I’ve always been fascinated by smoke. Whether from a campfire, the censer at mass, or curling from a warm pipe (as in the classic tobacco pipe and not some monstrous, abstract glass leviathan that lurks in the back room of some “head shop”). The slow rise into the air transforms the typical quick mental state into one of meditation and reflection. Campfires have lessened in popularity, because fewer people seem to enjoy the outdoors much less than in generations past, casually tell stories to family members and friends, or, God forbid, communicate outside of texting in the electronic world.
Incense at Mass is used fairly infrequently, but I do have to say I’ve seen the use of it more in the last two years than in years previous. (A good sign, I would say.) Last of all, you rarely see anyone smoke a pipe. It was certainly common place through the 1940’s and 50’s but was on a steady decline until recently.
My dad smokes a pipe, and I think there is where my interest started. I remember spending time in my dad’s study while he watched sports or even played Battleship with me. He was usually puffing on his pipe, and I could always tell a change in his demeanor while he smoked. He seemed to take a slightly more wizened look, and his decisions were certainly not rushed (and neither were his answers to my inane questions).
When life is propelling us forward at such an extreme rate, what could possibly be an allure of something quite simple as a piece of briar with rubber or plastic attached to it? I think many men are becoming counter cultural in the sense that the propulsion forward is reaching a point of backlash. Push me to make a decision? You will have to wait until I finish my pipe (which could be hours).
I’ve read an anecdote in the past that seems to put this into perspective. Two businessmen are in negotiations over the price of a sale. The man behind the desk receives the other man’s counter offer to his original offer. He tells him that “he must think this proposition over.” He reaches into his desk, grabs his pipe, and begins to load it and light it in silence. After a few minutes the other man cannot bear the silence and relents to the original offer.
This illustrates perfectly the point to which we have come in our society. Certainly there are decisions that must be made quickly, but they are few and far between. Most decisions now fall into the category of instant gratification. This has reduced our capacity to slow down and be deliberate. What does this have to do with smoke? As I sit and contemplate in my garage, the smoke that issues forth from my pipe is exactly the slowing down that I need. This is the state of mind that allows one to concentrate on something of importance. As my smoke rises higher, so do my thoughts and prayers, ever so gently riding the currents of air until they have disappeared in the heavens.
We can debate and argue the effects of smoking a pipe until we’re blue in the face, but that is certainly not the point of these words. The point is that we all should search out that one hobby, place or action that elevates the mind to higher things just as smoke rises to heaven. I have found a lot of wisdom in the act of smoking a pipe. Each time I have finished, I knock the ashes from my pipe and think frequently of the line that we hear during the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday: “ashes to ashes, dust to dust, as dust you shall return.”
It is not a tone of depression in which I think of these words, but rather is one of comparison with my life. Am I living my life by bringing the fragrance of Christ to those around me, or am I merely stinking up the room with my own presence? Unfortunately I tend to do the latter if I am not careful with my words and actions. Once again this slowing down, drawing deliberate puffs of smoke and allowing myself the simple pleasure of following the streams heavenward certainly produces a quieting effect in my heart and soul. It may sound slightly curmudgeon only to find such satisfaction in something so archaic, but when the electricity goes out at least the glow of my pipe will not.
In the end it should behoove us to find that hobby or contemplative action that raises our “smoke” to heaven whether real or figurative. Work towards a contemplative mindset that pushes you into action when the time arises. Just as the action of smoking a pipe requires attention so that your pipe does not go out we are called to constantly set our soul ablaze with the thoughts of Christ so that it spurs us into action in our daily lives. For if the light in our soul goes out so does the sweet smoke of sacrifice in our hearts.