Saturday, February 29, 2020

Lent 2020: The Myth of the "Pretty Good Person"

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

That's the Jesus Prayer, a very simple plea that the Orthodox use in imitation of the tax collector who, in the presence of the righteous Pharisee, bowed his head and struck his breast, acknowledging his sinfulness and humbly asking for God's mercy. Many Orthodox will repeat that simple prayer over and over throughout the day, like a mantra, keeping track of their recitations on a prayer rope.

In our readings today, Jesus reminds those same Pharisees that he came not to save the righteous but sinners. And while I might be critical of many who practice Christianity but don't act Christ-like, I acknowledge my own shortcomings as well. I fall into fear and despair too easily. I succumb to gluttony, both in food and in material things. And in a land of plenty, I think my biggest fault is not sharing as freely of my means as I could with the poor and needy. We are all, in fact, at fault if we aren't prepared to give up all we have and follow Jesus. The young rich man couldn't do it and walked away in sadness from Christ. Could we, if asked? Do we feel a sting of guilt when we encounter the following challenge put forth by St. Basil the Great?
When someone steals another's clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who would clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money you hoard up belongs to the poor.
We are all guilty before God in this regard. Let none of us think we are righteous and pure.

Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble had this to say on the matter in today's Remember Your Death entry:
We rationalize our sins thinking, "Oh, that was pretty minor. I don't think that was a big deal." We evaluate ourselves against other people and think, "I'm not that bad. I mean, comparatively, I think I'm a pretty good person." 
Meanwhile confessionals remain dusty as we all die of the terminal illness of being a "pretty good person." The scourge of our modern age is the widespread acceptance of the "pretty good person" ideal. First, because the bar of goodness is set extremely low. Serious sins are batted away with the roll of an eye and venial sins are either completely ignored or elevated to primary importance, and second, because to be a "pretty good person" is not the same as striving to live a virtuous life. Valuing virtue has all but disappeared, dismissed as unrealistic, impossible. Instead, we eagerly embrace mediocrity without realizing how easily a "pretty good person" can fall into wretched evil. 
As we saw in yesterday's reading from Isaiah, God looks favorably on those who carry out justice for the poor and needy. Today, he tells us again:
Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring. 
We cry out for God's mercy and favor. Over and over, he shows us how to receive it. The question is whether we're up for the challenge.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Lent 2020: Look at Me! Look at Me!

At Ash Wednesday Mass, our priest got a good chuckle out of the congregation when he talked about our fasting. Catholics are asked to fast on two days during Lent -- Ash Wednesday, at the beginning, and Good Friday, near the end -- and also to refrain from eating red meat on all Fridays. Our Gospel reading on Ash Wednesday had Jesus telling his followers not to make a public spectacle of their fasting and praying, like the hypocrites do, expecting praise for their actions. So what you don't want to do, Father told us, is to go about your day doubled over in misery, and when someone asks you what's wrong, you answer, breathlessly, "I'm Catholic ... fasting ... don't know if I'm gonna make it."

Fasting, in the words of St. Symeon the New Theologian, is an action that, when performed in the proper spirit, "penetrates and softens hardness of heart." If there's no effort at transformation, there's no point. As Sirach 34:26 states, "A man who fasts for his sins, but then goes and commits them again: Who will hear his prayer, and what has he gained by his mortification?"

Sacrifice for its own sake is all well and good, but does it change who we are, or are we only trying to appease God, in hopes he might have mercy on us? As God tells us in Psalm 50:
I have no complaint about your sacrifices or the burnt offerings you constantly offer.
But I do not need the bulls from your barns or the goats from your pens.
For all the animals of the forest are mine, and I own the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird on the mountains, and all the animals of the field are mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for all the world is mine and everything in it.
Do I eat the meat of bulls? Do I drink the blood of goats?
Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God, and keep the vows you made to the Most High.
Then call on me when you are in trouble, and I will rescue you, and you will give me glory.
God already owns the animals that the faithful placed on the altar. The point was never to appease God with meat he wouldn't eat, but to sacrifice something of value to the owner, and in turn to soften the giver's heart, to open the giver to the potential for change that a personally significant sacrifice might stir in his or her heart.

The goal is to humble ourselves so that we might carry out God's will. And what is God's will? Christ reminded us all the time during his ministry that we are to love God and neighbor -- and that, more than anything, takes the form of caring for God's children who are most in need. We see it in today's first reading, from Chapter 58 of Isaiah:
Tell my people Israel of their sins! Yet they act so pious. They come to the temple every day and seem delighted to learn all about me. They act like a righteous nation that would never abandon the laws of God. They ask me to take action on their behalf, pretending they want to be near me. "We have fasted before you!" they say. "Why aren't you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves. and you don't even notice it?"
That's where the words of our priest from Ash Wednesday ring out. "Look what I'm doing by fasting! Surely this will score me some God points." It's no different from when the pious Pharisee stood in the temple and proclaimed to all who could hear how holy he was, and how much he gave to the temple, and thanked God that he wasn't a lowly sinner like the tax collector who stood behind him.

Our passage from Isaiah goes on, as God sets the people straight:
"I will tell you why!" I respond. "It's because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what they call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord?"  
"No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your Godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will answer." 
The best fast we can undertake, in other words, is to fast from injustice and oppression. To be the hands and feet of the merciful Christ in this world. More to the point: Fasting that doesn't incorporate social justice is useless.

When we see self-proclaimed Christians lamenting the corrupt state of the world on one hand, but sneering at the poor and needy on the other hand, is it any wonder why God doesn't hear their cries? We reap what we sow. As Jesus himself said, "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' and not do as I say?"

Likewise, God asks in Psalm 50: "Why bother reciting my decrees and pretending to obey my covenant? For you refuse my discipline and treat my words like trash."

All he wants from us, as Micah 6:8 reminds us, is to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with him. The real point of our Lenten sacrifices is to conform ourselves to that vision that God has for us. May we all find it within ourselves this season to open our hearts to our brothers and sisters, to empty ourselves of our selfish ambitions and misguided righteousness, and to humble ourselves before the will of God.

(Special thanks to Magnificat, without whom today's entry would not have been possible.)

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Lent 2020: Take Up Your Cross -- and Choose Life

"When God, in the beginning, created man, he made him subject to his own free choice. If you choose, you can keep the commandments; it is loyalty to his will. There are set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death; whichever he chooses shall be given him." ~ Sirach 15:14-17

When asked what he admired about Orthodoxy, Jordan Peterson once remarked that where in Western Christianity -- a.k.a. Catholicism and Protestantism -- following Christ became more or less a set of propositions that one assents to and follows, following Christ in the East takes on a more demanding character of following in his footsteps, such that his trials and tribulations unite with our own:
The Orthodox would say, as near as I can tell, that you should pick up your damn cross and stumble up the hill. That's your job, right? The cross is the X where everyone is located. You're right at the center of reality. You're suffering and dying and being reborn all the time at the center of reality as you transform. And you have to accept that and embrace it. That's a very, very hard thing to do, because it means to embrace all your flaws and the flaws of reality and the tragedy of existence and your death and the sum total of human evil, all of that. Unbelievably demanding requirement. But you do what you can to do that. And then, not only do you pick up your cross, so to speak, but you stumble up the hill toward the City of God. You stumble up toward what's good. And that's your destiny, and that's where meaning is to be had. And the Orthodox lay that out quite well. That's your goal, is the imitation of Christ.
Christianity is not for wimps. We are promised salvation and eternal life, but to whom much is given, much is expected.

