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If you have two, three hours you’d like to waste someday, I can relate for you all the times I unsuccessfully quit smoking. I used all the stop-smoking aids available and, well, in a somewhat prideful sense, I overpowered every one of them: patches, lozenges, gum, hypnosis; the entire array.
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a friend of long-standing, had the same problem. He tried unsuccessfully as well and failed successive times. He thought he could quit simply by sheer strength of will, pure mental determination — pretty much the way he tackled most subjects that challenged his personal and intellectual interests. He conquered them and demanded their surrender. Which, incidentally, explains why he had a baby grand piano in his apartment; he bought it not knowing how to play it. He took lessons so he could, which was fine except in all the time I knew Richard, I never knew him to have a sense of rhythm, and if the absence of a singing voice can be called a singing voice, that’s what it was. Mostly, he invited guests to play it.
One year, 1997, back to smoking, in my own desperation I turned to prayer and self-denial to rid myself of the devil weed. I would give up cigars for Lent, yes, my precious Between the Acts cigar brand that years before Richard had introduced to me. (Best little cigar out there, by the way ― but of course, no, no, no, you shouldn’t smoke it, ever, really.)
I prepped for weeks before Ash Wednesday. I did a mental countdown. How many cigars were left that I could smoke between Epiphany and Transfiguration Sunday before Ash Wednesday? I don’t remember, but I remember I had the number. I timed my purchases to match ― one last cigar before the service, and nothing afterward. I was ready and determined, fierce in the cause. I shared the news with parishioners and friends, everyone except Neuhaus, as it turned out.
On Tuesday before Ash Wednesday I dropped by the post office to get mail. There was a large box from Richard. Enclosed were six cartons of Between the Acts, and a note. He said he was giving up cigars for Lent and thought I would appreciate his abandoned stash.
This, as I prefer to still understand it, was God’s sign saying that 1997 was not going to be the year I gave up cigars. It wasn’t Richard’s year, either. When I visited that fall, we sat on his patio on a mild afternoon and drank some Scotch and smoked our cigars. The poet, whose name I cannot place, said it:
daring me on
with whiskey and cigar
to the pack camaraderie
Russell E. Saltzman, a former Lutheran pastor, is a web columnist at FirstThings.com. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.