Why Cigars Are Good For You

July 25, 2012

I’m being a little facetious, of course.  And I tend to think weird (i.e. lofty and true?) thoughts when I’m smoking a cigar, as I am now.

But I’m being a little serious, too.  Through my experience, I’ve come to believe that there are certain qualities to a cigar — and to a (moderate) habit to smoking one — that can help us live a better life, and a more Catholic life.

Montecristo Cigars, the favorite of one of Hollywood’s great Catholic directors, Alfred Hitchcock

How, you might ask?

Perhaps it’s the way cigars help build friendships.  Some of the most memorable and meaningful discussions for me have occurred over a cigar — from personal heart-to-hearts about life and love, struggles and fears; to joint intellectual exploration of important ideas, such as the compatibility of American democracy with Catholic hierarchy.  Times such as these are what C.S. Lewis called “the Golden Sessions.”

Perhaps it’s the way cigars help you relax and reflect on life when you’re alone…Those are the moments when you can be with yourself and with God and can say with full honesty and gratitude:  “Life is good.”

It might be in the ideas associated with a cigar.  Its celebratory connotations remind us that after struggle and work come respite and reward, while its connection to class can inspire a lad towards self-improvement and the life of the Catholic gentleman.

Maybe it’s the way cigars clear the mind and sharpen the senses, making you more aware of (and thankful for) the world’s beauty around you — whether it’s a city’s bright lights and passing cars, or nature’s shining stars and whispering wind.  (I recommend an accompanying glass of bourbon or merlot when you’re doing this.)

And maybe it’s simply the way cigars disappear.  Smoke fades, the wrapper burns away, and when it’s gone, you’re left contemplating the transient nature of  life…and the eternity to be gained beyond it.

GK Chesterton: champion smoker and a Catholic champion

Cigars, in short, help you reflect.  They loosen the tongue, they clear the mind, and they help you contemplate…and learning how to contemplate is the first step to learning how to pray, and learning how to pray is the first step to meeting God.  Above all, cigars can be an aid in making you present to the mystery of the here and now — the mystery of finding the eternal God in the ephemeral moment…or better yet, letting Him find you.

Now I’m not saying that smoking cigars is a moral imperative; there’s no real morality (or immorality) connected with it at all.  It’s a luxury, a pleasure that should be enjoyed in moderation.  Yet it is a pleasure that can be edifying — not just physically and mentally, but spiritually as well.  (Maybe that’s why liberal California tried to pass a law placing an extra tax on tobacco recently…)

What are your guys’ thoughts?  Is this too much of a stretch?  Maybe I should start being a little more coy about my favorite habits…

a helpful note:  To those interested in picking up this venerable habit but are poor college students like me who wince at cigars’ sometimes high prices, might I recommend Trader Jack’s?  Tobacco might not be top-notch, and the wrapper is often poor quality.  But for the sweet aroma and long ashes, it’s a solid bargain for beginners at $1.50 each. Read the rest of this entry »


Catholics in America: an Introduction to the Series

June 16, 2012

Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote that America is, at once, the most democratic country in the world and the one where Roman Catholicism would make the most progress.  This is peculiar, because nearly everyone recognizes America as a “Protestant nation,” going all the way back to the Puritans of Plymouth Plantation.  One need only look at our economics, laws, government, and even everyday customs and sensibilities to see the imprint of Protestant Christianity on American society.

Yet Tocqueville’s observations have been surprisingly prophetic.  Back in 1776, Catholic numbers were negligible.  But today, Catholics form the nation’s religious majority at nearly 25% of the population, and it seems that we see them everywhere in the news, media, and pop culture.

Moreover, through the years their contributions to the nation have been undeniably essential to America’s identity.  It was Catholics, for example, who helped formulate the American ideal of religious freedom (in Maryland).

It was Catholics (Spanish colonists in Florida and the far West, and French colonists in Louisiana) who prepared the way for America’s dream of Manifest Destiny.