We will surely suffer in this life, but the good news is that our suffering is not in vain. We're not meant to suffer simply to become more holy. If we're ill and we can get better, then we ought to make efforts to do so. But sometimes suffering is inevitable and unavoidable, and it's in those times that we ought not grumble about the hand we've been dealt. Rather, we can look at Christ, mocked and beaten, sentenced to die, carrying the instrument of his own execution up the long road to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. And we can unite our suffering to his. In that sense, our suffering draws us closer to him. But more than that, we can know that just as we're united with Christ in our trials, so we can be transformed with him into new life. We won't always suffer. There is a light of hope at the end of the tunnel.

If you suffer daily, as I have for several years with an undiagnosed ailment that leaves me feeling miserable and my body malfunctioning, this view makes perfect sense. My wife laughs about how Catholic I sound when I talk about redemptive suffering, but this is something that all the suffering saints throughout history have understood -- and as Jordan Peterson observed, it's practically a way of life in the Orthodox tradition.

Finding the grace to endure our sufferings comes from our decision to choose life, as Moses said to the people in today's reading (Deuteronomy 30:15-20). We can keep God's commandments and choose the way of life, or we can turn our backs and be left to our own devices. Either way, we'll still suffer in this mortal existence, but only one of the two choices gives us hope for transcending our suffering. And that is the way of life.

When a lawyer asked Jesus what a person must do to gain eternal life, Jesus told him to keep two commandments: Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. That's it. "Do this and you will live," he said. Many of us find even that much hard to do, and yet that's our cross to bear -- for it is the path to peace and life. There can be no other.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Lent 2020: The Journey Begins

This Lenten season, I'm spending some time with a few devotionals and companions to help me reflect on the meaning of the season and to draw closer to Christ. My resources include Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Lenten Devotional, by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble; A Lenten Journal With Mother Mary, by Father Edward Looney; the One Bread, One Body companion from Presentation Ministries; my monthly Magnificat; and the Magnificat Lenten Companion.

What struck me in today's readings was the idea that God is always with us and never abandons us.

My parents were the first Catholic converts in their families, and sometimes their evangelical backgrounds seeped through in the things they taught me -- in particular, the notion that God was always angry with us. Fed up. Disgusted. At his wits' end. That idea was only reinforced as I got older and heard Protestant friends promote the view that God couldn't even look upon us because he couldn't look upon sin, so he had to cover us in the sacrificial blood of his Son. Because of our incurable depravity, rooted in the Fall in the Garden, we could only be imputed righteousness through Christ's sacrifice. Our own sinfulness could never be blotted out, only covered over with God's grace. That was the only way God could bear to look at us.

And yet a supplemental reading from today's Magnificat challenges that notion. Perhaps notably, it comes from the Book of Wisdom, one of the seven deuterocanonical books that today appear only in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. An expanded reading of the passage, incorporating verses 23, 24, and 26 of Chapter 11, reads as follows:

"You are merciful to all, for you can do all things, and you overlook men's sins, that they may repent. For you love all things that exist, and you loathe none of the things which you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord who love the living."

This is the God I looked for and could never find when I was growing up. I was taught a punitive and short-tempered God. But the Gospel of John reminds us that God so loved the world that he gave us his Son. He didn't do it because he hated us. He did it because he loved us. He wanted to mend the broken bond between man and God, heaven and earth. And he gave us a vehicle for repentance and renewal to make that happen.

Moreover, our reading today from the Book of Joel (2:13) reminds us that God is "gracious and merciful ... slow to anger, rich in kindness." That is the same God that Christ revealed to us -- the Father who welcomed his Prodigal Son back home, because no matter how much his son may have screwed up, the father still loved him unconditionally. All he ever wanted was for his child to return to him with a contrite heart. If God is love, as the Apostle John tells us, then how could it be otherwise? 

We might distance ourselves from God, but God never leaves us. Moreover, if God couldn't look upon sin, then Jesus wasn't God, because Jesus sought out the sinners. They were the ones who needed him. As written in today's Magnificat Lenten Companion entry: 
After Jesus initiated a miraculous catch of fish from Peter's boat, the fisherman responded, 'Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.' But Jesus told him not to fear, for he would become a fisher of men. ... We sometimes imagine Jesus backing away from our sinfulness in anger or disgust. But Peter discovered that he comes close to us, fearless of our sin. Jesus' gaze sees past our sins to the image of his Father, to the son or daughter we are created to be.
"I am with you always," Jesus promised, "until the end of the age."

We couldn't be separated from God if we wanted to. As Sister Theresa Aletheia expresses in Remember Your Death, "God is not some being in the universe that comes into existence, but Existence itself.  Every person has life only because God is life." It would be impossible to separate ourselves from the source of our own life.

How do we draw closer? By having faith and following in his ways. By acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with him (Micah 6:8). Another supplemental reading from today's Magnificat, this one also from a deuterocanonical book -- Tobit 4:5, 7, 16, and 19 -- spells it out thus:
Perform good works all the days of your life, and do not tread the paths of wrongdoing. Do not turn your face away from the poor, and God's face will not be turned away from you. Give to the hungry some of your bread, and to the naked some of your clothing. Whatever you have left over, give away as alms, and do not begrudge the alms you give. At all times bless the Lord God, and ask him to make all your paths straight and to grant success to all your endeavors and plans.
Here we see a foreshadowing of Jesus' embrace of the poor and marginalized, as seen in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 25, and elsewhere. And it's not that we earn our salvation through good works; it's more that a mindset of compassion, forgiveness, and generosity is what's expected of those who wish to be saved. You can't turn your back on those in need and expect a heavenly reward, for as Jesus said, "Whatsoever you do for the least of these, my brethren, you do for me." 

If we follow in his ways, he will draw near and we will find the Kingdom of God dwelling within us.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Lenten Goal: Choosing Words More Sparingly and Wisely

I've always been interested in politics. I minored in political science in college. But I've never fit into either major political party. And it's becoming increasingly easy for me to disengage from political discourse, because I find I have less and less in common with either the Republicans or the Democrats, or with those who vote for them, as time goes on.

What's in the best interests of the neediest and most vulnerable members of our society? That's what guides me. I don't care about identity groups, or being woke, or what it's going to cost to provide quality healthcare and education for everyone. I just want human beings to find it in their hearts to do what's best for other human beings, without regard to what they look like or where they come from. Therefore, I prefer to align not with a political party, but with what's humane. If you want to know where I stand, combine Catholic social teaching with the Quakers' Peace Testimony and the Anabaptists' two-kingdoms theology that aligns them with the peaceable kingdom of Christ.

That got me thinking of how much time I waste trying to assert my case on social media. My Facebook feed is daily filled with people and pages shouting their (often contradictory) opinions at me. And for what? So that whoever yells the loudest wins?

Rather than engaging each other in thoughtful discourse, the relative anonymity of social media makes it all too easy to shout down our opponents with toxic and hateful rhetoric from the safety of an echo chamber, such that we imagine not people with heartfelt wants and needs on the other end of the debate, but enemies to be destroyed.

Meanwhile, the ruling class engages its propagandists in the media to get people to either ignore or demonize people and policies that could set us on a better course, with the result that most voters never even consider the big picture and end up voting people into office that pose no threat to the status quo.

My voice makes no difference in this environment. I'm shouting into the wind. Since most people seem more interested in being right than in transcending party and doing what's right, I've come to the conclusion that there's really no point in even engaging with our political system. Nothing I do or say will ever change it.

