Half a Pack of Prayer

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Smoking in church. (photo credit: Flickr user Lefteris Heretakis)

I bought my first pack of cigarettes from a 24-hour donut shop. I was under age but late at night, when the only person there was the guy mixing dough for the next morning, basically anyone as tall as the counter could buy a pack of cigarettes. I bought a pack of Marlboro Lights. They were disgusting. They still are. But I smoked them anyway.

Early on I would smoke in solitude and in secret. When I got my driver’s license I’d smoke on long late night drives with the windows down so I wouldn’t smell like an ashtray when I got home. There were only a few years in college when I was really ‘out’ as a smoker. Most of my smoking career has been spent in a quiet corner, a secret sin. A temporary temptation. Or so I said.

I bought my last pack of cigarettes about a month ago – nearly twenty years after I bought the first one. How’s that for temporary?

Parents, if you want your kids to avoid getting into trouble, discourage them from having any friends. Lots of bad decisions begin in friendship. My first cigarette was given to me by a friend. He was also giving me a ride home from school. Who was I to refuse him? But then, just like some bad decisions can begin in friendship, I find that almost all good ones begin in honesty.

Do I want to want to smoke? Yes. And no. That’s the thing about addiction. I don’t want to even as I do. This much I know: I’ve always smoked a lot less in times when I chose to be honest, when I wasn’t hiding.

***

When we’re trying to make positive changes in our lives and find nagging old habits in our way, St. Ignatius gives us very practical advice: tell someone you trust what you’re struggling with. Light scatters darkness. Honesty. Transparency. Light.

We may be a step or two (or twenty!) from perfection but Ignatius encourages us not to wait for perfection before we begin. So you don’t want to quit? How about asking for the desire to quit? Or even praying for the desire to have the desire. God accepts imperfect prayers as well as the people who make them. Good is better than perfect and accepting imperfection is a first step toward the good. I’m not perfect. I don’t want to want this. I need help.

I haven’t smoked on a regular basis in well over ten years. But, from time to time, I’ll bum a cigarette from a friend around a campfire or outside of a bar. More troubling is my habit of buying a pack to get me through a stressful transition – a momentary grief, a particularly difficult week, a new beginning or an unwanted ending. Everyone has their rituals. Sitting shiva. A wake or a novena. The Garifuna people of Belize will cut down a tree when someone dies and burn it from one end to the other to mark the period of grief. Me? I buy a pack of cigarettes. Sometimes two. Not as dramatic as burning a whole tree, but the basic principle is the same – pain expressed in measured time.

Grace doesn’t wait for perfection. In those early years, for better or worse, smoking was a first step in the direction of ritual and the practiced self awareness of intentional breathing. It was a reaction to boredom, pain, loneliness. It was a first move toward a conscious (if not totally free) response to my interiority. It was an asceticism of sorts, a penance, a way to burn something, to feel something. Before it was a habit, it was a choice. A bad choice to be sure, but a choice nonetheless. The point is that grace is at work long before we achieve perfection. Even in the smoky back corners of bars grace can get a foothold.

Smoking became a path into devotion. It asked me, sometimes demanded me, to find a place apart, a few moments of solitude. It required me to breathe. It gave me a sense of self reflection. It required equal parts honesty and self-deception. A smoker (if she’s not totally delusional) confronts mortality. A smoker might begin to ponder their self-destructive habits with greater transparency. They may know when or why they smoke – to light up admits the need, admits the trigger. There may be self-deception – I can stop any time. I’m freely choosing this. – but even here is an opportunity for honesty. We accept that we’re conflicted.

***

Perhaps the grain of wisdom here is that our imperfections aren’t god-forsaken. As the Jesuit Anthony DeMello once said, “Be grateful for your sins. They are carriers of grace.”

Even now I’ll occasionally want a cigarette – it’s a hard habit to kick – but I know that I don’t want to want one. I know now that there is a profound difference between craving and desire. I also know that spirituality, like any true friendship, begins in honesty, not fantasy. And honesty includes everything. The dark corners of dive bars. The late night decisions. The mornings after. But also the turn to self-care. The desire to choose life instead of dwelling in mortality. The invitations to be good to myself as my friends would have me do. And, by the grace of God, to actually quit smoking.

I’m also deeply grateful that I eventually came to discover how to pray without killing myself. Lighting a candle. Breathing deeply. Letting profound desires rise above simple cravings. Drawing closer to the good and resting in God.

As I write this my feet are warmed on the hearth of a fireplace in a silent house on a day full of rain. It’s nice to know that the prayers we make don’t have to sit in our lungs. Sometimes a smoldering flame in the heart is good enough.

***

The cover image, from Flickr user Sudipto Sarkar, can be found here.

The photo above, from Flickr user Lefteris Hertakis, can be found here.

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