CONTEMPLATION IN ACTION — Remembering Frater Charles Brandt
“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.”
~ frater Charles Brandt ~
A reflection 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 can we respond to the 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.
It’s been two months now since Fr. Charles Brandt died — just 3 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. Not long afterwards the river was terribly poisoned by a copper mine that operated for 3 years up on Mount Washington. Little did Fr. Charles know the part he would play in its 40 year clean up!
The remnants of the abandoned copper mill at the Mount Washington mine. Photo by Taylor Roades / The Narwhal
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 be praying in a monastery?
Charles Brandt ( back left), Bernard de Aguiar (back center,) and Bishop Remi De Roo (front center-left)
The hermits disbanded with-in a few years and most of them moved away. Charles was an exception. A wealthy benefactor helped Charles obtain 27 acres of land by the Oyster River which had been logged a couple decades earlier. His cabin was loaded onto a flat bed 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. He was a hermit after-all.
Our friendship began years later during the 1980’s at a weekend meditation retreat that Fr. Charles led on Spirituality and the Environment. “Follow your bliss” he said in a preamble to one of the meditation sessions 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 the security of a well-paying job on the log booms of the Port Alice pulp mill. For eight months I went to live and work with the poor in the mountains of Mexico. The pastoral work I participated in was at the base community level with campesino farmers, health workers, and local organizers. For example, I collaborated in workshops to build and demonstrate solar ovens as an option to cooking with scarce fire wood, a common reality for many of the world’s impoverished people.
Leaving Mexico I asked the local Padre what else a person who is so privileged like myself, could do? He answered me — “First, pray! Second, don’t use more than you need and third, defend the human rights of the poor.” The time I had in Mexico was the beginning of a metamorphosis for me.
Upon my return to Canada I choose different work I really loved and became a journey carpenter. Even though I lived 3 hours drive north of Charles, over the next 30 years I cherished our occasional visits. My wife Francis once said to me when I was feeling down “why don’t you call Charles?” At the bottom of his heart was a quiet calm multiplied by clearheaded wisdom and his caring soul. He once described to me verbatim, the Buddhist eight-fold path.
I believe the connection I had with Charles was not unlike many of those who came to know and love him — a common caring for the earth and all its living creatures. On the other hand, in spite of his steadfast gentleness Charles was never one to suffer fools gladly. Although he rarely displayed it, his critique could be quick and sharp. His priestly vocation was clearly of prophetic form. Such was the person of Father Charles Brandt.
Some friends and associates with Charles Brandt in 2017 at the Comox Valley Regional District office
Now on that beautiful crisp fall September day of 2020, here I was sitting with Charles and a mutual friend, Willa Cannon. As a retired nurse, Willa with her husband Jim helped Father Charles in a myriad of ways. Their earlier work together with the Tsolum River Restoration Society had bonded their goodwill for many years.
The annual meeting of the 3 year old Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society had been delayed for months because of COVID 19 protocols. Though we had support of at least a dozen friends, Charles called for the meeting to be small — only 3 of us. Previous to the meeting I had sensed an unusual urgency in Charles and likely he knew his time on earth was running short.
During the meeting we made important clarifications about the direction of the Society. Charles wanted to put more emphasis on the action of contemplative prayer and he spoke of our need to be conscious that “Only the Sense of the Sacred can Save Us.” We agreed to add these to our Vision and Purpose. It follows as thus:
The Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society seeks to fulfill 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.
Our discussion continued. . .
The work of the creating a Land Covenant for the hermitage and forest was already complete thanks to the Comox Valley Land Trust and the work of two or our early directors, biologists Kathryn Jones and Loys Maingon. Now at the meeting Charles gave confirmation of the person he wanted to be the new contemplative resident at the hermitage —Karen Nichols, a Benedictine Oblate.
Charles explained how Karen had helped some years before with archiving the library of Bernard de Aguiar upon his death. Bernard was once a secretary for Thomas Merton and one of the original Hermits of St.John. He later became a potter on Hornby Island. Charles told us that Karen was a woman of prayer who was deeply connected with natural world and also, that her mother had been a conservationist. In Karen’s words, she would continue on with the mandate of the the hermitage to be “a place of prayer and meditation and of conservation awareness”.
We discussed a few more minor details and in 35 minutes total we were done. “An exceptional meeting,” Charles said.
As we rose from the table that separated us Charles reached across to shake my hand. I reminded him we weren’t supposed to. He grinned and without missing a beat he attempted an elbow bump. The table blocked us. Stepping back with folded hands in prayer I bowed to Charles and likewise he returned this sacred gesture. Without a word, each of us knew — the Sacred in me, recognizes the Sacred in you. This memory I’ll hold in my heart for ever — the final moments with my good friend and life-time mentor, frater Charles A.E. Brandt.