But more than that, I've realized that I'm falling prey to the same desire to be heard that all the other squabblers on social media are. There's something to be said for not showing up to every argument you're invited to. My energies are best spent elsewhere.

Why now? Because election season is heating up, and I'm already seeing the tide turning against the candidates I'd consider voting for. But also because we're on the cusp of the Lenten season, and our family has been having discussions about what we're "giving up" for Lent. I'm the only practicing Catholic in our house, but my wife and kiddo have been very supportive and plan to make a sacrifice of some kind along with me in the days leading up to Easter.

The thing is, Lent isn't supposed to be a time for self-improvement. However, I do think it's as good a time as any to reflect on the things that make us spin our wheels, that hold us back, that make us suffer. Christians are expected to pick up their cross and follow Christ daily, even when that means bearing our often weighty sufferings. But the kind of suffering I'm talking about is self-inflicted and altogether avoidable. It's the suffering that comes from thinking that we need to be heard -- and, more specifically, the belief that we always need to be right. We suffer when our ego tells us not only that we need to be heard above the din of daily life, but also that we need to shout down all those people who we believe have it wrong while we have it all figured out.

So in a sense, giving up the need to be heard is a way for me to focus on making a better attempt to love my neighbors and my enemies. Instead of being heard, I can focus more intently on listening -- something that's in short supply in our world, I think. Therefore, I think a social-media diet is in order. I might still post random thoughts and family pictures, but no engaging in pointless and toxic debates regarding topics I have no control over in the first place.

Moreover, I've been drawn recently toward engaging in more active listening to what the spiritual masters have to say to us. I'm just about finished setting up a meditation chapel in our attic where I can sit in silence and either read or contemplate -- and the reading will usually take the form of scripture, Marian devotionals, and the Tao Te Ching. If I can even carve out half an hour for a miniature silent retreat each day, I'll take it.

I crave silence. The world is too noisy for me. In fact, the thing I miss the most about the days I attended Quaker meeting was the enveloping quiet. There's no minister and no service -- just a group of people sitting in reverent silence. If the Spirit moves someone to speak, that person rises to address the congregation and then sits back down. No debate ensues, as congregants are encouraged not to react but to reflect.

And I can't tell you what a difference that makes. In our instant-gratification, soundbite-driven world, we've become conditioned to offer our opinion the instant someone else is done speaking. We're so focused on getting our viewpoint out there, in fact, that we usually aren't even listening to the person speaking: We're too busy preparing our response. The dynamics of the Quaker meeting short-circuit that process.

I can recall plenty of times when I felt the instantaneous urge to reply to what someone else said in a Quaker meeting. Instead, being compelled to sit with someone else's words lets you explore them more deeply. You might think about what caused a person to say what he or she said. You might contemplate that person's point of view a little more fully than you otherwise would have. You might still disagree, but in the silence, you at least might come to appreciate a differing opinion. That silence is liberating and transforming in how it grabs our reactive impulses and forces them to sit down, shut up, and listen for a change.

Even taking a short 10-second pause before we speak in everyday conversation, as suggested by Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm, can help us speak more mindfully and listen more deeply, rather than simply react and speak only to be heard.

I've always wanted to take part in a silent retreat. I envy the monks and nuns who have taken a lifelong vow of silence. Silence is beautiful. Silence is golden. "Silence is the language of God," says Rumi -- "all else is poor translation."

It was the contemplative mystics that drew me back to my Catholic roots -- the ones who embraced the holiness of silence and solitude, like Thomas Merton and John of the Cross. These are the Christian world's equivalent of Zen masters and Taoist sages who tie the greatness of all the world's traditions together. Teresa of Avila, my favorite saint, speaks to my spirit when she writes:

To journey into the interior world within
Love must already be awakened.

For love to awaken in us,
Let go, let be, be silent.

Be still in gentle peace.
Be aware of opposites.
Learn mindfulness and forgetfulness.

By going within, we locate the still, small voice. By going within, we understand the meaning of "Be still and know that I am God."

Alas, I live in a world where I need to speak to my wife and kiddo, correct my dogs, and communicate electronically with my clients. The best I can probably do is carve out one day of silence a week. I've been meaning to do just that for a while. As part of my goal of engaging less and listening more, I may just use the occasion of Lent to get into the habit. If I need to use notepads and bodily gestures, I think I can make that work for at least one day a week. The dogs will just have to listen to my wife and kiddo. We'll see how it goes.

Other than that, I have two books lined up for daily reading and reflection during Lent: A Lenten Journey With Mother Mary, and Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Lenten Devotional. I'm particularly looking forward to the latter. After all, Ash Wednesday -- the beginning of the Lenten journey-- is the one day of the year when the church reminds us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

More thoughts to come, perhaps, as Lent unfolds. Or perhaps I'll retain blogging silence for 40 days. We'll see. If you observe the season, may your Lenten observances prove fruitful.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

A Catholic Visits a Pentecostal Church

Being only a week and a half removed from our car crash, I watched the fat snowflakes falling like confetti from the heavens late Saturday night and lost my appetite for driving 45 minutes to my Catholic church come Sunday morning. Call me crazy, but the idea of driving our only remaining car over snow-covered roads and through a mountain pass just didn't appeal to me.

But I didn't want to visit any of the Catholic churches closer to home (I touched on that in my last post), so I told my family they were off the hook this week from going to church with me. I'd still find a place to go locally, but they didn't have to tag along. There are a few local churches I've been wanting to visit, for no other reason than that I enjoy seeing how other people do church.

Which one to choose? Well, a Facebook friend who lives nearby said she welcomed people to come to her church a few towns over from me, where she'd be playing bass onstage with the worship band on her birthday. Her church wasn't one of the ones on my list of places to visit, but I figured what the heck. Pentecostal worship isn't really my thing, but I'm up for a good sermon anywhere.

(Yes, I know, I didn't fulfill my weekly Mass obligation. Let me worry about that, fellow Catholics.)

Now, Pentecostalism is not a new thing to me. My first serious girlfriend was a Pentecostal. Her dad was a Pentecostal preacher, and her mom never liked me because she hated Catholicism with the fire of a thousand suns. Every time I stepped into their house, I'd get a theological lambasting about being Catholic, while she'd rattle off everything she found wrong with my church. Being only 19 and having not had the best catechetical upbringing, I lacked the tools to debate her. I'm pretty sure, in hindsight, that she saw that and used it to her advantage. My girlfriend and I made the best of the situation, visiting each other's churches, but there's no way our relationship could have survived.

But even before that, the charismatic movement was not foreign to me. The Catholic church I grew up in had a prayer meeting every week, where people would sing worship songs, hands raised in the air, and some -- including my dad, who brought me with him -- would speak in tongues. Then there was a laying on of hands for anyone who was sick. My dad and godfather often laid their hands on me as I was growing up. I never got the healing I needed, but I have no doubt that their prayers were sincere.

The charismatic Catholic movement is still around today, but not in great numbers. Even in the '70s and '80s, when I experienced it, I don't think it was something that its adherents openly spoke about. That style of loose, spontaneous, frequently noisy, often unpredictable worship was miles away from the reverent, regimented, calm, and disciplined liturgy of the Mass.

Today's service was not as raucous as some of the Pentecostal gatherings I remember from years ago, although the scattered amens and the raised hands and swaying bodies took me back to those days of prayer meetings in the basement of our Catholic church and the services I experienced with my old girlfriend from a lifetime ago.

I sat in the back and just watched. I felt awkward about being overdressed in my button-down shirt, slacks, and topcoat. But nobody said anything unkind. A few people actually stopped to welcome me, which was nice.

