I encourage those who smoke to light a cigar in solitude or with a band of brothers. Recite a poem out loud or in the confines of your soul. Rejoice, reflect, and ponder over the mystery of our faith in Jesus Christ.
A weapon of choice in turbulent times,
since the era of the ships of the line;
tried and tested in fields of war,
the perfect medicine to numb the sight of human gore.
The smoke it produces – a sweet fragrance,
similar to that of the finest incense;
not too strong, nor too weak
allows the mind to reach its intellectual peak.
When smoked in the presence of other men,
a spirit of brotherhood is kindled amongst fellow brethren.
No finer way to spend one’s leisure
the source of man’s greatest pleasure.
These are the words I composed during the late hours of the night while standing deck watch on a United States warship. The deck watches, which last eight hours per day, were often long, dreary, and uneventful. When the job of a bridge watchstander entails scanning the horizon in a constant manner while safely navigating the ship, the watchstander is left only with one’s imagination to exercise some sanity. As you can tell, writing poetry, or at least the mere thought of it, was how I used my imagination to fill my mind and soul on the high seas.
As a student, I was never interested in poetry, nor cigars as a matter of fact. These fine things in life never warranted my attention as a youth grappled with the immediacy of modern-consumerism and scandalous sensationalism. Time was something that I valued dearly—as all of us do—so endeavors which took a concentrated, albeit lengthy, amount of time were avoided at all costs.
Things, however, changed when I reported to my first ship as a brand new division officer, void of any experience or knowledge in the realm of leadership, seamanship, and navigation. The first year onboard was by far the most difficult period of my life to date: learning how to drive a warship, leading twenty-or-so enlisted men who were my age or seniors, and living on a ship far from the homey comforts of land for months on end. It was during this arduous time when I was reintroduced to cigars, and its benefits to the human soul, by my first commanding officer, Captain K.
To command a warship is no easy task and to have received the privilege of command at sea, which comes through the perfect completion of all prior qualification milestones, is no easier. There were many days, full of inconvenient surprises and operational dilemmas, where Captain K. would walk out to the bridge wing and puff on a cigar. He stared off to the horizon, not showing the slightest attention, with the exceptional mandatory report, as if he was transported to a supernatural realm. It was a collection of these moments when the truth dawned on me that tobacco, in the form of a cigar, served as his refuge from the trials of everyday affairs, as it does for me now.
In a much dated First Things essay titled “Tobacco and the Soul,” Professor Michael Foley illustrates mankind’s centuries-old fascination with tobacco and its relationship to the human spirit. The subject of the soul and Plato’s interpretation of it—as divided into the appetitive, spirited, and rational—corresponds to the three most popular methods of smoking tobacco: cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. He makes the distinction that cigars correspond to the spirited part of the soul as he writes, “This explains their traditional popularity among men seeking honor or reputation—politicians, executives, etc. The reason for this correspondence can be found in the similarity between cigars and ambition. A cigar is visually impressive: with its large size and great billows of smoke, it often leaves a greater impact on the spectator than on the smoker.”
I do not disagree with the author’s philosophical definition of the cigar per se (just look to Winston Churchill, Ulysses S. Grant, and Douglas MacArthur), but rather his lack of attributing the contemplative and rational nature of tobacco to cigars as he does for pipes. In the same essay, Professor Foley writes, “Unlike cigars and cigarettes, a pipe endures. Similarly, the questions of the philosopher far outlast the passing concerns of physical desires on the one hand and human ambitions on the other.” Herein lies the fallacy: he makes the judgement that the cigar smoker is incapable of philosophizing or serious intellectual thought as he is solely concerned about the pursuits of human glory and self-achievement.
Renowned composer Franz Liszt, who wrote more than seven-hundred compositions by the time of his death, never traveled without a box of cigars on hand. He is claimed to have once said, “A good Cuban cigar closes the door to the vulgarities of the world.” For Franz, the silence of the surrounding environment and the rich, leathery aroma associated with smoking cigars provided his soul the creative ingenuity to compose sublime musical pieces. This introspective mindset, always in pursuit of harmonious perfection, was in opposition to the rambunctious world he lived in. When asked about the cultural impact of the cigar, lesser-known San Francisco financier Steve Worthington said, “A handmade cigar is a rebellion against frenzy and insanity; it means supporting contemplation over rash impulse, and represents a civilized revolution.”
As my poem suggests, cigars not only foster thinking and contemplation, but a sense of brotherhood amongst those gathered to smoke. I recall the numerous Sundays while on deployment, absent of any spiritual communion, where men and women of all ranks assembled outside the skin of the ship to enjoy a smoke. The hour in company served as a time of solidarity and friendship amidst the daily grind of life at sea. Laughter abounded, speech was undeterred, and spirits were afloat. On one of these occasions, I shared a cigar with a brand new recruit who struggled with his personal confidence and Christian faith. We talked until the nub of the cigar was approached and upon the conclusion of our conversation, he confessed that he ought to rediscover his faith. Never did I fathom that cigars were an avenue for spiritual grace.
As we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, I encourage those who smoke to light a cigar in solitude or with a band of brothers. Recite the poem out loud or in the confines of your soul. Rejoice, reflect, and ponder over the mystery of our faith. And of course, share this poem with your fellow brothers and sisters who appreciate the fine things in life that God has generously granted to us, mere sinners in search of a savior.
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The featured image is Portrait of a Man Smoking a Cigar by Géza Kukán (1890-1934) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.