Catholics drove America’s industrialization through their immigration (Irish, Germans, Austrians, Poles, Italians, French Canadians) in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it’s humble Catholic immigrants today who take a lot of the jobs no one else wants (Latin Americans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Indians).

Catholics filled the armies, started businesses, and got into government.  Today, Catholics on every level are leading the way in protecting America’s traditional and most cherished rights — above all, the rights to life and religious liberty.  In short, Catholics have become as much of Americans as their Protestant brethren.

July 4th is coming up, and as we celebrate the founding of our country and how far we as a nation have come, I thought it would be neat to do a little series on the history of Catholics in America — a tribute to their struggles, their dreams, their contributions, and their triumphs.  Three posts to come as we anticipate the celebrations on the Fourth of July.

Part I. Colonizing a New World, Cultivating the Old Faith:  from colonial times to post-Revolution – what you didn’t know about the role of Catholics in the new Protestant nation

Part II. Immigrant Infiltrators or Loyal Fighters and Workers?:  from the 1840s to the 1960s – on the explosion of Catholic immigration, and America’s paranoid response to the “foreign, monarchist, and papist threat”

Part III. (Divided) Defenders of America’s Traditional Values:  from JFK to today – how Catholics, divided but impossible to ignore, are increasingly finding themselves at the forefront of America’s most important issues.

How silly we are to those Europeans, take 2. (Oh, and Catholic Matters is back!)

June 8, 2012

There are a lot of benefits to a semester abroad in Rome: Amid the majestic churches and grand ruins, and in between breaks for Ferrero Rocher coffee and panini lunches at the corner bar, I also got the chance to see the pope, chat up Italian women in their native italiano (sort of), educate myself in fine Tuscan wines and Sicilian cinnamon liqueurs, and learn from the example of such manly men as this political genius:

“I am the Jesus Christ of politics. I am a patient victim, I put up with everyone, I sacrifice myself for everyone.”

The pitfall of all these distractions, of course, is that I neglected Catholic Matters for a good 4 months.  And for this, I sincerely apologize.  However, after a period of presumed death comes life with renewed vigor:  Categories have been reorganized and rejuvenated, new ideas for future posts abound, and there are even rumors of a new partner blog called The Catholic Gentleman being tossed around…

Anyway, I think it’s appropriate that my first post back in America be about my Catholic experience in Europe.  Because I have to say, it wasn’t quite what I expected.

You see, you often hear from the American media that Christianity in Europe is fading away — that the breathtaking churches, teeming with beauty, history, and sanctity, are empty.  The Left, of course, delights in showing this to demonstrate the triumph of secularization and statism over religion.  But the Right just as eagerly contributes to this portrayal, too:  We are warned that we must not go the way of Europe, which has “lost touch” with its Christian roots.

As excited as I was for Rome, I was bracing myself for some of this: beautiful yet empty churches.

But obviously, it’s more complex than that.  A few of the Masses I attended, I was disappointed to find, were actually lacking in participants.  However, you have to ask yourself why, exactly, the churches were empty.

It could be that in Rome there’s a church literally on every block, and that every church has at least 4 masses every Sunday — so mass-goers, of course, would be dispersed.

It could also be that many of these churches have long been declared national historic treasures — and who wants to go to Mass with tourists taking pictures of you while you pray? (I, at any rate, found an unassuming church, devoid of tourists, next to my school building that was filled to capacity every Sunday and even on feast days.)

Moreover, the fact is, for many of the Masses I went to, the churches were full — far from the empty-church image I was taught to envision.

Just go to an Easter Sunday Mass at the Vatican to see that European Catholicism is far from fading away.

When some friends from France visited me in California a week ago, talking about attending John Paul II’s beatification and already making plans to go to World Youth Day 2013 in Rio, I was convinced:  There remain good and strong Catholics in Europe yet– a lot, actually.  Sure, Catholic Europe isn’t what she used to be, but she’s not totally lost, either.