I decided to bring my Third Millennium Bible with me, figuring an updated King James wouldn't stand out the way a Douay-Rheims, New American, or Revised Standard Catholic Edition might. (As it turns out, I think the scripture readings came from the NIV.) I noticed one woman behind me had a well-worn Bible sitting next to her, with sticky flags poking out of every possible corner, and it reminded me that dedicated scripture study is one area where Protestants tend to excel over Catholics. We hear the readings every week at Mass but don't crack open a Bible very often at home. Accordingly, where Protestants can often rattle off verses from memory, a Catholic might have to flip around a bit to find, say, the book of Habakkuk, or to remember where exactly the Sermon on the Mount starts. (I have a morning scripture study and own several Bible translations, but then I'm not most Catholics.)

The thing that struck me the most was just how different Pentecostal worship is from Catholic worship -- and not just the style of worship, but the manner in which Pentecostals, and I think Protestants in general, desire an emotional and direct personal relationship with the Divine, where Catholics focus on receiving the grace of God through the sacraments. If an alien landed on Earth and attended a Mass and a Pentecostal service back to back, he'd have no idea that our traditions were rooted in the same core beliefs and the same holy book.

I was also reminded of just how casual a lot of Protestant churches are compared to Catholics. Where we enter and sit in reverent silence before Mass, people today were milling around and talking right up till the service started. And many were clutching cups of coffee -- right there in the sanctuary! And what's that over there? Men wearing hats inside the church? Boy, I was really out of my element.

That's not a criticism, and I'm not going to bag on Pentecostal worship. I didn't go to church today to find things to criticize. There's too much of that stuff in the world already. In fact, one of my favorite YouTube personalities is a Protestant guy who visits other denominations to learn and understand and talk theology. He's had very respectful dialogues with Catholic and Orthodox priests. I think that's terrific. Building bridges is always better than burning them.

And anyway, I'm glad that there's such a diversity of worship styles to suit different needs and personalities. Me -- I'm a thinker, a ponderer, and an observer. (INTP, according to the last time I took the Myers-Briggs test.) Structured liturgical worship suits me well. But I recognize that a lot of Protestant folks would be bored stiff at a Mass if they're accustomed to worship bands instead of pipe organs and choirs, stages instead of altars, pastors in street clothes speaking off the cuff instead of priests in vestments leading us through the formality of the rubrics. I still remember my old Pentecostal girlfriend, after going to a Catholic church with me, announcing that the Mass was so dry, she'd seen more moisture in a piece of stale bread. (Like I said, the relationship was doomed from the start.)

As for the preaching today, it was led mostly by a woman from a husband-and-wife missionary team, and the main scripture passage she focused on was the Parable of the Sower, wherein Jesus likens seed scattered in various conditions to how people will respond in different ways to his teachings. Only those "seeds" that take root in good soil will grow in faith, while those scattered among the rocks and thorns and hard ground will wither.

The part I keyed in on was the point she made about how we can all sow our seeds in different ways, according to our own talents and gifts and aptitudes. I thought that tied in nicely with my own observation of how different worship styles appeal to different people, and how we can all work with our own personal strengths and abilities to grow and share our faith. Some people are good at missionary work. Some are good at philosophical contemplation. Some are perfectly suited to volunteering at the soup kitchen, others for good preaching, others for activism. I'd probably be a good teacher, since I know Catholic theology inside and out, and in fact I may soon get roped into teaching -- or at least assisting in -- some catechism classes at the church I belong to. I suppose I wouldn't mind being a lector, either. Heck, I even used to usher with my dad. It's fun to get involved. But it's nice to be able to sit back, relax, and observe at times too.

For now, though, it's back to the old Catholic routine -- weather permitting.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Dispatches From the Church of Whatever

I recently heard one of the worst homilies of my life.

We didn't go to our usual church because we'd been in an accident just a few days prior. And even though we have a second car while we await the insurance company's ruling on our primary vehicle, none of us was in the mood to make the 45-minute trek to the church where we all like the priest and my daughter is taking catechism classes in preparation for her first communion. So we traveled to a church much closer to home.

I could go every week to this church, or to one of two others closer to our front door. But I like having my family go with me to Mass. And to make it worth my wife's time, I wanted to take her to a place where she'd feel at least somewhat comfortable with her surroundings. And she happens to like the priest at the church 45 minutes away. So do I. I find him personable and engaging, and his homilies are always informative and offer good food for thought. He tries to put the day's readings in historical perspective, often with a quick lesson on the geography and politics of the biblical world. And then he frames the readings in a way that makes them relevant to our faith and to our everyday modern lives. There's a lot to be said about that.

Now, obviously, not all priests have the same gifts. Maybe the priest who tends to the three churches closer to our home has talents I'm not aware of. And I certainly appreciate his dedication to manning not just the three churches near us, but also two others a little farther away. He has his hands full, and I'm sure he works hard tending to the needs of the parishioners at each location.

But his sermons, well... they leave much to be desired.

I'm not even going to go into why this weekend's talk was so bad. Even though it was offensively bad, my intention is not to embarrass him.

But it struck me that if I'd encountered something so awful in my past, I would have used it as a self-righteous excuse to pack up and leave the church altogether.

I'm not sure what it says about me or my place in life that I don't feel compelled to do that this time. Because I've always been an all-or-nothing person. Anyone can look back through my old blog posts here and see evidence of my wearying pursuit of the perfect church, or the perfect political philosophy, or the perfect whatever. And if something didn't go perfectly my way, I'd cut my ties and move on.

It's the principle of the matter, I'd say.

I even did this with my family. I couldn't deal with my adoptive mom anymore, so I stopped communicating with her. But to do that, I had to stop communicating with my whole family. And I came up with all kinds of justifications for why I was right to do that.

But eventually you wake up and realize you only ended up hurting yourself, because in your desire to be free from your problems, you only created new ones. And when you do that, you sometimes alienate and hurt innocent people along the way. Some family members have welcomed me back in the aftermath; others never will. There's nothing I can do about that.

Maybe it helps that I feel more content on my spiritual journey. I had to wander through the traditions of the East and take many other odd diversions till I found my way back where I began, albeit with a new perspective.

Maybe it helps that I don't need Catholicism to be the end-all and be-all of my spiritual life. Catholicism feels comfortable to me, probably because I was raised in it. I know its theology inside and out, and most of it -- not all, but most -- resonates with me. Maybe that's enough.

Maybe it helps that I've drawn from other Christian traditions -- Quaker, Anabaptist, Episcopalian, and Orthodox in particular -- and have allowed their teachings and practices to bring me comfort in times when I find the Catholic church missing the mark. (Having my own personal home chapel, where I can be my own minister, is a great outlet as well.)

Or maybe age, poor health, or both bring you to a point where you just want to stop running toward something better and get on with what you've got. In giving up the pursuit of the perfect, you can embrace the good that's already at your disposal.

Sure, there are days when I'd love to run off and join a Quaker meeting or an Episcopal church. But I also know from experience that there are things I'd dislike about both that would make me miss my Catholic heritage. Likewise, I'm pretty sure that I'm more Orthodox in my theology than I am Catholic. But the Orthodox church would have me publicly renounce the Roman church and would chrismate me when I've already been confirmed. Some Orthodox chutches would even demand I be rebaptized. And that's the kind of arrogance, pride, and triumphalism I'm trying to put behind me. It says something that the Catholic church, for all its flaws, does not demand that Orthodox converts be reconfirmed or rebaptized, nor does it demand a public renunciation of Orthodoxy. And that doesn't even touch on Orthodoxy's ethnocentrism that often makes outsiders feel unwelcome. I'll always love the ancient beauty of the Orthodox liturgy and its church buildings, but I won't ever be an Orthodox Christian in this lifetime.

