A couple of weekends ago, friends who appreciate visual art were visiting from out of town. Charlie and I took them to the Morgan Library; they had never been before, and we had gone enough times to know that, no matter what exhibits were being offered, we would probably see something interesting. We wandered through the amazing library, with its collections of Bibles and classic ancient texts. Then we walked through one gallery of Medieval renderings of monsters and another exhibiting eighteenth century portraiture and still another showing modern sketches and watercolors.
By this time, we were reaching our saturation point. We almost left, but at the last moment we decided to take a quick glance at a gallery on the second floor. The exhibit there was titled The Magic of Handwriting. I wasn’t sure what it was all about, but soon discovered it was an extensive collection of handwritten notes and letters compiled by Brazilian author and publisher Pedro Correa do Lago. And what a collection it was! Organized into categories such as “Science,” “Music,” “Politics,” and many more, the gallery was filled with all sorts of original correspondence from famous people throughout history.
The collection was far-reaching. It included a supply list written by Michelangelo and a note from Ernest Hemingway when he was a young child, asking his father to a baseball game. Political figures from Queen Victoria to Sun Yat-sen to John F. Kennedy were represented; Beethoven and Mozart, Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson, Einstein and the thumbprint of Stephen J. Hawking—the list of categories was comprehensive and the content of each was deep.
The effect of these handwritten offerings was mesmerizing. No matter our particular interests, each of us felt that we were brushing up against history. Seeing the genuine thoughts of actual people written in their own hand had the curious effect of bringing us closer to them. It was oddly intimate in the most unexpected way. People long dead seemed to be present with us. Their thoughts and ideas took shape before us; profound content jumped from the page, but even the most mundane correspondence seemed fresh and immediate.
As Christians, we don’t have the advantage of primary sources when it comes to Jesus and His communication. As amazing as that would be, our faith must necessarily be based on other sources: the witness and devotion of the first followers of “The Jesus Movement.” But we do have the advantage of encountering the immediacy of lives lived faithfully. We exist among a “great cloud of witnesses” and are invited to offer our own witness to the faith that sustains us. That opportunity is available to us always. We can absorb the lived testimony of others, passing it on with our own unique passions and abilities. Our faithful expression may never be collected in a curated exhibit, but it could affect lives in ways we will never know.