On the Cigar: A Theological Reflection

April 28, 2014

by John Goerke

My mother, so it seems, has no one to blame but herself for planting the seeds that have grown into my love for cigars. My youth was not spent in their presence, not did she ever speak to me of their virtues. But she did, on more than one occasion, present to my eyes the monster that is the steam locomotive. Such things are passing away now, and I doubt whether anyone who finds this little essay will know what I am speaking of. But the image of greased steel and smoldering coal is as fresh to my eyes as the digits on my hand. The steam locomotive rolls into view with thunderous authority. The sheer size of them is enough to make the casual observer shudder. Behind the size is a power. Though the wheels turn slowly as the train passes the station, they are not straining. Rather the locomotive is the image par excellence of reserved strength. With every press of the pistons, more power is held than is handed away.

Such self-control is the sure mark of a person, or in this case a monster, absolutely certain of his own authority. You can earn the fear of a man by running towards him with the reckless abandon of the maniac, but you can more certainly earn his respect by approaching slowly. Hail moves with haste, icebergs move with hesitation but only the latter can sink ships. This imaginative feast found in the sight of a passing locomotive was the midwife for my love of the cigar. For this vision of dignity and strength was never present without a cylinder standing perpendicular to the rest of the body: a cylinder from which poured smoke.

Whether or not others share a similar genesis narrative for their own love of the cigar is not my concern here. Chesterton loved the cigar and wrote a whole essay in defense of it. Churchill’s mouth and hands were most frequently occupied with two tasks: the handling of the English language and the handling of the Cuban cigar (though one may add a third occupation in the handling of Scottish spirits). Even John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a man who was at once sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong – was wise enough to appreciate the cigar. That such great men have busied themselves with this rolled wonder can be no accident and it is worth reflecting, if only for a moment, on why this is the case.

A wise professor I recently spoke with seemed to think it is a matter of the cigar’s effects. Tobacco smoke has a way of sharpening the mind, imbibing it with an almost supernatural energy. He used this phenomenon to explain the cigar’s favor among intellectuals and literary types. Reading and smoking do have a natural complementarity. One may burn through a book and exhale smoke “thoughtfully.” But I don’t think this is the whole story. The same sharpening effect can be had with the cigarette – an item whose users seem to be offering a perpetual apology for it. Saying: “I really mean to quit,” seems to be a requisite part of the whole ritual for those few who still light up in public. But the cigar does not suffer from such insipid enthusiasts. The cigarette, which is loved more and more simply for its ability to energize the smoker, can be replaced by the grotesque invention of the electronic cigarette and it ought to give the casual observer pause that while e-cigarettes have soured in popularity, the electronic cigar remains an obscure item, unknown to all but a very unhappy few.

As is my habit, I see this as a spiritual difference. The cigar has far more existential depth than the pale chalk-like sticks currently being institutionally taxed and socially ostracized within an inch of their lives. Contra Freud, a cigar is never just a cigar. This is apparent from the first moments of their existence. In a little shop in Lower Manhattan, I watched with wonder over the shoulders of two men as they turned a pile of cured tobacco leaves into the subjects of this essay. Most conspicuous was their care. Leaves were broken, laid out, pressed like clay, broken again, laid out again and rolled like a fine bread dough. The cylindrical shaft was then wrapped as snugly as a baby in a dark moist wrapper, which became almost like skin for how tightly it bound to the inner tobacco. This wrapper was hand cut and applied with the most delicate movements of the fingers.

It was this finishing touch that called to mind the Christian doctrine of divine creation. For each cigar, like each of us, was “wonderfully made.” The maker formed each with his own hand. When finished, though similar to each other in many respects, each cigar is absolutely unique and we who smoke them can say the same of ourselves. We are similar, a fact which grounds all philosophy, science, art and literature, but all unique in our abilities, interests and situations. Like cigars we may be slimmer or wider, darker or lighter, longer or shorter, but this variety gives flavor to both the world of men and the world of the humidor.

We also, especially those of us who write essays of this sort, have another aspect mirrored in the cigar. Because we are fallen creatures, we will produce far more smoke than heat in this life. Most of our words and most of our actions will have the same fate as a silver curl of smoke. Seeming at first to be dense, solid and substantial; they will dissipate and eventually be lost to the wind. Perhaps they will, in the manner of smoke, bring some momentary happiness to those around us but they may just as easily be a cause of discomfort or even pain. Saying the wrong words to the wrong people is eerily similar to smoking in the wrong company. I ought not tell the clerk in this smoke shop, “I love you.” But I also ought not smoke a stogie in the presence of the woman mentioned at the start.

What is more, we like cigars must eventually turn back to ash. The Christian habit of annually applying ashes to the forehead does much to clear up the thinking that goes on in those particular heads. We may each burn for a little longer or a little shorter, but we will each of use, eventually, burn out. Often, like our cigars, this will happen before our full load of tobacco has been burned, before our full potential has been given away. The best cigars, like the best people, are burned right down to the very last and we call these people saints, for they gave all they could and all they had been given.

