There is a rhythm to pipe smoking, a ritual even, one that allows you, if you let it, to enter into a state of contemplation. You must pack the pipe first, and pack it well, else you will have an uneven smoke, causing the pipe either to burn out too quickly or not to stay lit. Then, once properly packed, you must light it. And this too is a ritual. The first light chars the tobacco on top, the second causes the ember to reside deep within the bowl. Once the ritual of packing and lighting is completed comes the smoking. This too must follow some kind of rhythm. Smoke too quickly and you may end up burning a hole through your pipe. Too slowly and you’ll constantly be relighting. But if you can find that sweet spot, that right rhythm, then you can puff away thoughtfully.
All of this ritual forces you to slow down take you out of the noise and distraction of the world. You cannot attend to many things while trying to pack and light a pipe. And while you can attend to many things while smoking, the ideal circumstance is one where after the process of packing and lighting has slowed you down, your mind stays in that contemplative space. You can stare off into the middle-distance and think, or even just be, focusing on nothing but the rhythm of your breathing, stopping occasionally to tamp down the ashes.
It is this pace and this practice that makes pipe smoking a welcome companion to contemplation. From smartphones to television to the passing of planes, trains, and automobiles, it is difficult in our modern world to find leisure time and space. Yet leisure is a necessary part of flourishing. Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper makes this argument pointedly in his book, Leisure the Basis of Culture (Liberty Fund). Pieper argues that leisure is a step beyond the via activa, or active life. Instead, he says, leisure is related to, perhaps even a kind of, contemplation:
“Like the gift for contemplative absorption in things that are, and like the capacity of the spirit to soar in festive celebration, the power to know leisure is the power to overstep the boundaries of the workaday world and reach out to the superhuman, life-giving, existential forces that refresh and renew us before we turn back to our daily work.”
Leisure, then, like contemplation, is something done for its own ends. Good may certainly come from leisure, but that’s not why we pursue leisure time. A contemplative may have visions, but to have visions is no reason to become a contemplative.
Pieper goes on to argue that true acts of leisure allow for a deepened relationship with God. At the heart of leisure is celebration, and at the heart of celebration is divine worship. And, of course, the ultimate example of divine worship (which is also a festal celebration) is the Eucharist. It’s not that every time you sit down to enjoy a good book, or smoke a pipe, you must be thinking about God. But God is already there whether you think divine thoughts or no, and God joins to you in new ways through mindful leisure.
When I smoke, I shuffle outside to our decrepit shed, which feels like a strong burst of wind would knock it over, turn on the light, and sit. There’s even a ritualistic aspect to my clothing: if it’s cold outside, I wrap myself up in a warm topcoat, a wool scarf, and a flat cap before heading outside. Once situated, I set down my pipe, tobacco, matches, and tamper on a wobbly counter. Slowly, I pinch the tobacco out of the jar, place in the pipe and lightly tamp it down. I do this again, but a little harder. For a third time I pinch the tobacco, place it in the pipe and tamp it down, even harder this time. I check the draw to make sure there are no blockages. Now it’s time to light.
I strike a match, wait to see it light, place the pipe in my mouth, and begin to char the tobacco on top. I draw on the pipe as the flame reaches down into the bowl drawing the ember, core to the center. Smoke rises. The art, for it is an art, of smoking a pipe is how I find the leisure Pieper talks about and fall into contemplation. It slows me down, helps me remember that time itself does not belong to work.
It does not take much for someone to move from the leisure of smoking a pipe to thinking more deeply, or so I have found it. Many of the great writers of the modern era, whether of fiction or theology, were often well-known for their use of pipe tobacco. Tolkien loved the practice so much that despite tobacco being a new world plant, he allowed to exist in the ancient European landscape of Middle Earth. Think too of how the hobbits used it, as a leisure activity, one of games (smoke rings), and quiet chat or storytelling. All of this is made possible by the forced slowing down that comes with smoking a pipe.
Image: Josh Rocklage on Unsplash