Natural Life Magazine

The Birds of Simplicity - A Visit from Saint Francis

The Birds of Simplicity -
A Visit from Saint Francis
By Gene Sager

One clear Sunday morning, I called my neighbor and friend Sam, readying him to go with me to mass at Saint Francis Church. By the time I picked him up he had a new plan for worship: “Let’s go to the temple of the pagan green goddess, Our Lady of the Immaculate Cappuccino.” I acquiesced to his poor humor and drove to the Starbucks adjacent to the church.

Our favorite barista served us her hangover special: two tall hammerheads. Naughty Catholics that we were, this time we chose the green goddess over Catholic mass and settled into two muffins and two hammers at an outside table. It was our wont to discuss contemporary spiritual and social problems and even act on our convictions as when we campaigned to ban plastic carryout grocery bags. Mostly, we were “all talk” and Sam again mocked us that morning by raising his paper cup: “Here’s to saving the world!”

Saint Francis of Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi was a Franciscan monk who was made a Roman Catholic saint after his death in 1226. He is considered the patron saint of animals and ecology.
I glanced guiltily at the church parking lot and did a double take; standing by the church was a man wearing a Franciscan habit. Sam and I were curious because there were no monks assigned to our parish at that time. We walked across the street and asked him if he was going to mass. He said, “I am Francesco Bernardone and I am looking for Sweet Sister Simplicity.” We were caught off guard by this and I only responded with, “Uhh...really.” Francesco went on, “She is not here. It’s a building and much cement and cars, big cars, and no place for the birds.” Sam and I shared a knowing glance about what to do. We wanted to know what he meant by “Sister Simplicity” and what is this important disconnect between cement and simplicity.

We stopped by for another green goddess coffee. Francis (we preferred to call him Francis) declined the coffee but observed that everyone sitting at tables was drinking from paper cups with brown paper sleeves. With a bemused look he said, “A ceramic mug is simpler; it can be used a thousand times.” To explain the situation, Sam and I commenced with corporate-sounding words like “customer options,” “state sanitation laws,” “recycling,” and “29 percent post consumer material.” But spoken to Francis, these words felt like an elaborate cover up and “recycling” like fake green or green sheen. (“Green sheen” is an action or product which in context gives the appearance of environmental friendliness but actually functions to cover up unfriendly procedures.) Clearly, we needed more time to talk with him and dig more deeply into these matters. The latte machine was making a terrible racket so we invited him to my house where we could sit back and pick his brain, or I should say his soul. I daresay we learned to know Sweet Sister Simplicity that day. Francis’ way of simplicity is deeper and broader than the mere “minimalism” that passes for a definition of simplicity nowadays.

Off the streets and sitting on a bench among the trees of the small grove near my house, Francis rightly remarked that we were breathing easier in this urban Nature. He said that in the silence of Nature sounds our minds can flow smoothly. Even if our lives are filled with many issues of family, finance, and much more, in this setting our minds are not cluttered and we are not stressed. When we are open to the natural environment, problems are less problematic. As Francis put it, everything has its place and simply flows along. This ease and clarity is an internal quality of simplicity. Simplicity is not just spending less and owning less – not just quantity issues. For Francis, Sweet Sister Simplicity begins with a spiritual quality engendered by presence in Nature. Now we could see the connection between Nature and simplicity and the disconnection between cement and simplicity.

Sam, always ready with a critical comment, declared: “We are not in a natural environment; we are sitting here on a bench, Gene’s house partially in view, my house a stone’s throw away, and in a city of 50,000 people.” Sam’s thinking reflected the common “back to Nature” view, which images Nature as non-urban, wild, or a wilderness, and exemplified by the national parks. An October 2016 National Geographic magazine article had further engrained in our minds the idea that experiencing Nature requires getting out of the city and into the national parks.

Francis was helping us benefit from a piece of urban Nature but Sam was sadly caught up in what I call the “wild Nature myth.” The myth perpetuates a lose-lose situation: It fails to appreciate and benefit from urban Nature, and in making non-urban or wild Nature the epitome of the natural environment, it sets it too far apart from our everyday lives. It segregates Nature. For Sam and me, for example, it is 20 miles through traffic to get the experience of “wild Nature.” For most of us, wild Nature is an infrequent experience.

Next, we popped over to Sam’s house to grab some snacks. Francis was amazed by the size of the car in Sam’s driveway – an extravagant monster car for a family of three with no dog and no soccer mom. I explained to Francis that SUVs are currently a popular type of vehicle, even though they are trucks which guzzle gas. Sam hastened to point out the green emblem on the back: “Hybrid,” he said, in a “gotcha” tone. Francis said in a firm but quiet voice, “This car is not simple; it uses too many resources from Mother Nature. Its green emblem is just a ‘green sheen’.”

I hustled us into Sam’s kitchen where we met Sam’s daughter who was home for break from UCLA. Having overheard talk about natural resources, she was anxious to tell us what she thought was most important. She said that if we were really concerned about resources, we should stop eating meat. Her professor’s research had shown that meat production has a huge impact on the environment – so huge that comparisons boggle the mind. Switching from normal meat consumption to a vegetarian diet has a far greater positive impact on the environment than switching from a “normal” SUV to a hybrid sedan.

She related how complicated meat production is: The industry uses enormous quantities of natural resources to feed, slaughter, process, and freeze/cool the product. It takes ten times more resources to produce a pound of beef than it takes to produce a pound of soybeans. A vegetarian diet is a simpler diet. Francis was impressed with all of this and especially by the passion and sincerity of this young woman. Now he was ready to return to the grove.

Breathing easier back in the grove, we enjoyed the snacks Sam brought – red wine and crackers. Francis raised his glass in thanks to Mother Nature, for she nurtures Sweet Sister Simplicity. Francis had been firm but gentle in teaching us many lessons. He had one more message to leave us: I believe he said we need “visceral gratitude,” not “virtual gratitude.”

Back in college I had learned that “Eucharist” means “gratitude” or “thanksgiving.” Was Francis celebrating mass here in this urban Nature, using Charles Shaw merlot and Triscuit? He pointed to the blue jays in the trees and pronounced words familiar to us about God taking care of the birds. Our attention was drawn to the blue jays, and when we turned back to him he was walking away through the trees. We watched him go. We knew we should not call him back.

Gene 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. Saint Francis has appeared in a number of his articles in Natural Life Magazine, including this one about cell phones, this one about deep car culture, this one about shopping malls, and this one about dishwashers. 


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