My granddaughter — Bruce Witzel photo
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, Bruce Wood, a retired doctor. During many of Charles’ last 19 days that he was in the hospital Willa was often with him. Not long before losing consciousness he reached out and took Willa’s little hands and engulfed both of them with-in his hands, big like his heart. The last embrace of a dying man — he gave of himself. Father Charles was true to his Christian faith to the last. . .
An example of Fr. Charles leather work and his book binding skills
“In all things there is a ‘’hidden ground of Love”. These are the words of Thomas Merton, my mentor in the life of prayer. He was one of the guides who inspired me to live a life as a hermit. In my Anglican days Dom John Chapman’s Letters taught me Christian Meditation… Later, it was through the writings of Dom Bede Griffith’, OSB, I found my way into the Catholic Church. In 1989, I spent two months in Father Bede’s Ashram, Saccidananda, South India. There, the hidden ground of Love” confirmed me in the path of “praying always”. I have come to realize that while we are distinct from this Loving Ground, the cosmic Christ, we are not separate from Him. Here lies the basis for contemplative prayer. On this foundation we build a life of prayer. To seek how to “pray always” is not necessary since this stream of love, is always flowing… We simply have to become aware of this constant Stream of Love.”
Fr. Charles Brandt
(b. Feb. 19, 1923 ~ d. Oct. 25, 2020)
Fr. Charles Brandt, first Catholic hermit priest in several hundred years
by Bruce Witzel ~ Oct. 29, 2020
Rev. Charles Brandt noted conservationist, hermit monk, and priest of the Diocese of Victoria, died in the early hours of Sunday, October 25. A spiritual guide and inspiration to many beyond the Catholic Church, Charles was in the North Island Hospital in Comox Valley at the time of his death from pneumonia. He was in his 97th year.
Father Brandt lived for nearly five decades at his forested hermitage next to Oyster River. In 2019, those 27 acres were put into a permanent land conservancy and Charles has bequeathed the property to the Comox Valley Regional District for use as a public park. An active contemplative person of prayer who has concern for the Sacred Commons will live in the hermitage to follow in Charles’ footsteps.
Brandt was the sole surviving member of a unique hermit community originally established in 1964 near the Tsolum River in Merville, B.C. Bishop Remi De Roo ordained Brandt in 1966 as the first hermit priest in several hundred years within the Roman Catholic Church. This eremitical tradition had fallen into disuse in western churches after the Reformation and was reconstituted through later reforms of the Second Vatican Council 1962-65, in which a young Remi De Roo participated.
Brandt was in communication with world-famous Trappist monk and author, Thomas Merton, about joining the community on Vancouver Island in 1968 at the time of Merton’s death. Brandt had originally entered monastic life as a Trappist at New Melleray, Iowa.
Brandt earned his keep as an art and paper conservationist by setting up a special lab at his hermitage. He gained world renown for restoring many historical books like The Nuremberg Chronicles printed in 1493, many older bibles, and one of the original books of The Audubon Series.
Fr. Charles outside the hermitage book lab ~ December 20,2018 ~ George Le Masurier photo
He taught Christian meditation practice at the hermitage and led other retreats, inspiring many people over the decades. He occasionally filled in as a parish priest in The Comox Valley and Campbell River.
Father Brandt rose at 3 AM to meditate, read psalms and practice daily liturgy. During early hours, he often meandered into nature to observe birds and wildlife and to take photographs. In his book Self and Environment, he describes this walking meditation as a time when “Every atom of my being is present to every atom in the universe, and they to it.”
The lane to the hermitage ~ November 1, 2017 ~ Charles Brandt photo
In later years, Brandt was much celebrated in public ways which included media profiles and reports on his pioneer environmental work. He is credited with heading up efforts that saved the Tsolum and Oyster Rivers from industrial degradation.
His stature as a spiritual teacher as well as his whole legendary reputation as someone who integrated spirituality with ecology will live on after him in the lives and efforts of the many people he directly inspired.
Fr. Charles is survived by his sister-in-law, Wanda Brandt, and numerous nephews, nieces and their children and grandchildren in the Kansas City area and around the United States. He was predeceased by his parents, Anna (nee Bridges) and Alvin Brandt, brothers Frank and Chet, and sisters Frances, Mary and Ella.
Donations in remembrance of Charles can be made to St. Andrews Cathedral in Victoria, the Tsolum River Restoration Society, Comox Valley Nature Society, the Oyster River Enhancement Society or the Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society.
The small funeral mass was held at St. Patrick’s Church in Campbell River on Friday, October 30th, officiated Bishop Gary Gordon.
“Well done, good and faithful servant.”
At the Abbey of New Melleray, 1959 – brother Charles with his sister Ella , his mother Anna, and niece and nephew.
“Nothing has ever been said about God that hasn’t already
been said better by the wind in the pine trees.”