Instead of believing the common misconception that old Europe has lost her faith, perhaps it’s better to see many of our European counterparts as like us.  Imperfect, struggling against the tide of modernity.  But still proud to be Catholic, still finding strength in the millennia-old Church that stands for Truth.

So instead of condemning them, let’s pray for them.  Because they surely are doing the same for us.

Reflections from Ash Wednesday: quick to the fast, slow to the pride

February 23, 2012

I have both a(n in)famously effective metabolism and an incredible love of food.  (It’s the Filipino in me, probably.)  This means that I like to eat, eat well, and eat pretty much constantly; the director of my study abroad program has already learned to bring my table second and third plates of food during lunch and dinner.

This is how I look like when I don't get food every 45 minutes.

I think that’s why the idea of fasting on Ash Wednesday has always been tough for me (even with the Church’s allowance for 1 full meal and 2 half-meals in the day).  And to be honest, yesterday was the first day in which I took fasting seriously.  Growing up, I remember being in awe at my dad, who consumed nothing but orange juice and water on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  For my part, even when I had turned 18, I said to fasting, “Umm, I’ll have my hearty meal of fish, thank you very much.”

But yesterday, as I passed on breakfast and snacks, partook in a paltry lunch, and refrained from an overly filling dinner, I realized two things about fasting on Ash Wednesday.

First, it’s great preparation for Easter.  Fasting and giving something up for Lent is not necessarily about mortifying the flesh.  It’s about remembering the important things in life.  We make ourselves live without what we like and sometimes even without what we need because we know that all we really need — and what will truly satisfy us — is union with Christ.  Yes, we sacrifice to emulate Christ’s own example of sacrifice; yes we sacrifice in repentance for our sins.  But we also sacrifice because it helps us overcome the distractions in our lives, so we can fully receive Christ at Easter more willingly and appreciatively.

Second, fasting (and sacrificing during Lent in general) is a remarkably humbling experience.  Now, before, I always made a point not to talk about or show off what I was sacrificing: I’m wary of comparing my sacrifices to the sacrifices of others and of falling into petty pride, and, after all, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  But what I realized yesterday is that sometimes, it can be good to talk about your sacrifices (and their accompanying struggles), because it offers the opportunity for fellow Christians to support each other.  So often yesterday, I let slip to my fellow Catholics how hungry I was and how much I wanted meat; they proceeded to strengthen my will and keep me accountable throughout the day.  It was enormously humbling to see all of us struggle with the fast together.

Fasting isn’t about proving yourself as “the holiest” amongst your peers.  Rather, fasting helps you realize that you are part of a worldwide community of believers, all of whom, in some way or another, are fasting and sacrificing alongside you in preparation for Easter.  So, with Ash Wednesday over and with Good Friday coming soon, let’s pray to be humble yet firm in our Lenten fasts and sacrifices.

Thoughts from Top Chef: What does it mean to be “Strong?”

January 19, 2012

I think that all of us, whether we realize it or not, like to control other people — at least sometimes.  I’ve seen people unnecessarily criticize friends (without any constructiveness) to make them feel better about themselves, and I’ve seen leaders give followers pointless and difficult tasks because it gives them a thrill watching others listen to them.  Putting others down, asserting our authority over others:  It gives us a power-rush.  It makes us feel strong.  It’s pathetic, but many if not all of us feel the propensity for it at least sometimes.

I began thinking about this when I was watching Top Chef last night.  I recently started following the TV series again after abandoning it after season 5 (Hosea as Top Chef?  Dear God, what a joke).  I became more annoyed than entertained by the personalities and basically didn’t have anyone for whom to cheer.

But a few weeks ago, when I randomly flipped the channel to Top Chef Season 9, I did find someone to cheer for:  Beverly Kim.  Maybe it’s because she’s Korean and I feel Asian solidarity with her and love to see her crank out delicious-looking galbi.  Maybe it’s because I relate to her:  She freely admitted that she is socially awkward and lacks common sense because she’d rather stay in and study than go out while growing up. Or maybe it’s because of her darn cute and funny mannerisms.

