Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Holy Smoke!

This is an image of an image-maker.  This priest is himself a photographer, which meant that the photo session was particularly enjoyable, especially for the man behind the lens.  It wasn't long before our subject and Steve were deep in conversations about f-stops, pixels, lens characteristics and the electronic (as opposed to the traditional) darkroom.  When we'd exhausted our repertoire of shots in the church, the good Monsignor invited us to the rectory to see some of his own work.

It was always a treat to be invited back to the priest's digs.  It's too easy to think of our clergy as a breed entirely apart.  Seeing their home base has a way of reminding us that they are as ordinary and individual  as anyone else.  In this case, as soon as we walked in it was evident we were in the house of someone who loves photography and reading.  There were stunning images of the Irish countryside on every wall, and books in the book-cases, some two-deep, spilling onto the desk and left by the easy chair, several in progress at once.  And on the table beside the chair, under the light was a neat, wooden stand, with half a dozen pipes standing at attention, ready for use, leather tobacco pouch laid beside them.

A small confession.  I've always loved pipes, an admission liable to result in my being drummed out of polite, anti-tobacco American society.  As a physician I am well aware of the pernicious effects of smoking, but there's something warm, professorial, thoughtful and oh-so-comfortable about pipe smoke.  Maybe it's my primal affection for Sherlock Holmes and his two-pipe problems, or the memory of a particularly pleasant colleague whose office was one down from mine and whose cherrywood smoke drifted into my own office as he worked.  At any rate, I asked if we could take a few more images, and our subject was delighted to comply.

As a rule, pipe smokers fiddle with their pipes more than they smoke them.  Steve clicked away as the pipe was filled and tamped with a well worn implement and  eventually coaxed into flame.  A few determined puffs and smoke curled from the bowl, making graceful shapes as it rose.  Rearranging his subject for optimal light, Steve sought the perfect image of that curving smoke.  Once back home, we realized there was an abundance of riches in those images.  This is a detail from one of them.

Maybe my affection for pipe smoke isn't so hard to understand from a Catholic perspective. We inherited from our Jewish forefathers an appreciation for smoke--the smoke of offerings, the smoke of incense, as both metaphor for God and the very image of our prayers and sacrifice rising heavenward.  Pipe smoke isn't incense, of course, but I am willing to believe that it is at least as pleasant as the smoke from burnt offerings of old.

Why the smoke?  Aside from tradition and the Biblical references of incense symbolizing prayers rising and the altar (or the faithful) being recognized as set apart by censing, there's the physical reality of it all. Smoke is best seen up against something else in the world to bring it into sharp focus.  It's impossible to feel it or taste it, but  just as impossible to escape from it--it surrounds everything and you KNOW it's there.

A bit like God.

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