Sacred Smoking? Cigarette Breaks and Spiritual Health

The fourth-floor terrace at a hospital in Vancouver is an interesting place that can act as metaphor for the setting of the city itself. It is a space of absolute natural beauty and yet also a space filled with the mundane, sometimes uncomfortable realities of life. In this space, and in the moments of connection that happen there, prayer acts in transgressive ways, bringing life, breath, healing, in often smoke-cloud-covered moments. The significance of the cigarette break as a time for prayer and spiritual connection cannot be underestimated. For many of our participants the cigarette break, and specifically the smoking area of the fourth-floor terrace, act as prayer-full, sacred moments and spaces for a couple of reasons.

Photo by Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham

First, when one participant took me to the smoking area of the terrace during our walking interview I asked her what she thinks it is about this space that makes it prayer-full. She told me that the patients are desperate for a cigarette, as smoking “calms them” and that facilitation of that moment makes it prayer-full because “you’re out of that context of the hospital” and it is a place where they are “on their own, away from all of that.” The smoke break therefore serves to provide a moment of calm, a moment of freedom from their experience of being in hospital. It is a moment set apart. Furthermore, this participant went on to explain that sacred space is created in those moments of calm and quiet as people are granted the space for self-reflection.

I did bring you out the smoking area in the garden and that for me, I mean I see people out there and they’re on their own and they’re, you know, stuff is going through their heads when they’re out there. They’re going through something when they’re out there. To my mind that’s almost like a place of prayer.”

Another participant highlighted the importance of the cigarette break in building rapport between the spiritual health provider and patient.

So smoke breaks. So you know, a doctor will write an order, patient allowed for 30 minute accompanied break outside the unit with chaplain. So then, you know, me the chaplain has to understand and recognize that that’s part of my duties and responsibilities and make the most of that. And so I do that and I use that as an opportunity to get to know the patient. So you know, rapport building. So really an interview on a smoke break is really no different from an interview in an interview room.”

Here we see how engaging in the mundane practices and moments of life leads to the opening of opportunity for connection. This creation of community, of trust, and of connection is an essential element in the creation of the sacred. The profane, therefore, is not mutually exclusive with the sacred, as Durkheim would suggest (1995), but can in fact be fundamental in its creation.

Finally, beyond the smoke break offering a moment of calm, of self-reflection, of rapport building and connection, the physical space of the smoking area also allowed for another kind of connection to happen that our participants suggest is essential to spiritual health: the connection between the individual and nature. When on a walking interview with one of our participants, who took me to this smoking area, I asked him about the relationship of natural beauty to the sacred and what he thinks it is about that space that draws him to it, or why he uses that space in particular to pray with patients. His response was as follows:

It’s just nature. It’s just beauty. You know the way I’ve described nature is that nature takes you outside of yourself. It kind of points to a creator. So I think it gets people into that transcendent realm. It’s just, it draws you to something beyond yourself. A life-force that can create this kind of beauty. You know?”

In these examples, we can see how prayer, and the spaces it happens in, transgress our expectations of what exactly is “sacred.” In the most mundane of situations and places, the sacred appears. While Durkheim (1995) suggests that the sacred and the profane are mutually exclusive, he also states that the boundaries between sacred and profane can be trespassed. These examples not only show the movement between profane and sacred, but also show how, in fact, the profane can at times be sacralized. According to sociologist N.J. Demerath (2007), “sacralization is the process by which the secular becomes sacred or other new forms of the sacred emerge, whether in matters of personal faith, institutional practice or political power” (66). In the moments where spiritual health practitioners use the cigarette break and the smoking area to create sacred moments and spaces, sacralization is happening.

Using a clever analogy, Demerath (2000) states that, “too often we look for the sacred under a religious street lamp, when we should be searching amongst other experiences in the middle of the block” (4). People become so focused on finding the sacred only in religious contexts that they miss out on the examples of the sacred that can be found in other situations. The data we are gathering about prayer in health care settings is revealing how instead of just looking for the sacred in the chapel, in the multi-faith room, in the places and spaces we expect prayer to be happening, we need to be looking for the sacred in unexpected places. Yes, even in the smoke break.


Demerath, N.J. III. “The Varieties of Sacred Experience: Finding the Sacred in a Secular Grove.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 39 (2000): 1-11.

Demerath, N.J. III. “Secularization and Sacralization Deconstructed and Reconstructed.” In The Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, eds. James A Beckford and N.J. Demerath III, 57-80. London: Sage, 2007.

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by Karen E. Fields. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

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