Historian and novelist Shelby Foote, one of the better known pipe smokers of the last century, was once told by his medical doctor that he would have to give up cigarettes and pipe smoking. He told the doctor he would quit cigarettes but he wasn’t about to give up his pipe. According to Mr. Foote, giving up the pipe would be like forfeiting part of his identity. That’s the way I feel about it, too.
Why do people, usually intellectually inclined gentlemen, decide to take up pipe smoking? It’s a simple yet profoundly significant question. And how one answers it can tell us much about that person’s approach to the pipe. Dr. Michael P. Foley, an accomplished scholar with a PhD in theology, has written some of the most profound insights about this question of why gentlemen take up the pipe. For Foley, the pipe must be understood in terms of its “relation to the soul.” Foley hit the nail on the head when he claimed that, unlike cigarettes and cigars, “the pipe endures.” Foley concluded, “Finally, the effect that the pipe has on others is analogous to the effect of philosophizing: the sweet fragrance of a pipe, like good philosophy, is a blessing to all who are near.” (Foley, Tobacco and the Soul, First Things Magazine, April 1997)
We can all agree that smoking a pipe offers a flavorful, relaxing, and interesting experience. For me, however, it’s a tangible and realistic way of saying NO to the onward rush of modern time as we march into a way of life that I am not comfortable with. I am not at ease with a way of life that seeks change at every opportunity, especially when there is no logical reason for it. I am not in favor of the leveling of local culture and the rise of a homogenized society that looks the same from coast to coast. I find it troubling that most people around me erroneously believe that nothing mattered before the current, living generations came to be. Little attention is given to the past, to the accomplishments of the dead. With my pipe in hand, I can say to this hurried and misguided world of ignorance, stop, rethink what it means to live, and rediscover the significance of mind, heart, and spirit. Remember what it means to be human, a part of the Creation.
I also smoke a pipe because it helps me achieve something we have nearly lost in our time: leisure. By this I do not mean that a person does nothing when they are at leisure. On the contrary, a man at leisure has time to think, read, and consider issues and decisions that will shape the course of his future and that of his family. Leisure gives us a chance to grow in our knowledge of things through reading, contemplation, and prayer. When I sit down for a pipe, I am not trying to satisfy a nicotine addiction. I am rather wanting a chance to sit quietly and think through several matters. It may be an issue as simple as gathering my thoughts about a new tobacco blend, or maybe I want to sit and reflect on rather mundane topics, such as how many gallons of milk my cows are giving this week compared to last week. Or, there may be a pressing concern in the family that warrants serious contemplation prior to action. The point is that when I enjoy a pipe, the goal is never to sit idly as a vegetable without thought or emotion. When smoking a pipe, I am at work in mind and spirit, wrestling with the vicissitudes of daily life and celebrating the Shepherd who guides me through it all.