Besides, to side with Catholicism is to side with Western civilization. I am a product of the West. As much as I may admire the Eastern church, it's not part of who I am.

And anyway, I know at this point what truly sustains me in my faith life, and that is that I love reading about the life of Christ and honoring his Blessed Mother. I love the Sermon on the Mount, and the rest of the Gospels, and a few other biblical books here and there. (James and 1 John, I'm looking at you. Paul, not so much.) I take great joy in meditating on scripture, and in delving into biblical history, and comparing the nuances of different translations. The geek in me loves that stuff.

The mystic in me sees Mary echoed all throughout the Old Testament, in the words of Sophia and elsewhere, challenging us to find and embrace the nurturing and healing love of the Sacred Feminine that our world so desperately needs.

The ethicist in me, the part of me that wants a fairer, peaceful, more compassionate world, sees conventional wisdom turned on its head in the nonviolent, enemy-loving, power-to-the-powerless teachings of Jesus -- teachings so bold that they could transform our world if we really embraced them. When I see so many Christians praising Jesus with their mouths but dishonoring him with their actions, it is the ability to look past them and go back to Christ's own teachings that keeps me centered.

Besides, in a world where I have an aversion to joining things and embracing other people's truths, I find it remarkable how much I'm down with the Corporate Works of Mercy and with Catholic social teaching. All of it. Not just the abortion stuff -- even though there are plenty of people in Catholic culture who would have you thinking that the church is a single-issue political action committee when it comes to abortion. The way I see it, if "pro-life" doesn't mean all life, then it seems like a pretty empty slogan.

At the same time, I still feel a fondness for the wisdom of the Buddha's Noble Truths, but I don't feel the need to trade in my rosary for a set of mala beads. Thomas Merton embraced the essence of Zen without ever leaving his Catholicism behind. I think he understood that Jesus was, in essence, a Zen Jew. So why go looking for the Zen anywhere else?

Likewise, the Tao Te Ching is probably the most life-changing book I've ever read, but I can embrace Lao-tzu's love of simplicity and nature through the mystics like Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Richard Rohr, and Hildegard of Bingen.

And I love the emphasis on the feminine that the goddesses of the pagan world embody. But I can find all the maternal love I need through devoting myself to the Blessed Virgin and seeking out the nurturing embrace of the feminine through Sophia and Spirit (and yes, I feel fairly confident that the Holy Spirit is a girl).

Mary and Jesus, put simply, are my yin and yang.

I have what I need. It doesn't have to be perfect. I don't even have to like Paul, Augustine, Constantine, or Luther. Because I really don't. And I'm OK with that.

I'm even OK with the fact that most people who call themselves Christians are actually Paulists who reflect Christ's words little, if at all, because they're too busy lifting judgmental quotes from Paul and the Old Testament to stand in self-righteous angry condemnation of the same people Jesus called us to love. It's unfortunate that they are what most people think of when they think of Christians and Christianity, but what can you do, other than try to set a better example?

Likewise, I no longer feel the need to set up an appointment with my priest and introduce myself and bore him with my views and my questions. I always used to need to do that -- to have my voice heard, and to receive some counsel so that maybe I could settle down in one place and be content. Fast-forward to now, and I doubt that I'll ever have a conversation with our priest. And that's OK. He has weddings and funerals, confessions and baptisms, visits to the sick, and a million other things to take care of. He runs a big church. He doesn't need to hear my story. And I don't feel the need to bother him with it.

I also no longer expect to be healed of whatever's wrong with my body. I used to think of God as some kind of wish-granting genie, and I got mad at him when he didn't give me what I wanted, never really considering the fact that it was my job to conform to his will, not to try to bend him to mine. If I suffer, there must be some reason for it. It must be my cross to bear in this life. Why? Maybe to break down my self-centered pride. Who knows. Humility is the queen of virtues, after all.

And to that end, I never really pray for things anymore. If someone asks me to pray for them, I do. But if God already knows what I need and will ultimately dictate the outcome anyway, then most prayer seems futile. The only prayer that seems worthwhile is the one that, again, conforms me to his will. Prayer, then, seems not so much about asking for something as it is about finding peace with whatever our fate may be, for good or ill. It's about submitting, about giving up whatever plans we might have for our own lives. After all, we're promised no tomorrows, and it's awfully arrogant of us to assume we are.

At one time I also would have raised a self-righteous stink about the hoops someone has to jump through to receive rhe same communion that Jesus freely offered at the Last Supper. But my daughter wants to receive communion with me, and so we're jumping through those necessary hoops. Baptism, then confession, then communion. Sometimes it's easiest just to play along. And if my kiddo decides a week before her baptism that she doesn't want to go through with any of it, that's OK too.

Make no mistake: I find closed communion insulting. And I think it's ridiculous that the Catholic church won't ordain women. But the churches I know of that have open communion and ordain women have lots of problems of their own.

There is no perfect place. And once again, that's OK.

Being chill with things isn't like me, but I'm trying. Trying to take things as they happen and not insist on controlling the outcome. It's hard to give up that control, but until you do, until you stop demanding that the world play by your rules, I don't think you ever truly find contentment. Like Lao-tzu, fed up with society and riding off on his water buffalo into the mountains, perhaps it's best just to go one's own way and not concern oneself with what the rest of the world does, or thinks, or expects. Who cares? Let them judge. They'll judge no matter what you do anyway.

Coming to terms with that reality, surely, is the road that leads to peace.

Monday, February 10, 2020

A Hobby, Not a Habit

And now for something completely different... the art of pipe smoking.

I thought it might be fun to talk a little bit about something less serious -- a relaxing pastime that for me began just a few short months ago, yet it already seems as if I've been doing it forever.

Not long after we moved to Idaho, we were out visiting a shopping center in Spokane called the Flour Mill, which used to be just that -- a flour factory -- but has since been converted into a little marketplace. It was a charming location that reminded me of all the quaint mom-and-pop novelty shops that line the waterway at Pike Place Market back in Seattle. Inside the Flour Mill is, among other things, a tobacconist's shop. I used to smoke cigars, back when they were trendy in the '90s, and every now and then I'll still pick up a stogie. Yet the last time I bought one, at a restaurant here in Wallace, I set it aside and it went stale. So on one hand, I was curious to check this place out, but on the other hand I figured it might just be a waste of time.

That's when my 8-year-old prodded me to go in and look at the pipes. She'd been telling me for a few months up to that point that she thought I should start smoking a pipe. It would make me look more like a dad, she said, adding, helpfully, that pipe smoking is something old guys like to do. Maybe she got the idea from watching Gandalf and the hobbits puffing away in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I'm not sure. Or maybe I mentioned that I had an uncle who smoked a pipe when I was a kid. Or maybe I mentioned that I tried taking up the pipe hobby once years ago but gave up on it in frustration when I couldn't keep the pipe lit.

So I decided to pop into the store, not really knowing what the heck I was looking for. From an aesthetic point of view, I liked churchwarden pipes -- the ones with the long stems that everyone in the Lord of the Rings films smoked. So I picked up a long-stemmed wooden pipe from the bargain rack, bought a few pouches of tobacco, and went home to fire up.

