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30/09/2019 Of Cigarettes and Grace | Joshua Hren | First Things

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OF CIGARETTES AND GRACE


by
Joshua Hren
9 . 30 . 19

T he dramatic action of grace is rooted in Christology: Christ descended into the world


and passed through the particular in order to redeem. This movement is the model for

writers with Christic imaginations; they strive to imitate it—or at least make legible its e ects.
The poet or writer needs to pass through the concrete in order to arrive at insight. Any
storyteller worth her salt does this by discovering particulars—telling details, arresting images,

revelatory actions, snatches of dialogue—that signify more than themselves “without becoming
less actual in so doing,” as Father William F. Lynch contends in Christ and Apollo: The
Dimensions of the Literary Imagination. These symbols “make the imagination rise indeed, and yet

keep the tang and density of that actuality into which imagination descends.” F. Scott
Fitzgerald’s posthumously published short story “Thank You for the Light” narrates an action

of grace that, though comic, successfully captures how Christ trans gures the mundane and
works miracles through the concrete particulars of this world. 

Fitzgerald introduces the protagonist Mrs. Hanson as “a pretty, somewhat faded woman of forty,
who sold corsets and girdles.” We nd that “smoking meant a lot to her sometimes.” Mrs.
Hanson is a widow without relatives, and her loneliness is exacerbated by her weak eyes’

inability to endure more than one moving picture per week. Since her reassignment to the Iowa-
Kansas-Missouri sales circuit, she’d had di culty drawing a pull of tobacco. Although “‘nobody
who was in the war would ever object to anyone smoking,’” most are wary of a woman taking
drags.

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One day, Mrs. Hanson is condemning herself as “a drug end” and fretting over quitting
smoking when she beholds a Catholic cathedral. Not Catholic herself, she amuses us with her
musings. “If so much incense had gone up in the spires to God, a little smoke in the vestibule

would make no di erence,” she supposes, though “the thought o ended her.” Reasoning that
he wouldn’t mind because “in His days they hadn’t even discovered tobacco,” Mrs. Hanson
steps inside only to come up empty when she digs for matches in her bag. Carried away, she
decides to “go and get a light from one of their candles.” But as she enters the inner sanctum,
she sees an old man striking out the last votive light. 

Darkness erases all but the electric chandelier “high overhead” and “the ever-burning lamp in

front of the Sacrament.” (The Catholic novelist Ron Hansen has pointed out that Fitzgerald’s
choice of “Sacrament” instead of “tabernacle” here gives the story a deep strain of Catholicity.)
When the departing sexton asks her if she came to pray, she says, “Yes, I did.” The reader feels
the lie stretch into truth as she kneels down in the dim. Ri ing through the spare change of her

spirit, she “scarcely knew what to pray for.” She utters some pleas on behalf of her clients and
employer, and in this moment we are bent over by her utter loneliness.

Mrs. Hanson nods into dreams of the Virgin taking her place on the sales circuit, and when she

wakes she nds that “there was a familiar scent that was not incense in the air”—her cigarette is

mysteriously alight. Too drowsy to think, she looks into the Madonna’s “vague niche” and
thanks her twice, the second time from “on her knees, the smoke twisting up from the cigarette

between her ngers.”

The grace that lights Mrs. Hanson's cigarette rings true because it doesn't summon an
unbelievable epiphany or a cold call conversion. How hard it is to strike the right balance

between what Lynch calls “the de nite” (concrete particulars) and the “insights” that we can

gain by passing through them. The Christic imaginer must guard against the greedy poetics
of “[getting] as much as possible of heaven out of as little as possible of earth.” Mrs. Hanson has

no grand transformation. Instead, during her brief sleep in the pew, she dreams of a Madonna
who does things the Mother of God would never do: “In her imagination, the Virgin came down

. . . and took her place and sold corsets and girdles for her and was tired, just as she was.” In

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answering her unspoken ask for a light, the miracle absolves her from fretting over at least the
sin of smoking in church, and the action of grace solicits more from this sinner than from the

nine lepers Christ cleansed: “Thank you very much for the light,” Mrs. Hanson says.

It can be tempting for Christian poets and writers to rush through the nite in order to “send
the soul shooting up into some kind of absolute” (Lynch’s phrase). But the best Christic

imaginers pass through the tang and density of actuality in their stories in order to work out the

characters’ salvations or damnations, proceeding one insight at a time.

Fitzgerald possesses an a ection for the real; he is never one to exploit particularities by making
them epiphanies. Surely this comes at least in part from his Catholic sensibility; a

sacramentality sometimes shimmers through his stories. The Beautiful and Damned begins when
“irony,” “the Holy Ghost of this later day,” descends upon its protagonist as “the nal polish of

the shoe.” The short story “Absolution” unravels a young Jimmy Gatz abandoning the Church

in favor of sucking “the pap of life,” of nding “something ine ably gorgeous somewhere that
had nothing to do with God.” In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald gives us tragically restless

characters who rush to force as much as possible of paradise out of the humble shirts of created
things. In “Thank You for the Light,” by contrast, Fitzgerald gives us the widow’s mite, his

incarnational imagination passing lovingly through the small, de nite things of this world. At

the story’s end, Mrs. Hanson remains earthbound, but the smoke of her lit cigarettes lifts our
hearts like incense, curling through our brains the smoky, braided praise by which we will inch

toward heaven. 

Joshua Hren is Assistant Director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey College and author of This
Our Exile: Short Stories. 

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