Saturday, 7 March 2015


What! Me give up my faithful friend of fifty years and more! Unthinkable! But that’s just what I’ve done. I’ve given up smoking my beloved pipe! This friend brought me so much joy, was there to comfort me when times were bleak, and then came to my rescue when I was in need of inspiration. When asked an awkward question I would start filling up my pipe –that gave me time to think up an answer. Pipe-less, I no longer have that line of defence.
I kidded myself that my pipe kept me peaceful and tolerable to live with. I was prepared to sacrifice my lungs for the sake of my community! For the sake of a tranquil puff I became the master of self-deception. But I have a good precedent. There was a fellow pipe-lover in one of my communities. He decided to give up his pipe for Lent –a heroic sacrifice. But after a short while he became so irritable, we implored him to get back to his pipe and give us some peace. We even bought him his favourite tobacco.
My love affair with my pipe began 60 years ago. As a Rite of Passage to manhood Dad solemnly presented each of us lads with a pipe, and initiated us into the arcane science of filling and lighting it. One brand urged us to ‘tease’ the surface before applying a match –never a petrol-lighter. Have you ever tried teasing tobacco? People many times, certainly! Tobacco?
In those days of seeming innocence smoking was more than acceptable; it was expected. Women even said they liked the smell of pipe tobacco! Certain brands were supposed to make us men irresistible to women. I tried them all and they didn’t work! Puffing away was supposed to make us look thoughtful, even intelligent.
In those days there was no scare about the about the damage I could do to my own health; no one had ever heard of ‘passive smoking,’ and the harm that could do. So, for over half a century of blissfully ignorance I puffed away at my beloved pipe. But then, alarm bells were sounded. Medical research had proved smoking could kill, not only the smoker, but also those around him. I myself, of course, was impervious to such hazards! So unconcerned I blithely puffed away. True I did make half-hearted attempts to stop, but failed dismally. That was on the day I threw my pipes and tobacco into the incinerator. That made me feel strong willed and decisive.  But I proved to be a short-lived hero when I simply had to rush out and re-equip myself at the tea interval of a Test Match in which England was being thrashed by Australia. Weak old me needed the comfort of my pipe!
But circumstances, not a strong will, forced me and my pipe to part company. A fortnight in hospital with viral pneumonia put an end to what I thought had been a beautiful friendship. What had been a comfort and joy had seriously damaged my health and had caused me great distress in hospital. Years of smoking had given me chronic emphysema. The decision to quit was forced upon me .
From the cold ashes of my pipe-smoking I was able salvage something positive, as I bid a sad farewell to  my good and comforting friend –my pipe.  My sense of taste and smell had remarkably improved. And that, I realised is why expert wine tasters don’t smoke. Nor, for that matter, do they eat pickled onions or a strong curry while drinking a good wine. Instead they prefer to cultivate a sensitive palate by foregoing the joys of strongly flavoured food –or a pipe.
This got me thinking. What is it that damages my spiritual health and taste for the things of God? What are the dense clouds of tobacco smoke choking my life in the Spirit? We know bad company can easily lead us astray. Unsavoury books or similar material on the TV or Internet may be fascinating and exciting. But they can lead us to developing a taste for this kind of thing. If so, it’s likely that our palate will become jaded for the things of God. The same’s true if we become obsessed with materialism or with sensual pleasures. Our hearts will be where we think our treasure is to be found. Gradually our palates –our minds –will become coarsened. As with years of smoking, we may not realise the harm were doing ourselves.
But if we give Him the chance, the Holy Spirit will help us gradually develop a taste for divine things. We will learn to savour them and enjoy them. As I’ve found with giving up my pipe, the sacrifice was worthwhile. My palate has become more sensitive and my health has improved. So too, it’s worthwhile giving up harmful delights if that helps me to savour the infinitely greater joy of what God has to offer. That’s nothing less than Himself. 
If you doubt it, listen to the psalmist who urges us, "O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him," [Ps. 34:8]. Just as giving up my pipe has helped me to have a better appreciation of food and drink, so, too, I must try to develop my taste for the things of God by being more discriminating in what I look at and how I spend my time. A good Lenten resolution for all of us!

Isidore Clarke O.P.


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