That was twenty-odd pipes ago, and now firing up a pipe has become a nightly ritual. Yeah, that's a lot of pipes. But here's the thing: When I throw myself into something new, I tend to go whole hog. I wanted to try different types of pipes made of different materials, and to enjoy them with a variety of different tobaccos, to make sure this was something I wanted to stick with and also to maximize my enjoyment. Because, after all, pipe-smoking is about slowing down, about relaxing, puffing, and pondering. And to do that, you need the right combination of pipe and tobacco that make you happy.

It almost seems taboo to even talk about enjoying the pleasures of smoking these days. But I guess I never got caught up in the whole public panic over smoking since just about everyone I knew growing up smoked, friends and family alike. And aside from my aforementioned uncle, they all smoked cigarettes. I didn't mind the smell of cigarettes, but I never saw the appeal in smoking them. They seemed to be more of a way to get a quick hit of nicotine to calm your nerves than something you sat down and enjoyed.

Pipes, on the other hand, are little works of art that you can fill, light up, and savor -- a contemplative leisure activity that turns the smoking experience into more of a hobby than a habit. It's no accident, I think, that pipes are associated with authors, thinkers, professors in tweed jackets, and all that. Tolkien, Einstein, Mark Twain, Sherlock Holmes. You get the idea. And where nonsmokers find the smell of cigarettes unpleasant, I find that the same people often get a whiff of some nice aromatic pipe smoke and will tell you it brings back pleasant memories of their dads and grandfathers.

For me, cigars and pipes always held a certain appeal. So once I had a job and could afford to indulge a little bit, I got into cigars. That was in the mid-'90s, at the height of the cigar fad. I had my little humidor, my cigar cutter, and my torch lighter. I went to the cigar shops and lingered over the options, acting like one of those seasoned connoisseurs who drone on about subtle notes of plum and chocolate. I even took a few day trips over to Windsor, Ontario, to sample the Cuban cigars that were renowned for their superior flavor but unavailable in the USA because of the embargo against Cuba. I never thought the Cuban smokes were much better, but then maybe my palate wasn't refined enough to notice the subtle differences. But there were also a lot of junk cigars being pushed out back then to satisfy demand. So who knows.

In any event, my interest waned by the time I met my wife, who didn't like the smell of cigars anyway. So sometime in the early 2000s, I gave pipe smoking a try. I knew nothing about pipes, and in the early 2000s, you couldn't just pop on to the internet and find a deluge of helpful resources at your fingertips. And since I was never very close to that old pipe-smoking uncle, I didn't feel comfortable picking his brain. So I winged it. I recall eventually buying a couple of little meerschaum pipes carved to look like the heads of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. And I also remember that I couldn't keep the darn things lit. I probably wasn't packing them properly, since I didn't know how. And I just found the experience frustrating instead of relaxing. I must have sold or donated the pipes, and that was that -- until 15 or so years later, when I had a kid who urged me to give pipe-smoking another spin.

Maybe I was more ready for it in my late forties than I was in my early thirties -- the typical pipe smoker is over 45, after all -- but I immediately found puffing on a pipe relaxing. It took me a while to get the packing right so the tobacco would keep burning -- and sometimes my pipes still go out, but I've learned that that's OK, so I don't stress about it anymore. I've picked up some good tips and expectations from being able to talk with other pipe smokers on social media, reading forums, and so on.

It could be that you just need to have the right frame of mind to enjoy pipes. I'm not exactly a Zen guy, especially given my precarious health, but I think I'm far more mellow now than when I was in my early thirties. And I just don't think you can be a high-strung person and get any enjoyment out of a pipe, because it's something that forces you to slow down and relax.

The entire process is like a ritual -- similar to a tea ceremony, as my wife astutely pointed out -- in that you have to choose your pipe, then choose your tobacco, then pack the pipe properly, test the draw, light it, puff, get the top of your tobacco nice and charred, relight, and then sit back and relax. But even then you might have to tamp down your bowl while you're smoking, to keep the hot embers in contact with the unsmoked tobacco beneath -- and sometimes you'll just have to grab another match and relight the whole thing. Then when you're done, you have to clean out your bowl, dump your ash and spent matches, run a pipe cleaner through your pipe, and put your pipe back on the rack. It all takes patience. To 32-year-old me, that all would have sounded tedious and annoying. To 48-year-old me, it's an enjoyable way to kick back in the evening and mellow out for a bit.

But boy, when you're getting into the pipe hobby, you'll be inundated with opinions and advice from other pipe-smokers. Everyone has a viewpoint about the proper way to pack a bowl, what kind of lighter you should use, how often you should puff, what types and cuts of tobaccos to use, how you should break in a new pipe, whether your pipe should have a filter, what type of material your pipe should be made of, and a hundred and one other things that I won't bore anyone with. Ultimately, once you get down the basics, the rest is just a matter of personal preference. Pipe "experts" can be just as annoying and full of themselves as the cigar and wine pros who'd have you sniffing and swirling stuff around in your mouth and trying to convince you why some esoteric quality you'd never notice on your own justifies paying 50 times as much for some rare, special blend as you would for a decent-enough product at the corner grocery store. The goal isn't to impress anyone or drain your bank account but simply to enjoy yourself.

I know, I hear you. Don't drain your bank account, he says. The guy who owns more than 20 pipes!

Well, most of the cost of indulging in pipes is up front. Once you've bought your pipes and supplies, all you need to do is occasionally replenish your tobacco, pipe cleaners, and matches or lighter fluid. And pipes don't need to be expensive to be good smokers. Even in my short time in this hobby, it seems pretty clear to me that once you pay over a certain amount for a pipe, you're paying for a brand name or age or craftsmanship or collectibility, but not for a better smoking experience. I did pay a fair amount for a couple of my pipes, mainly because I liked the look of them, but most of them were pretty inexpensive -- thanks to eBay and its seemingly endless supply of auctions of "estate pipes," which is insider lingo for used pipes. (That's not as gross as it might seem -- generally, sellers do a good job of cleaning up and sterilizing the old pipes they're selling.)

So what are my favorites? Well, there are different things I like about each of my pipes. I've sought out pipes made of a wide variety of materials, since I'd read lots of pros and cons of each, to see which would suit me best. One thing I did figure out early on is that I prefer bent pipes to straight ones. From a practical standpoint, bent pipes stay out of your field of vision better than straights do, and that's a good thing when you make your living on a computer and you want to puff and read at the same time. From an aesthetic point of view, I also prefer the curves of a bent pipe. I think those curves make them look more elegant and beautiful. Straight pipes just look... well, very rigid and, dare I say, phallic. (Freud was known to smoke pipes... I wonder what he would have said about that. A pipe is just a pipe, maybe?)

At the same time, while I still like my long-stemmed churchwarden pipes, there's something to be said for a pipe that doesn't need to be held while smoking. Shorter pipes that you can clench with your teeth are great for multitasking -- very useful if you need your hands free while you're smoking, as one does if you work at a computer keyboard. Churchwardens, then, are best for when you can spare a hand and devote your full attention to your smoking experience. Their long stems also make for a cooler smoking experience, since the smoke has to travel further up the stem, and they have the related benefit of keeping the hot smoke from the bowl out of your face.

Incidentally, if you're wondering about the name, churchwardens are said to have originated in the days when churches employed night watchmen, who preferred long-stemmed pipes to keep their field of vision free as they patrolled the grounds. Other tales say the long stems allowed the watchmen to remain inside the church building while releasing the smoke outside, by sticking the bowl out a window. But since smoke comes out of one's mouth as well, I'm not so sure I buy the latter explanation.

Here, then, are some observations on my piping so far, going through my collection by material type.


