Saint Francis and the Deep
I do not believe in serendipity, but I cannot explain
why I awoke at an ungodly hour (or was it a godly hour?) last Sunday
morning. I brewed a strong cup of coffee and went out to catch the sunrise.
The dull roar from the nearby freeway had not yet begun. Such moments of
stillness had become all too scarce in my life.
The rising sun was too bright between the tangerine
trees, so I looked away for a moment. When I looked back, a monk was
standing in front of the trees. That must have been some strong coffee! The
monk came walking towards me, a Franciscan monk. To my questioning look, he
responded, “I am Francesco Bernardino. I am curious to what your life is
I told Saint Francis I could show him the place where
I work, the market where I shop for food, and the church where I go. He
quipped, “Perhaps I should go to church...I have not been to mass in 800
years.” As we set off down the freeway towards my workplace, Francis smiled
at the eight lanes and asked if this were not fit for airplanes. I told him
this freeway is usually filled with cars and trucks, sometimes stopped or
just creeping along to get from A to B. We face “carmageddon” at least twice
|Saint Francis of Assisi is
sometimes known as the patron saint of
Nature and the environment. Occasionally, he joins writer Gene
Sager in a quest to understand modern
“This is the college where I teach,” I said as we
drove into the nearly empty parking lot. “No classes on Sunday, but a few
local religious groups use some rooms for services.” Francis paid no mind to
the mention of religion but was fascinated, even bemused, by the vast
parking lots. I explained that almost everybody – students and staff –
drives solo to the college. “The college has more space allotted for cars
than for classrooms.”
We were parked right next to the college bus station,
so I had to admit that we have a special bus station and a station for the
“Sprinter” – a new, diesel passenger rail line. Since the Sprinter is one of
my pet topics, I added that a professor in our physics department has done
the math. He figured out the average cost of driving a mid-sized car to the
campus from an area where many of our students live, and compared it to
taking the Sprinter from that same location. There are two Sprinter stations
in that area. The detailed calculations show the Sprinter saves a student at
least $100.00 for the school year. Basically, it’s a matter of the cost of
the gas for the car as compared to the Sprinter fare. The college parking
permit fee was added to the cost of gas for the car, and the frequent-rider
pass discount was figured in, reducing the Sprinter fares.
“Is the train or bus not better for Sister Earth?”
said Francis. I knew the answer was “Yes” –provided that enough people ride
the train or bus. When well used, public transit has a smaller earth
footprint (using less resources and polluting less per rider). But I had to
tell Francis the sad fact: “Most Americans transport themselves solo, in gas
We left the college on that
sad note, and Francis added more embarrassing questions. “Why do the
students drive themselves solo in a car? It is a school to learn. Professor,
do they not learn to not waste?” I had a sudden impulse to punch him, but
one does not punch a saint. Besides, he spoke with such compassion and
Once on cruise control on the freeway, I calmed down
and tried to answer Francis’ questions. “Maybe public transit is not
feasible for some people. Let’s cut some slack for people who have no nearby
stations or stops at either end of their trip; and sometimes there are long
waits for transfers.” We do need more public transit lines and public
transit vehicles. Governments, from local to federal, need to shift more
support to public transit instead of subsidizing big car corporations.
Still, the stubborn reality remains: Most North Americans are caught up in
the “car culture.” It is mindless conformity to the ideas of independence,
hyperactivity, convenience, and speedy mobility. The single occupant car
represents these ideas, but I have to say, “How independent is mindless
|“We recited a serious litany of car culture costs. The personal
costs include, first of all, health and life itself, due to
accidents. Also, some of us use a car even when walking is feasible,
and this can contribute to health issues and Nature-deficit
disorder. After the cost of a car, including the interest, there is
the registration and license, smog checks, gas, and maintenance.
Environmental costs include the use of scarce natural resources,
noxious emissions, global warming, and oil spills. The carcasses of
all these vehicles – green or not – end up as unrecycled waste.
Other costs are parking fees, traffic hassles and stress, and searching for a parking spot. The spiritual costs include alienation and a deep sense of
My passenger remained quiet and pensive as we drove
to the church. I said, “It’s named after you: Saint Francis of Assisi
Catholic Church.” The parking lots were full. Church parking spills over
into the Bowling Center lot next door and the strip mall across the street.
We finally found a good shady parking spot behind the Bowling Center.
Francis sat gazing at the cars, mostly SUVs and luxury cars. “Are you
fixated on cars?” I said. Francis responded slowly: “Someone should think
upon these cars.”
“These are the cars of the people who go to my
church,” said Francis. “These expensive chariots are treasures on earth.” I
made no comment. He went on softly, “What if the pastor would say to the
members, “These cars are hurting God’s creation. Maybe we should think about
this and pray about this.” I told Francis that the priests don’t say such
things. There are published statement by Popes and bishops about protecting
creation, but the local priest is not likely to challenge the car culture.
