Can I Smoke In Church?

Cigarette by SuperFantastic on Flickr.

Can I smoke while I pray?

As our friends over at IgnatianSpirituality.com know well, there are all kinds of jokes about Jesuits. For reasons I’ll explain shortly, I recently thought of the following joke that’s posted over at their site:

A Franciscan and a Jesuit were friends. They were both smokers who found it difficult to pray for a long period of time without having a cigarette. They decided to go to their superiors and ask permission to smoke. When they met again, the Franciscan was downcast. “I asked my superior if I could smoke while I pray and he said ‘no,’” he said. The Jesuit smiled. “I asked if I could pray while I smoke. He said ‘of course’.”

Sure, this is one in a long line of jokes that portray Jesuits as being Jesuitical. And anyway, the relationship between smoking and prayer may seem distant at best. Right? Turns out, maybe not. At least a few cultural tidbits suggest that the joke may be on to something.

Take for example F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1936 short story “Thanks for the Light,” which was just reprinted in The New Yorker. It tells the story of Mrs. Hanson, a cigarette-loving sales representative who contemplates taking a smoking break in a cathedral:

It seemed very tall, and suddenly she had an inspiration: if so much incense had gone up in the spires to God, a little smoke in the vestibule would make no difference. How could the Good Lord care if a tired woman took a few puffs in the vestibule?

I don’t want to spoil the ending, equal parts miraculous and spiritually insightful, so I’ll just note that you can find the full text on their website.

Or what about the iconic season two finale of The West Wing, “Two Cathedrals”? In the excerpt below, President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) has a few strong words with God after the funeral of his secretary, Delores Landingham.

There’s more to this scene than the pretend president stomping out his lit cigarette on the floor of the National Cathedral. It raises some deep and recurring theological questions about God’s role in the face of tragedy and loss. And it shows Sheen’s character engaged in the type of angry and unflinchingly transparent prayer that can rise in the hearts of all believers – smokers and non-smokers alike.

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