Briar. The most popular type of pipe material is wood, in particular briar -- which comes from underground burls of the white heath tree, most common in the Mediterranean region. This type of wood is heat and fire resistant, which is advantageous for obvious reasons. Yet despite being a very hard and dense wood, it's also quite porous, so it can absorb the tar, oils, and other moisture from the tobacco, resulting in a clean and dry smoking experience.

I have six briars.

This one, a churchwarden from U.S.-based Mitchell Thomas, is the first one I bought. The shallow bowl has an unusual oval shape, but I didn't even notice that when I purchased it -- which goes to show you just how little I knew at the outset of this adventure.

I know now that they call these "opera pipes," and as with most things related to pipe lore, there's more than one story about how the name came about. Some say opera pipes were designed with a slimmer profile in mind so that opera-goers could slip them in their jacket pocket and take them out for a quick smoke at intermission. Others say that the term "opera" is a corruption of the French term "au pair," suggesting that nannies preferred to hide away their pipes from the parents employing them. Who knows which story is true, if either.

Here's another churchwarden, with a normal round chamber. This one comes from Mr. Brog, a Polish manufacturer of budget-priced pipes.

This is an Oom Paul pipe, named for the person who made the deeply bent style famous: Paul Kruger, who was president of the South African Republic from 1883 to 1900 and a key figure in the Boer Wars. "Oom" is the Afrikaans word for "uncle." My Oom Paul, made by Italian pipemaker Cesare Barontini, was an estate pipe I found on eBay when I wanted to find a good clenching pipe. It has a nice, deep chamber, making it good for a long smoke. It hangs with ease from my mouth and rests comfortably against my chin, so it's a good pipe as far as that goes, too. But because of the severe bend, it sits closer to my face than any of my pipes, which means I end up dodging more smoke. Good points and bad points to this one.

Here's a so-called hunter pipe, from a long-gone Swiss company called BBK. These are old rustic beauties, works of art that you might expect to find hanging above the fireplace in an old hunting lodge. This pipe, like most from BBK, is decorated with nature-themed silver accents -- this one with flowers (or maybe sunbursts) and a deer -- and a chain runs from the stem to a silver wind cap that covers the tobacco chamber. You don't see wind caps very much, but they do just what you'd expect -- help keep your pipe lit if you're in a breezy environment. I bought this one mainly for its looks, but it is still functional, despite its probable age. BBK went out of business in the 1970s, but its manufacture of distinctly Old World-style pipes like these mostly ended in the 1930s. So this pipe is probably around 90 years old, at a minimum.

This is a Vauen estate pipe from Germany. I picked this up when I wanted something cheap to throw in a carry case, in the event I wanted a pipe on the go. This old guy was well used, and I got it for just $25. And it's one of the best smokers in my whole collection. It was the first pipe I got all the way through without having to relight a single time. It ended up being one of my daily smokers around the house instead of an occasional pipe I might light up on the road.

And finally, this is my Peterson Irish Harp. It's one of the few pipes I bought new, and one of the only ones I paid a premium price for. Most people tell you that if you want a quality briar, get yourself a Peterson or a Savinelli. Both companies have a long history of creating quality pipes, with Dublin-based Peterson dating back to the 1860s. I went with a Peterson after finding this beauty at a tobacconist's shop in Coeur d'Alene. It looks and smokes great, but was it worth the extra cost? Time will tell, perhaps.

Pearwood. Like briar, pear is a hard, dense wood. But it tends to burn warmer than briar, so it's generally considered a less desirable choice for pipes.

I have just one pearwood pipe. It was the second pipe I bought -- also a churchwarden, with the Tree of Gondor imprinted into front side of the bowl. How could a Lord of the Rings fan resist? Considering it was inexpensive, purchased through Amazon from KAFpipe, a small Ukrainian company, it's actually a pretty nice pipe -- one of my favorites.


These two pipes were a very inexpensive impulse purchase from eBay. The novelty of having little Burma Shave-style rhyming advertisements glued to each pipe lured me in; it seems these must have been used as a store display to entice customers to buy a pipe. The labels read as follows:

When days look dull and
dark and drear
Reach for a pipe,
Turn on the cheer

To have a measure of
Real pleasure
Smoke this pick from
Buescher's treasure

They both also marked 49 cents, presumably their retail price.

The only clue to what these might be is the Buescher name. U.S.-based Buescher Industries made "Sweet Hickory Pipes" from 1939 until the Missouri Meerschaum Company (more on them in a moment) bought Buescher out in 1991. Considering the 49-cent sale price, I have to assume these pipes date closer to to 1939 than they do to 1991. The can-shaped bowls with their lovely wood grains, along with the reed-like stems, almost make these too interesting to smoke -- and indeed, it appears neither one has ever been lit up. These will remain conversation pieces on my pipe shelf for the time being.


Meerschaum is a mineral, otherwise known as sepiolite, that long served as one of the leading materials for pipe-making. It's most commonly found in Turkey, and it somewhat resembles cuttlebone in its natural state. My first two pipes were meerschaums -- the aforementioned Holmes and Watson pair. It's common for pipes of this material to be carved into intricate designs before they're hardened, making meerschaum pipes nice options for display and conversation as much as for smoking.

Like briar pipes, meerschaums are favored for being porous. By absorbing the moisture and oils from the lit tobacco, they act as a natural filter and provide a dry and flavorful smoke. Their porous nature also means that over time the pure white of the meerschaum will begin to take on a golden hue. One advantage meerschaum has over wood is that it doesn't impart any of its own flavor. So what you get is purely the taste of the tobacco and nothing else.

I own only two meerschaums. I admit I might have a negative association with them from my failed first go-round as a pipe smoker, but I wanted to at least give them a fair shake. Yet even now, I'm not terribly excited about them. The tobacco somehow seems less flavorful in a meerschaum, in my admittedly short experience.

This is a hand-carved churchwarden that I bought new from

And this estate pipe from SMS has some nice coloring to it. It appears to have been much used and well loved. The stem was loose when I received it in the mail, but I think I've managed to jerry-rig it into a stable position. I have no idea of its age, but it's no more than 40 years old, since SMS -- originally Turkish but now U.S.-based -- commenced operations in 1980.

Meerschaum pipes, although fragile, are not as brittle as their clay predecessors. But just as meerschaum eclipsed clay in popularity as a pipe material, briars eventually began to overshadow meerschaum. As collector pipes, I think they're great. As daily smokers, I'm not completely sold on them. But the SMS pipe does have loads of character. It may grow on me.


Technically, morta is another type of wood. But the characteristics of morta pipes are so different from those of conventional wood pipes that they're typically put in their own category.

Morta, also known as bog oak, is essentially semi-petrified wood. The material is pulled from oak trees that have been preserved by being submerged in peat bogs, often for centuries. What makes morta ideal for pipes is that the minerals in the water have pulled out and replaced the tannins and resins, so that, unlike briar, the wood doesn't impart any flavor to the tobacco. That makes morta similar to meerschaum in terms of providing a neutral medium for the tobacco, but also like briar in terms of its durability. It has all the advantages of both briar and meerschaum and none of the drawbacks -- save for price, as morta is difficult to harvest, and only a small amount of the recovered wood is suitable for pipe-making.

This is my only morta, from Mr. Brog. I call it my "fatboy" pipe because of the extremely thick chamber walls, and because the stem is so flat and wide that I can't fit it through the stem hole in my pipe rack. It's a stout little fellow and offers a pleasant smoke. Mr. Brogs are value pipes, so I imagine what I'm getting here is only a sample of how good a morta can be. Maybe someday I'll manage to save up enough to buy a higher-end one.


