Three months ago, I did something rash—something I never would have thought myself capable of. I made a solemn promise to God that I wouldn’t smoke or drink for a year.
Anyone who knows me, or has read anything I’ve ever written, will know this is a radical departure. I’m passionately pro-drinking and pro-smoking; I certainly don’t recommend that my readers take such drastic measures without first consulting a spiritual advisor.
In fact, when I told a priest-friend what I’d done, he sent me an email saying: “I’m sure you have good reasons for doing this, but it strikes me as excessive, almost Manichaean or Jansenistic. I wish you well, but I cannot think it wise.”
Yes, it may have been unwise. It was certainly Jansenistic, which isn’t always the thing. But I think my reasons were quite sound.
Let me explain.
If you spend enough time in Catholic subcultures, you’ll come across a clique my old friend Damian Thompson refers to as the Bowtie Brigades. You know exactly who he’s talking about, don’t you? It’s such an evocative phrase.
He means the devotees of C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, etc. He means the grown men who take their whole worldview from The Lord of the Rings. (The books, of course. Not the films.) They dress in tweed and smoke pipes. They’ve been called “Catholic hipsters,” thanks to their penchant for thick beards and craft beer, though they resent the fact that their fogey aesthetic is now in vogue. (I suppose that’s exactly what a hipster would say…) And they talk unironically about restoring the House of Habsburg.
Whenever he referred to the Bowtie Brigades, Damian would speak in the third person. Yet surely he must have known I enlisted at the age of ten.
I’m the secretary of our local Chesterton Society. I own a whole closet full of hand-me-down tweeds. I smoke like a chimney and drink like a fish. I describe myself as an anarcho-monarchist, after Tolkien. And, yes, I have a bust of Bl. Karl of Austria on my desk.
Nor do I have any intention of resigning my commission. I’m proud to march under the banner of the Pint, the Pipe, and the Cross.
Still, it occurred to me: I became a Chestertonian long before I ever thought about becoming a Catholic. I was taking my cues from Orthodoxy and Mere Christianity back when I was a middling sort of Anglican. Everything I know about the Faith, I learned at the feet of these great, frumpy giants—these Bowtie Brigadiers, like CSL and GKC.
Really, I never knew the Cross without the Pint and the Pipe. And you can see how that might be an issue.
Needless to say (to you, anyway; not to me), Chesterton himself knew that his line had very limited applications. Here’s the entire quote: “In Catholicism, the Pint, the Pipe and the Cross can all fit together.” Which is quite true! The Catholic Church refuses to ban pleasures just because some men turn them into vices.
Yet I don’t mind admitting that, for me, G.K.’s trifecta became a rival Trinity. I couldn’t really imagine what it meant to be a Christian except to be a smoky, boozy young fogey, albeit a Mass-going one. The Inklingesque fellowship I enjoy with my friends was, to my mind, the essence of a Christian life. Drinking beer, smoking pipes, and talking about Plato: that’s how we ought to live.
Which is also true, so far as it goes. But that’s not what we’re supposed to live for. After all, God didn’t become a hobbit. He became a man. And man is made for more than pleasure, even the pleasures of a country squire.
Let me say once again that I am emphatically in favor of such pleasures. The trouble is that, for me, I didn’t just enjoy smoking and drinking: I venerated the Pint and the Pipe alongside the Cross. I turned Chesterton into a sort of idol.
In fact, there’s no other word for it. I was an idolater. I was not putting God ahead of all else. On the contrary: I was putting the Chestertonian “thing” on par with the Catholic “thing.”
And I don’t mind admitting that the rest of my life was negatively impacted. I gained weight; my breathing was labored. I didn’t spend as much time with my family as I should have. I certainly didn’t pray as much as I could have.
Yet I’d brainwashed myself into the Cult of Booze and ‘Baccy. I’d blinded myself to the harm I was doing—not only to myself, but also to my loved ones. That’s what idolatry does. That’s what sin does. Sins hunt in packs.
Anyway, once I gained a little clarity, I made my promise to God.
