Posted by: Titus Presler | January 6, 2012

Missional notes from the New York Public Library’s centennial exhibition

Several things stand out for me from the New York Public Library’s outstanding exhibition, “Celebrating 100 Years,” which collects notable historical objects – mostly books, maps and manuscripts, but also other items from the library’s own collection – on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the library’s historic and monumental Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan – yes, the building with the stone lions out front.

First, the exhibition is arranged thematically, not chronologically, the themes being: Observation, Contemplation, Creativity, and Society.  This was a creative decision that focuses attention on fundamental human activities rather than on time periods or academic fields.

Second, the explanation of “Contemplation,” obviously the sector of interest to religious folk, is nicely put in a way that has missiological significance:

Whether focused on a deity, a spiritual force, or the individual soul, the search for something beyond the material realities of daily life has always been one of the hallmarks of humanity.  From the Bhagavata Purana, celebrating stories of Krishna, to T. S. Eliot’s classic modernist poem The Waste Land, the items displayed here reflect the ceaseless desire for meaning.  In their own quests, individuals as varied as Dante Alighieri, Rabindranath Tagore, Virginia Woolf, and Malcolm X have used travel – the journey, the pilgrimage, the search – as a metaphor or organizing principle.

Travel is intrinsic to mission, of course, for mission involves moving beyond one’s own community to encounter other communities.  The travel may be literal geographical travel to a distant geography, or it may be metaphorical travel to the very different social group on the next block.  For the authentic missioner, travel of whatever kind becomes a pilgrimage, that, is, a journey in which the traveler discovers something more about God.

Third, among the items in Contemplation is a remarkable large book entitled The Sundhya, or The Daily Prayers of the Brahmins.  The bulk of the book is a series of finely rendered colored drawings of Hindu Brahmins at their prayers at various pilgrimage sites in India.  Published in 1861, it is the work of a Mrs. S. C. Belnis, an English woman resident in Bengal.  Clearly she had not only an excellent artistic hand but also a deep appreciation for the religious people she was depicting.  Nothing is said of her own religious affiliation, but we may presume she was a Christian.  There is nothing to indicate she had any particular missional interest, but it is noteworthy that here was an English colonial resident who valued Hindu devotion enough to depict it in painstaking and, I speculate, loving detail.

Fourth, facsimiles of maybe 30 diary pages of Malcolm X from his Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca are laid out so that one can read them sequentially.  The missional significance of Malcolm X for Islam among many in the USA cannot be underestimated, although some in the wider world of Islam were ambivalent about the USAmerican Black Muslim Movement.

Finally, included in the Contemplation section is the first surviving book printed in the Western Hemisphere.  Entitled Doctrina Breve, this Spanish-language work is a brief outline of church doctrine.  It was composed by Juan de Zumarraga (1468-1548), the first bishop of the Spanish colony of New Spain, who founded a printing press in Tenochtitian, what is now Mexico City.  Doctrina Breve was published in 1543-1544.  Obviously, the work was designed to assist in the catechetical instruction of converts in New Spain, that is, designed for use in mission.  Its publication antedated by almost a century the publication of the first book in British North America, the Bay Psalm Book in 1640.

The exhibition continues through 4 March 2012.  The exhibition website, unfortunately, is not particularly inviting or informative, so don’t be put off by it – just go.



  1. Awesome site you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any community forums that cover the same
    topics discussed in this article? I’d really like to be a part of community where I can get opinions from other experienced individuals that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Kudos!

    • Thanks for the appreciative comment. Well, I don’t know of another site which is looking at the world, particular places and public life and letters from the standpoint of mission – that’s why I’ve generated the site. So, welcome, and I look forward to your further reflections and commentary.

  2. This is lovely, Titus. Thank you!

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