“We are not taught to care about such things,” I said. After a long pause,
Saint Francis said, “We go to the market to buy bread and wine.” I was not
going to wag my finger at Francis and say, “You go to mass, you naughty
The food market where I shop
is considered to be a “health nut and tree hugger store.” It carries organic
food and gives a whopping big five cent discount for each cloth bag you
bring to use instead of their paper or plastic. But most of the produce is
from the big international food corporations. For example, mangoes from Peru
are shipped to LA and trucked to our tree-hugger store, a total of nearly
seven thousand kilometers.
The organic bell peppers are from Holland!
I was prepared to tell Francis that the store was
caught in the “shipping culture.” I was going to say I should think
cosmically and buy local products. But Francis was on a mission. He ignored
the cars and trucks and shipping issues and went straight into the store to
buy wine and baguettes of bread. We were out of there before I could
apologize for anything.
We arrived shortly at my home where Francis had
appeared to me at the beginning of our journey. Now he was bent on breaking
bread and “kicking back,” as he put it. We settled down in the gazebo among the
tangerine trees. He gave me a piece of bread and poured our wine. We raised
our glasses, and he said, “To Brother Sun and Sister Moon.” All this seemed
rather like the Communion or Eucharist we had missed when we went to
Time stopped for a spell as the bread and wine had
their way with us after a long day of running here and there. Finally,
Francis broke into the silence: “So, Brother Gene, why didn’t we go today in
the bus or train? We went in the car culture.” He was right, of course; we
went in the car culture. We were no wiser than the people we criticized on
our car culture journey. Francis and I let ourselves laugh at the irony of
our foolish ways.
Francis thoroughly enjoyed the true story of “the
cost of fitness.” Bobby, my son’s coworker, is a member of the fitness
center across the street from their office. He likes to go for a short
workout during the lunch hour. Instead of walking, Bobby drives his guzzling
car from the office lot to the fitness center. It is “so close” (his words)
that he drives over without his seat belt. The bottom line of the story is a
heavy ticket for a seat belt violation.
Saint Francis said he heard of a macho man celebrity
who harnessed the power of four hundred and fifteen horses to impress the
girls when he arrived for the debut of his latest movie. Francis went to
observe the spectacle but was disappointed. The macho man drove up in a
metal box with rubber wheels. It was called a “Mustang.” Francis let go a
peel of laughter and poured us another glass of wine. He declared that we
should think comically and correct our actions on all levels.
We recited a serious litany
of car culture costs. The personal costs include, first of all, health and
life itself, since auto accidents are the leading cause of accidental injury
and death in the United States. Also, some of us use a car even when walking
is feasible, and this can contribute to health issues and Nature-deficit
disorder. After the cost of a car, including the interest, there is the
registration and license, smog checks, gas, and maintenance. Environmental
costs include the use of scarce natural resources, noxious emissions, global
warming , and oil spills. Alternative fuels and plug-in cars are helpful but
no panacea; they still use natural resources. The carcasses of all these
vehicles – green or not – end up as unrecycled waste. Other costs are
parking fees, traffic hassles and stress, and searching for a parking spot.
The spiritual costs include alienation and a deep sense of ill-ease.
Saint Francis felt that spiritual costs are the most
important. He said our history is a series of alienations: One tribe
alienated from and excluded by another, women excluded and seen as second
rate, blacks and white alienated, Islamic peoples alienated from “the West,”
and so on. Some of these alienations have been partly overcome, so that we
can see each other as brothers and sisters – one family, in an expanding
circle of inclusion. But Nature is still excluded by the car culture; it is
to be used, abused, and excluded. Natural beings like air, water, and land
are not yet treated as our brothers and sisters.
If we alienate ourselves from
Nature, we inevitably feel estranged deep inside. We are part and parcel of
Nature, as Nature is of us. Thus, alienation from Nature means estrangement
from ourselves. Francis looked at me intently:
“Know yourself down deep,” he said.
Saint Francis treated me with
compassion, and never spoke in
a harsh tone. He had filled me with bread,
wine, and good humor – I had new insights, and most of all, new resolve to
do battle against the car culture and shipping culture. But he cautioned me,
“Many people who are caught up in these cultures are not mean, but only
asleep. Don’t accuse them, just wake them up.“ He looked at the horizon and
said, “And look at that sunset.”
I feasted my eyes on the colors, and when I
turned back, he had disappeared.
Gene C. Sager is Professor of
Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California. He is a
prolific and thoughtful writer on environmental and philosophical issues.
St. Francis has appeared in a number of other articles by Gene Sager about
modern life, including
this one about
one about cell phones.