But the main reason that I and so many other fans love her is that she brings a whole new definition to what it means to be “strong.”  Many of the other chefs — Sarah, Heather, Lindsay — demonstrate strength by dominating others: bossing other chefs around, unnecessarily insulting teammates, and putting down competition by force of overbearing, egotistical will.  Bluntly put, the other female chefs know how to be loud.  And for some reason, they like to pick on Beverly.

Beverly is a different type of “strong,” though.  She might seem docile:  She’s non-confrontational and non-controlling, and she accepts criticism without complaint (“Beverly, what did I tell youuu?” “Sorry!!”). She’s a top-notch chef, but she’s widely recognized as the underdog.

While other chefs think that “being strong” means outwardly dominating others, Beverly’s “strength” exudes a sort of quiet integrity and confidence in oneself — a strength that can withstand the verbal assaults of others while also refraining from retort. She stands up for herself simply by being better than the competition.  Beverly doesn’t need to put others down; she focuses on herself, does what she does, and does a great job at it.  (Think about the Gospels:  The Pharisees tried to show off their power by “bullying” Jesus, but Christ, ever confident himself, always turned the other cheek and still won the hearts of others.  Which of these would we as Catholics consider demonstrations of true strength?)

That is why so many fans felt for Beverly when she was eliminated in last night’s episode, while other chefs with downright rotten personalities survive.  She was an underdog yes, but she also represented a refreshing contrast to other “strong” chefs who seek to dominate and destroy. Charming and sweet and a little bit ditzy, Beverly demonstrates an inner-strength that wins hearts over; she proves that you can be nice and still rise to the top.

As she seeks to resurrect herself in Last Chance kitchen (she already beat the surging Nyesha), she’s as strong as ever.  Because she should know that the world is cheering for her.

Dean Martin: “Cooler” than Frank Sinatra?

January 18, 2012

In my quest for sophistication, I’ve started listening to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra of the Rat Pack a lot recently.

After hearing their music and reading some brief biographies, I’ve come to admire both of these men for their confidence and class.  Cigarette or martini in hand, these virtuosos could sing, act, and crack jokes.  Both flourished out of rocky beginnings:  Martin was an amateur boxer who fought in bare-knuckle bouts because he couldn’t afford wrapping tape, while Sinatra had to carry his own P.A. system to perform at run-down saloons.  And in their Rat Pack heyday, they were comfortable enough to crack innocuous jokes about race, religion, and gender yet ultimately principled enough to refuse to perform at clubs that excluded African-Americans and Jews.

These were cool guys.  Just listening to Martin’s “Who’s Got the Action?” and Sinatra’s “I Won’t Dance” when I wake up every morning makes me feel like a cooler person for the rest of the day, for real.  In a sense, they’ve joined the ever-growing ranks of role models in my life as I seek to become a more complete person.

So, why am I talking about Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in a Catholic blog?  (It’s not just because both of them were born and raised Catholic.)

It has to do with the idea of role models. Especially when we are growing up, the role models we choose for ourselves are critical to who we become.  A lot of the time, these role models of ours come from popular culture; they are often recognized throughout much of society and demonstrate distinctive behavior or ideals that we want to emulate.

The reason I think that Dean Martin is “cooler” than Frank Sinatra — I use “cooler” facetiously, considering he was nicknamed the “King of Cool” — or, rather, the reason that I like Martin better as a role model, is that he seemed to have his priorities straight.