Clay is one of the oldest media used for pipes. Clay pipes have existed for as long as Europeans have known about the pleasures of smoking tobacco, and indeed it's the long, slender "tavern pipe" that many still associate with the olden days of pipe smoking. Like meerschaum, clay pipes are porous, making for a dry smoke that isn't tainted with the flavors of the pipe itself. The downside, of course, is that they're extremely fragile. They also tend to smoke very hot. If you have a clay churchwarden, you're not going to be able to hold on to the bowl when it has tobacco smoldering inside it.

I wanted to get one just to say I tried a clay pipe. I ended up finding a pair of pipes for sale -- one with a fairly short stem, and a typical long-stemmed churchwarden-style pipe.

These both come from the Netherlands, complete with their original stickers from Goedewaagen, which bills itself as the world's oldest maker of clay pipes. The Goedewaagen family began making clay pipes in the late 18th century. These pipes bear a stamp on the bowl, the letters "E.S." and a crown, that the company apparently used into the 1940s, and I doubt these pipes are much older than that.


The quintessential Sherlock Holmes pipe is instantly recognizable for its long, curved stem and its huge horn-shaped bowl. "Calabash" today often refers to this specific shape of pipe, which can be made from a variety of materials, including briar. But the name originally referred to the material itself -- a calabash gourd that's hollowed out, shaped, and left to dry, after which it's fitted with a stem and (typically) a meerschaum bowl. The enormous chamber under the bowl allows the smoke to cool dramatically, making the calabash the coolest and driest pipe you're ever likely to smoke. Put on a deerstalker and a trenchcoat, and people might just mistake you for history's most brilliant detective.

This is my calabash, made by French company Butz-Choquin from an actual calabash gourd. I bought it new. It's the most expensive pipe in my collection, but when I saw it, I simply couldn't resist it. I don't smoke it too often, as its size requires one's full attention, including one hand to constantly support its weight. It's a beautiful pipe and a nice conversation piece, but it's definitely more of a special-occasion pipe than a daily smoker.


I didn't even know there was such a thing as a porcelain pipe until I was looking around on eBay for some pipes to fill out my collection. Turns out they were popular in Europe for well over a century, and some of the porcelain pipes were extremely elaborate and large, some with stems extending for four or five feet.

Other porcelain pipes, though, weren't quite so obnoxious -- like those that the aforementioned Goedewaagen company made. Those were the ones I keyed in on. Having fond memories of my mom's Blue Delft tableware, I was drawn to a Baronite pipe, shaped like a calabash, that featured a painted Dutch scene in blue, so typical of all those plates and cups I recall from my childhood.

You'd think a porcelain pipe would get hot like a clay pipe, but Baronite pipes were made with a double wall -- that is, the wall of the tobacco chamber, then an open space, then the outer wall. The air space in between helps keep the outer bowl cool.

After finding the Baronite, I poked around a little more and found a lovely boxed set containing two pipes from another Dutch company, Zenith, each a special edition created for Christmas 1981 and 1982. One had been smoked, and the other was brand new.

I thought they were adorable little pipes -- again, decorated in Blue Delft style -- and decided to splurge on them. I tried out the one that's already been smoked, and it delivered a nice, smooth smoke. For now, I've left the unsmoked one as is. But between the Zenith and the Baronite, I was left wondering why porcelain pipes like this never caught on more than they did in North America. Their fragility, maybe? I really don't know.


Metal pipes can have metal shanks and wooden bowls, or they can be made almost completely of metal. For the most part, I don't find metal pipes very aesthetically pleasing.

I did, however, come across this petite brass pipe from India, with some beautiful etching. The seller on eBay didn't know much about it, except that it was probably manufactured as a souvenir and probably dates to around the 1910s.

The downside, as you can probably imagine, is that metal gets extremely hot. As with the clay pipes, I have to hold my brass pipe by the stem if I want to smoke it.


And finally, there's the all-American corncob pipe, practically synonymous with the likes of Mark Twain, Popeye, Frosty the Snowman, and General MacArthur. Missouri Meerschaum is the world's leading manufacturer of cob pipes, and although cobs are relatively disposable and certainly not renowned for their elegance and beauty, they are a great option for a beginning pipe smoker. If you want to try out the hobby without laying out a lot of money up front, you can get a decent cob for less than $20.

I didn't get a cob till I was well into collecting pipes. When I decided to get one, it was on a lark at the Flour Mill store where I got my very first pipe.

I chose this Great Dane Spindle style, and I enjoyed smoking from it far more than I expected I would. Like briar and meerschaum, cobs are porous and so absorb the tars and other unpleasant byproducts of burning tobacco leaves, resulting in a nice, cool, dry smoke.

But you also get what you pay for. My Great Dane came with a cheap plastic bit, and either I partially bit through it on my first smoke or it came with a sharp edge. I put a rubber bit on the tip and that seemed to solve the problem. The pine-wood shank also developed a crack after I tried to straighten out a bend in the stem. A dab of Gorilla Glue fixed that problem. All that is to say ... buyer beware.

That didn't stop me from picking up a few other cobs. I initially got this little Country Gentleman pipe to replace my Great Dane, but I ended up making it my on-the-go pipe in my travel pouch when  I managed to fix the Dane.

Missouri Meerschaum also put out a line of Tolkien-inspired churchwarden pipes, presumably to capitalize on the popularity of the Lord of the Rings films, and based on the rave reviews, I ended up getting two of the four styles available -- a Shire Cobbit and a Wizard Cobbit.

The Wizard is the largest of the four, with the longest stem and a huge basket-shaped corncob bowl.

The Shire is shorter, with a smaller, acorn-shaped bowl. I prefer the Shire, as the Wizard is almost too heavy and clunky to use comfortably.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em...

And that's my collection. I'm not about to encourage anyone else to take up the pipe hobby, but neither do I discourage it. If you're interested in giving it a whirl, find yourself a corncob pipe, and talk to a tobacconist about what blend of tobacco you might find pleasing. There are plenty of over-the-counter brands that have been around for ages that'll get the job done -- Prince Albert, Sir Walter Raleigh, Half and Half are some of the names your grandpa might have used. (Captain Black Original is my favorite.) And while there's nothing spectacular about any of them, they will give you a decent idea of what you can expect pipe smoking to be like. Because pipe tobacco almost always has some sort of added flavoring, it won't smell like cigarette or cigar smoke. The scent is generally much more pleasing, even to nonsmokers who wave their hands around and cough whenever they come within 100 feet of a lit cigarette.

You'll also need matches or a lighter, some pipe cleaners to keep things tidy when your smoke is finished, and something to tamp down the tobacco in your bowl while you're smoking. You can spend a fortune on fancy lighters and tamping gadgets, but something as simple as a book of Diamond matches and a golf tee will get the job done. The tamping is important to keep the hot embers on the top of your bowl in contact with the tobacco beneath. Without tamping while you smoke, your pipe is probably going to need a relight at some point.

I think a lot of beginning smokers give up over relights. I know that's what frustrated me the first time I tried smoking pipes. I kept thinking I was doing something wrong. And indeed, there is an art to packing your pipe. You don't want to pack it so tight that no air gets through, but you don't want it so loose that the embers die out from lack of contact. It's one of those things that come with practice, and you'll find no end of people telling you they've found the best method of packing. The important thing is to stick with it till you find a method that works for you. And in the end, relights are OK. Sometimes the bowl just goes out.

Above all, relax and enjoy. In the end, that's what smoking a pipe is all about.