT I SAW NO ACTION. IT WAS OVER BEFORE I HAD TIME TO THINK
IT OUT CLEARLY, JUST MOVING FROM PLACE TO PLACE. NO SOLITUDE OR SILENCE
OR LEISURE TO RESOLVE THE ISSUE. IT IS RESOLVED NOW AND FOR SOME TIME.