Though Martin divorced three times (once for his wife’s alcoholism, another time in the midst of a mid-life crisis), he was always if not outwardly recognized as a family man.  A father of 8, he cared immensely for his family even after his divorces, and he often left immediately after performances to spend time with his kids.  It’s said that Sinatra was actually quite irked that Martin preferred quiet time with his family to a rowdy time with the Rat Pack.  Martin was also shattered when his son Dean Paul Martin died in a plane crash and bowed out of a reunion tour with Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Furthermore, Martin, unlike Sinatra, enjoyed solitude.  While he always was able to have fun during a night on the town , he much preferred being at home with his family, or playing golf, or eating alone at his favorite Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills.

These two characteristics — a love of family and an ability to be alone with oneself– are important to emulate, particularly for Catholics. Catholics need to keep the family strong because familial love is often a child’s first experience of God’s love.  Catholics also should learn to be alone with themselves sometimes, because in doing so, we can better discern God’s call and contemplate our lives.

As his divorces show, Martin wasn’t perfect.  He also liked to keep up a persona of hard-drinking and irreverence; it got him the admiration and adulation he needed to stay a popular performer.  But Martin didn’t really need the attention.  In his private life, he knew what really mattered.  And that is what makes him, I think, “forever cool.”

Reaffirming Human Dignity with a Look and a Nod

January 14, 2012

In downtown Los Angeles, you learn not to look at people.

Part of it is because LA is extraordinarily impersonal.  But a lot of it is because you could potentially make yourself a target.

LA natives know well that some strangers you encounter can be unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst.  I have a family friend who accidentally made eye contact with gangsters; they apparently didn’t like the way he looked at them, and slashed his tires.

I myself can speak from personal experience.  In high school, I ran into a homeless person who asked me for money for food, and I willingly obliged; however, as I handed over a $5 bill, I heard the man mutter, “Dumb bitch, I’m gonna get so fuckin high on this shit.”   And last summer on my way to work, I made eye contact with a mentally ill homeless woman, who, disturbed by my looking at her, immediately began storming towards me, shrieking, “Why you looking at me?  We’re gonna get you!  We’re gonna get you!”

Experience has trained me and other Los Angeles residents to ignore others, especially if they are homeless.  It’s not that we’re cold-hearted.  It’s just that, while some of us might like to reach out to the poor on the street, the potential abuses and dangers you put yourself into force you to stay away.  Many accept this as the harsh, unfortunate, and tragic reality.  (Many people prefer instead to volunteer at or donate to poverty-relief organizations.)

That was the mentality I had when I was walking to work last week and approached a homeless man sitting on a curb.  As he lifted his head to look at me, I instinctively darted my eyes away, pretended he wasn’t there, and walked farther away.  Out of the corner of my eye, though, I saw that the man had lowered his head again, with a crestfallen and empty look.  It was a look that said, “I’m worthless.”

At that moment, I had never felt more pathetic about myself.

It could be that if I had made eye contact with him, he might have chased after me in a frenzy or begged me for drug money.  But it also could be that if I made eye contact with him — and merely nodded in acknowledgment — I could have reaffirmed that he is a person, that he does have worth, and that someone out there does care for him.

A lot of us — myself included — tend to ignore homeless people, sometimes out of convenience, a lot of times out of fear.  Having their existence ignored probably does a lot to reduce the poor’s self-worth.  However, we don’t have to give  money or even spend a lot of time with the poor to help them regain their sense of human dignity.  If we only look at them and nod and maybe say “hello” when we pass them by, we acknowledge their existence, and therefore reaffirm that they are indeed human beings, just like us.  It is in small, random occasions like these that we can establish a connection in which we are equals.

Our world can be harsh, and it can lead us to harden our hearts out of necessity.  But we as Catholics and Christians should remember that our mission is not to harden our hearts, but to open them.  It doesn’t have to take any extraordinary effort.  A simple look and a nod can make someone — especially someone who feels unloved and uncared for — feel like a person again.

I don’t know what happened to that homeless man I ran into last week.  For now, I can only pray for him.  And I can hope that someone, more courageous and with a better head and heart than I, ran into him, looked at him, and gave him a smile — from human to human.