Friday, August 14, 2015

Holy Smoke

According to one anecdote, two American journalists visited GK Chesterton in one day. At the beginning of the first interview, the portly journalist opened his box of cigars, took one out, lit it, drew on it, and offered another to his counterpart. "No," he replied. "I will not have such a filthy habit." Chesterton repeated his hospitality during the second journalist's visit. This time the journalist sheepishly said, "I see we both share this habit."

Am I a smoker? Perhaps, but not quite. I enjoy a few cigars a month, usually after the Sunday liturgy and breakfast. "J" has a similar routine with his pipe. A cigar enjoyed properly is not unlike wine: the producer perfects growing and nurtures a crop; the fruits of labor are fermented and stored for years; the assembly is a handed down art rather than a science; and one enjoys it for the flavors, not the chemical effect. Cigar crafting is a special skill handed down from one roller to another. Before the revolution, the great cigar makers of Cuba were run by families in a fashion similar to the esteemed vintners of France. One does not inhale cigar smoke. A draw populates the mouth with a waft of rich smoke that should drift out like incense from a thurible, leaving behind a progressively simpler array of tastes on the palate. A cigar is also a social event, a reason for friends to gather round with a drink and revel in committing the two great sins against the Baptist religion.... Which is why the puritanical American outlook on all smoking is annoying.

The occasional cigar smoker and pipe smoker (defined statistically as someone who smokes less than once a day) is constantly lumped with those chemical addicted fiends, dragging everyone ounce of burning tar into their decaying lungs at $6 a pack. The cigarette smokers. No, they are not bad people, but cigarettes, unlike other manners of smoking, do actually cause addiction, and because of they way they are consumed, they are highly correlated with a great many ailments. To most Americans, it is all the same filthy habit. By syllogy, the alcoholism of a lush getting smashed on $10 a bottle "vodka" necessarily condemns those who would have Chateau Rayas.

This attitude has found its way into the hearts of many American Catholics. Go to "Catholic Answers Forum" (no, don't.... ever) and ask about smoking. Some will say it is suicide incarnate and hence a mortal sin. Others will insist that since Ss. Pius X and John Bosco were tobacco users, that it was not sinful then, before the health effects of smoking were known, but that it is a sin now. 

Snuff was popular among wealthy clergy. Benedict XIII, Benedict XIV Lambertini, and Pius IX all enjoyed a hint of nasal stimulation. Snuff became so popular that papal edicts against the presence of snuff boxes on the altar were needed. Recent John XXIII and Benedict XVI were cigarette smokers. Pius X and XI liked cigars, although Pius X had a stronger penchant for cigarettes (one account of him in the sacristy, atop the sedia gestatoria with tiara and all, has him puffing furiously before Mass with a deacon holding an ash tray for him). Smoking was allowed during Mass at St. Peter's basilica to avoid the migration of men in and out of the temple. Then came American Catholicism.

Some compassion is due to cigarette smokers. The government attempts to tax their behavior and redirect it towards healthier activities. But cigarette smoking—most common among blue collar, lower income Americans—is usually an addiction, which effectively punishes people for their poverty. The behavior is inelastic relative to the taxation, and Uncle Sam knows it.

Still, to those who would damn we cigar and pipe puffers, either with the cigarette crowd or on our own, I say that we have Tolkien, Waugh, Belloc, Chesterton, Pius X, Russell Kirk, and Bill Buckley on our side. The puritans are blowing a distinctly different sort of smoke out a distinctly different place.


  1. Even the bravest of men tremble when entering the Catholic Answers Forum!

    1. I've considered signing up just to see how long it would take me to get banned.

    2. Ecclesial,

      The forum is a complete joke so consider it an honor if you get banned.

  2. "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man: but what cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man." The pleasures of pipe weed are unknowable to the puritanical of heart. There are similar scrupulous souls who would prefer a body never to enjoy the pleasures of chocolate or a good beer. Unhealthiness (so called) is equated with sin, and must be expunged. We strain out the gnat of tobacco and swallow the camel of calumny.

    The CA forum site is useful for a good laugh now and then. Here is a prayer someone posted to help others stop smoking:

    Prayer to Halt Smoking

    O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.

    Through the grace of your purity, may this unclean habit cease.

    From the stench of smoke, the foul taste in our mouths, the stains on our hands and teeth, Pray for us.

    From coughing and phlegm, from polluted blood, from heart and lung disease, Pray for us.

    From habit and slavery, Pray for us.

    From tension, fear, and anxiety, Pray for us.

    For health and calm and peace, Pray for us.

    Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that, by Christ redeemed, we choose to live in purity.


    Note the poor construction: the lines that should clearly be ending with "Deliver us, Lord" end instead with "Pray for us." Smoking is called "unclean," and the choice to avoid it is equated with "purity," both indicators of conflating spiritual cleanness with physical spotlessness. In other words, this is exactly one of the errors of the Pharisees.

    "For from the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies. These are the things that defile a man. But to eat with unwashed hands doth not defile a man."

    1. I think I may just take up pipe smoking. The smell is more pleasant than that of cigars and it looks to be stronger than hookah (an Islamic habit, I know, but a pleasant one... like coffee). Tolkein seems to have enjoyed it enough.

      As for beer...

  3. My father, an avid pipe smoker (as am I), wrote this little article on pipe smoking years ago:;wap2

    1. What a sensible man! I agree particularly about the magical quality of unassuming tobacconists. The ones with TVs, music, and drinks on hand usually are "hang outs" and have poor humidification. The one I usually visit has no thrills, the cigars are always in great condition, they know my name and what I like, and sell excellent wine by the bottle, too.

  4. Your father was and is a prophet :)


  5. but do you even vape bro? like seriously?

  6. And cigarettes? I know Popes smoked those as well. I love me a good Japanese Lucky Strike

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