Was it unwise? I don’t think so. I’m afraid I’ll miss out on Octoberfest; otherwise, I’ve never been happier. And, as it happens, this little experiment in teetotalism has only confirmed my Chestertonism.
“The man with a gigantic power of enjoyment goes through life very quietly,” wrote GKC, “for he can enjoy quiet things.” I always loved that line, though I suppose I never really understood it. A Catholic can (unlike the old Puritan) enjoy smoking and drinking; he can also (unlike the new pagan) enjoy not smoking or drinking.
Of course, this is the logic behind fasting. When we starve our senses of worldly pleasures, we become sensible to the higher, subtler pleasures of the spirit. When we do away with artifice—with pleasures of our own design—we become aware of the simple joys God lays out all around us. This is what Our Lord meant when He said, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Mt. 6:28-29)
Father Hopkins put it nearly as well:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
It’s also the message of my hero, St. Francis of Assisi. As Chesterton himself said of the first Franciscans,
The detail over which these monks went mad with joy was the universe itself; the only thing really worthy of enjoyment. The white daylight shone over all the world, the endless forests stood up in their order. The lightning awoke and the tree fell and the sea gathered into mountains and the ship went down, and all these disconnected and meaningless and terrible objects were all part of one dark and fearful conspiracy of goodness, one merciless scheme of mercy.
I’d heard this a lesson over and over, and yet I’d refused to learn it. We humans really can’t be taught, can we? We can only find things out the hard way, and then learn to trust those who tried to warn us.
Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way. These last few months I’ve felt like The Runaway Bunny, which Mrs. Davis has been reading to Baby Davis. I feel like I’ve been having this long, silly argument with God:
“What if I go have a beer and a smoke at the pub?”
I’ll be sitting beside you.
“Well, then, what if I stay home and drink tea instead?”
I’ll be there, too.
“And what if, instead of smoking, I hike to the top of that mountain?”
Then we’ll be closer than ever.
“I’m not sure. It’s a very tall mountain.”
Well, my boy, I’ll meet you at the top.
We said that fasting is a pleasure no less than feasting, and rest is a pleasure no more than work. In fact, we can’t have one without the other.
Likewise, drinking is a pleasure, and so is sobriety. What is not a pleasure is drunkenness. And that’s the paradox of sin. Whenever a pleasure becomes a vice, it ceases to be a pleasure—quite literally.
Take another example. Cigarette smokers don’t smoke to feel good: they smoke to feel normal. Stephen Fry once noted that “smoking has absolutely no point other than to stop the misery of not smoking.” Quite so. That’s why, in The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis says that men arrive in Hell saying: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.”
That’s one of the most chilling lines in all of English letters. Real, serious, varsity-level sin doesn’t even feel good. It may be a relief, like your twentieth cigarette of the day; but it’s not a pleasure, like your first pipe in a week.
Take any old example. Eating is wonderful, but overeating is miserable. Rest is refreshing, but sloth is draining. Love transfigures; lust deforms. The key, as Aristotle said, is moderation. If we deny ourselves no pleasure, they will cease to please us altogether.
I’m learning that lesson the hard way, which is the only way. And I’m not the only one. As G.K. observed, our countrymen are possessed by “a hedonism... more sick of happiness than an invalid is sick of pain.” (That’s another haunting turn of phrase.) And, as Christians, “Our tears are less desolate than their laughter, our restraints are larger than their liberty.”
At least, they ought to be. Mine were not. So, I have to put away my pint and pipe awhile, to find freedom in the Cross. Once this year is up, I have every intention of smoking and drinking again… though not quite so much, nor so often. I’d like to enjoy my pint and pipe, too—not crave them.
Above all, I’d like to be able to say, “Yes, I put God first. If I smoke and drink, it’s only because smoking and drinking brings me nearer to Him. If I wear tweed, it’s only because wearing tweed brings me closer to Him. If I write yet another newsletter about Lewis and Chesterton and Tolkien, it’s because Lewis and Chesterton and Tolkien bring me closer to Him”. And I intend to mean it.
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