There was scaffolding on it, rising high above the flying buttresses, surrounding the spire that would eventually fall. It’s an inside joke with family friends that I can’t manage to see a cathedral without it having scaffolding on it. I’ve seen Saint Patrick’s in NYC covered by scaffolding and a screen printed with a photograph of the front in better days. I’ve seen the Cathedral at Rouen surrounded. I’ve seen the tower of Durham, rising out of the matchsticks of renovation work. And it’s not just cathedrals either: I got to the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. the spring after an earthquake sent a crack up through the Washington Monument. It rose, white and straight, and covered in a grid of scaffolding, from among the flowering trees.
I know why, of course. I know why old buildings need renovation or cleaning done. I know that I live hundreds of years after these edifices were built and I can’t expect them to withstand weather and war unmarred. But I’d still love to see one without scaffolding. I was thinking of this as I watched the video footage of Notre Dame Cathedral in flames. The fire shot out through the squares of the grid that was supposed to help put a crumbling building back together.
As I write this, I have a book sitting by my elbow that explores the use of the word hesed throughout scripture. I have a playlist ready to go that will walk me through music and scripture and devotional thoughts to meditate on each day of Holy Week. Across the table is my booklet from Bible study, with questions to help me consider the text of Habakkuk. They’re all scaffolding.
I heard an interview with a reporter who has been writing about the renovation work at Notre Dame for the past few months. She talked about being taken up to the roof and shown places where the stone—hundreds of years old—was falling off in chunks. The lovely old building was covered in scaffolding to be restored and strengthened for years to come.
Of all my scaffold-covered cathedral visits, I think Saint Patrick’s was the most disturbing. That screen printed photograph that covered the surface of the grid seemed to proclaim to the millions of passers-by that all was well, nothing to see here, this is what Saint Patrick’s really looks like—you don’t need to know that there’s work being done.
At its best, scaffolding is in place for a time and assists in the work of uncovering the beauty underneath. At its worst, a screen printed photograph covers the scaffolding and with a quick glance, I can pretend that the picture I’m seeing is the reality—that no work is needed. My books and playlists and Bible study questions could be either of these things, and it is only through careful reflection with the Holy Spirit, the community of my brothers and sisters in Christ, and the Word of God itself that I can truly dig down into which role my scaffolding is playing.
We have our own scaffolding, and we help build the scaffolding of the children in our lives with devotional readings and songs, prayer and space for meditation. These are all such very good things. But are they doing the good work of scaffolding—helping us to uncover the beauty underneath, the deep truths of God’s Word and person? Or are they merely a covering, that makes it look like work is going on?
I watched the flames consume the roof and spire, and the scaffolding could not save it. And I watched the fire burn with a ferocity that the scaffolding couldn’t contain. The reality was within: both the destructive force and the incredible beauty. And the grid of metal sticks had no bearing on either.
In his book Inexpressible, Michael Card writes about the words that hesed draws into its orbit throughout scripture: truth, mercy, covenant, justice, faithfulness, goodness, favor, righteousness. He later notes another phrase that is drawn in as well: “Of the many words that hesed draws to itself by means of its linguistic gravity, morning is one that rarely makes any of the lists.
‘I will…joyfully proclaim / your hesed in the morning’ (Ps 59:16).
‘It is good…to declare your hesed in the morning’ (Ps 92:1-2).
‘Let me experience / your hesed in the morning’ (Ps 143:8)” (p.78).
There was still smoke escaping out through the grid of scaffolding when darkness fell on Paris after the fire. I went to bed a few hours later, not knowing what of the reality—the cathedral itself—had survived. But in the morning when I woke, I saw a photograph of from inside after the fire, a beam of light shining down on the golden cross and the Pietà up behind the choir.
The scaffolding could neither save the beauty nor contain the destruction, but in the morning, the light still shone.
Turn and have compassion on your servants.
Satisfy us in the morning with your hesed
so that we may shout with joy and be glad all our days.”
Psalm 90:13-14 (HCSB)