Some weeks back, the eyes of the world were focussed upon Paris in the wake of the tragic fire which caused considerable damage to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. In reading the accounts of the fire at that time, I couldn’t help but recall that the cathedral is famous, not just for its stunning architecture and history, but also through the literary fame of Victor Hugo’s classic tale The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Set in medieval times, Hugo’s novel tells of Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bell-ringer of the cathedral. Grotesque in body and deformed in face, Quasimodo is shunned by Parisian society because of his appearance. Living in the cathedral, the hunchback entertains a love for the only person who has ever shown him kindness, a gypsy girl called Esmeralda.
In my favourite part of that story, Esmeralda is hiding in the cathedral when “she heard a voice, concealed beneath the wind screen of the bell tower, singing a sad, strange song, as though to lull her to sleep. The lines were unrhymed, such as a deaf person can make.” Quasimodo sang the following to Esmeralda:
Look not at the face,
Young girl, look at the heart.
The heart of a handsome young man is often deformed.
There are hearts in which love does not keep.
Young girl, the pine is not beautiful,
It is not beautiful like the poplar,
But it keeps its foliage in winter.
Alas! What is the use of saying that?
That which is not beautiful has no right to exist;
Beauty loves only beauty,
April turns her back on January.
Beauty is perfect,
Beauty can do all things,
Beauty is the only thing which does not exist by halves.
The raven flies only by day,
The owl flies only by night,
The swan flies by day and by night. (1)
And the story continues: “One morning, on awaking, she saw on her window two vases filled with flowers. One was a very beautiful and very brilliant but cracked vase of glass. It had allowed the water with which it had been filled to escape, and the flowers which it contained were withered. The other was an earthenware pot, coarse and common, but which had preserved all its water, and its flowers remained fresh and crimson.”
The cry of Quasimodo is as poignant as it is powerful. He is insightful to understand that outwardly beautiful people can be inwardly cruel. A “deformed heart” can be cloaked by a beautiful exterior. He longs that people look beyond his outer appearance to see who he really is. Behind the ugliness of his deformed features, lies a heart of gold which is the real Quasimodo.
But how difficult we find it to see as Quasimodo asks us to see. We are a society driven by image, where cosmetic surgery seeks to prolong an outward sense of beauty, when natural beauty may have faded. We like to look good ourselves and would much rather everyone else look good, too. We recoil at what is unsightly and we are attracted to the attractive.
How different to our usual behaviour is the heart of God. When the prophet Samuel was sent by God to anoint a new king of Israel, all the sons of Jesse appeared before him. The eldest was a fine-looking man. But God’s criteria for suitability was quite different:
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
I am reminded also of these words from Peter’s first letter:
Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight (emphasis added, 1 Peter 3:1-4).
And what about this challenge from James’ letter:
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)
The Scriptures reveal to us a God who is not swayed by outward appearance, but looks to the heart to see the real person. Jesus modelled this par excellence in His life and ministry. Beyond the frightening exterior of the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus saw a man who could be clothed in his right mind. Beneath the cheating tax collector, Zacchaeus was seen a son of Abraham who longed to come home. Jesus saw past the fisherman called Simon to see a rock called Peter on which His Church could be built. In the young man Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree, Jesus identified a true Israelite in whom there was no guile.
How do we treat people as Jesus did, in the way that Quasimodo longed to be treated? It means suspending our hasty judgements and choosing to really get to know people. Don’t take people at face value, but seek the real person who lies beneath. It means calling a halt to villainising people just because we think something might be the case. We must know people by reality, not rumour.
The old phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” certainly rings true. In God’s eyes, all human life has beauty, because He is our Creator and humankind is meant to reflect the image of God. We are called to see others with the same eyes, to behold the inherent beauty that lies beyond the human exterior.
Quasimodo knew how badly the human race is conditioned to love beauty and shun deformity and the way in which we make our judgements according to visual merits. Quasimodo’s nocturnal ballad is the song of the gospel, to love as God loves. Not a love swayed by outward appearance, but a love that embraces people because at the heart level we are all in equal need of a Saviour.
1. Hugo V, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 2001, Harper Press, London, p483