But this last thought leads to the most glorious difference between ourselves and our cigars. According to the pagans of yesterday and the pagans of today, our story ends where our cigar’s story ends: in the communal ashtray call the cemetery. We burn for a while and then extinguish forever after. Yet, the pagans were as wrong yesterday as they are today, for we have a certainty that this is not the end. Our maker does not form our core and wrap us in skin to have us simply expire. We are called back from our ashes and our bones are gonna rise again. This means that there will be no cigars in heaven. But this ought not darken the heart. Each extinguished cigar is a reminder that our own fate is not so bleak. We have a chance never given to these pillars of rolled tobacco. We can know and love Him who made us. I submit to you, that the cigar can be an aid to this end. I believe my reflections above sketch how this may be achieved. Let me then conclude with the words written on a placard currently mounted on the wall above my head. We are each of us made and lit and burning. What comes after will not be of this passing nature. But while we are in the world, I submit to you: “It is better to smoke here, than in the hereafter.”

John Goerke is a writer pursuing a Master of Arts in Catholic Studies, and he is a frequent contributor at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He resides in St. Paul, MN. 

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Reader Interactions


  1. Rob says

    I draw similar comparisons to smoking my pipe and drinking a bit of Irish whiskey, uisce beatha, the water of life. I also believe the Irish tradition of “watering your whiskey” is very symbolic of the priest mingling the water and wine during Eucharistic celebrations.

    • The Catholic Gentleman says

      Yes, I too enjoy a pipe. Anything finely crafted is a wonderful expression of our dignity as image-bearers of God. We can be co-creators, whether our craft is painting, music, writing, or rolling cigars. Benedicamus Domino!

  2. J.d. Read says

    Amen. I am puffing on my pipe as I read this—-just after the previous pipe full and a glass of wine as I finished grading my students’ papers.

  3. geekborj says

    Everything in moderation. This blog has given me a good insight as to how one can justify cigar and alcohol. But indeed, everything boils down whether we do all things for God and in thanksgiving.

    This I wonder: How do we define the boundaries of morality regarding these seemingly amoral acts (cigar, alcohol/beer)? I’m sure the arguments herein cannot be used for weeds or other drugs.. I don’t know but I seem to have missed arguments against these possible extensions.

    Thanks and cheers!

  4. Gil Berg says

    I enjoyed cigars for 40 yrs and then bang, heart attacks, AFIB, Congestive heart failure in 2008.. Quit smoking for about 5 yrs, Asked my Doc, Can I go back and smoke cigars, He said, Gil your 81, go and enjoy life….Great Dr and a shooter also…

  5. JoeMoney333 says

    The quick answer to that would be a question. Does the substance change the person and their mental capacity? Cigar, no. Pipe, no. Alcohol, can. Weed, yes, Cocaine, yes. Having a drink is not immoral while getting drunk could be considered immoral. Thus the moderation. The argument against drugs such as weed, cocaine, and harder drugs is that there is no moderation. You can’t take those drugs without getting high and changing the state and mental capacity of the person.

  6. Pablo says

    I totally agree. I enjoy my pipe from time to time. When I meet with my friend from time to time we buy a higher range cigar and enjoy a manly conversation over it. We even found Ave Maria cigars which refer to the Immaculata. Now that’s a catholic cigar.
    If they are used wisely, they are good.

  7. Nicholas Hardesty says

    I am shocked that you did not mention anything regarding the cigar’s pleasing aroma, which calls to mind our prayers, which rise to the Lord as incense, and our sacrifices, which we pray may always be a pleasing aroma to Him.

  8. manuxflash says

    That cigarette smoke has interesting, curious and inspiring effects can be. But I would not eat the same as Chesterton (whom I read with pleasure) to fatten like him, or the rate of consuming cigar as Churchill, because I run out of money. But beyond that, we now know (which neither Chesterton nor our grandparents knew as certainly) the harmful effects of smoking and cigar. Its use is harmful, simple and plain. They will give me all the aesthetic and literary for consumption reasons but if I had kids, you’d know that every thing we consume toxic can mean one less day with them, I take care of me.
    In the end, God gave us life to give to others, not to smoking and lung cancer.
    (sorry for my poor english)

    • machina says

      Do we? Is the research between Smoking and Lung Cancer is definitive and conclusive?
      There are researches that tried to produce lung cancer by smoking almost to the point of asphyxiation on animals. (because it’ll unethical if the research is on human) and none can produce it no matter how hard they try. Infact the smoking animals actually outlive the non-smoking animals. And not only that, the current oldest living man is a cigar man. The oldest woman recorded was 122 and she was a smoker as well.
      So is the research is definitive and conclusive? If it is, then why smokers outlive the non-smokers? We’re either the only single living being to die from smoking or the scientist have made an error somewhere along the way.

      God gives us life to know and to love Him. And we better use our intelligence to do that and to learn about all created things around us.

      • machina says

        Oh and of course I’m talking about Organic Tobacco, not those which are mass-produced. So much additives to the cigarettes to keep the cigarettes ‘better’. But even if mass produced cigarettes which contain so much toxins and carcinogens, can outlive the non-smokers…I submit again my question: Is the research between smoking and lung cancer is definitive, conclusive and final?

  9. Tommy says

    Sam and John, the comments here are really good, but I ask you to go over to my website where we have a few really good comments on your piece as well.
    http://forums.cigarweekly.com/showthread.php?t=174718 Some of the men posting in that thread (Jazznut, especially) are some of the smartest people I know. You’re getting a nice bit of compliments. Thank you for one of the best cigar-related essays I have ever read. Machina, it’s not just direct smoking, but the huge effort against indoor smoking because of ETS (second-hand smoke) is based on poor science and LOTs of emotion, as well.


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