Suffering and Hope in the Tipi and the Cathedral

I don’t know if this story is true, if I dreamt it or wished it into being. But I know the imagery arose during a conversation with my son, Caleb, about the rough patch ahead in his quest to be free of the life-destroying power of opioids.

A campfire marks the centrepiece of a native ceremony in a tipi. The outer perimeter of the fire symbolizes the outstretched arms of Jesus. The legs and heart are somehow configured in the structure of the burning. The fire sits directly under the smokehole, at the centre of the song, storytelling, silence and prayer.

Two echoes moved me.

First, the description of the physical space.

As the description of the interior of the tipi unfolded, I visualised the magnificent domes of Notre Dame in Paris and the Duomo in Florence. Like all Gothic cathedrals, their design mirrors the shape of a cross. The Dome hangs above the centre of the cross.

In the Christian tradition, the cross means many things. And it needs to be handled with care.

I shall never forget the reminder of Lloyd Gaston, my New Testament professor, that, for Jewish people the cross carries much of the same emotional and historical weight as the swastika. And, as a Christian, I do not want to remove the person of Jesus from the meaning of the cross or transform that crude instrument of Roman torture and execution merely into a metaphor. 

Nonetheless, as the cross appeared to me in that moment of conversation, I was struck by a second correspondence between tipi and cathedral.

Within the Christian framework, the cross is a place where shortcomings and struggles are confessed, reconciliation worked out, and the possibility of new life offered, ideally, with a sense that one is embraced not only by God but by a supportive community of like-minded pilgrims. If nothing else, both suffering and transformation cling to the cross. 

Sometimes when people talk with me about the struggles of their own life or query my emotional or spiritual state they are tempted to move from a description of their situation to a counterpoint, “but I’ve been so blessed in other ways.”

While that may be correct, it feels as if they are attempting to balance a ledger. These hard things have come into my life, but I should not only dwell on these but also focus on the positive. Emotionally that advice might resonate.

Spiritually the task differs.

The spiritual task is not to come out with a positive balance after playing off the positive against the negative. The work and the permission are to hold both the suffering and the blessing together. Both can be true; both often are true. 

Usually, if you ask me how I am faring emotionally and spiritually, I will provide an ambiguous response. 

If pushed to go beyond the polite, the more accurate answer would describe being stretched out between agonizing worry about the torturous life of one I love, who is being destroyed by addiction, and hope that extends beyond reasonable possibility.

The cross does not allow pretence but allows, indeed demands, both radical honesty and possibility of a new reality. 

The cross does not allow pretence but demands radical honesty and a new reality.

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Grab hold to the cross, and there will be slivers and the heavy weight of reality. Grab hold and know that even the most unlikely person and circumstance may be redeemed. The cross does not generate peaceful, easy feelings but does sit lodged in the hard rock of reality.

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