When I first met missionary and artist, Lilias Trotter, it was in the pages of a book given to me by a dear friend who is now, herself, a missionary to Ireland. This book, Faithful Women and their Extraordinary God, is written by Noel Piper and is a collection of short stories about the lives of five women and how God used them in their unique circumstances, giftings, and callings. With a love for Christian biographies, I dove into this book ten years ago to learn the life stories of these five women. One of them was Lilias.
It was a delight to read the story of this seemingly forgotten woman. I hadn’t realized at the time that Noel Piper’s book was just the beginning of Lilias’ reintroduction to the world. There was little written about her from various sources, but there was a small group of women who in this day and age had been continuing to keep her story alive. They affectionately have named themselves the Trotter Trust. I had not heard much else about Lilias in the years between first reading Noel Piper’s book and now. And then it came, an invitation.
An announcement came to our seminary inviting students and families to attend a special viewing of a documentary film about the life of Lilias Trotter called Many Beautiful Things. Although I was not able to attend, I was curious about this film and I already knew I wanted to watch it at some point and learn more about this daughter of God, her art, writing and mission work.
As I began reading two of her books, I was incredibly moved by the way she compared the process of new birth in Christ and sanctification to the processes of plant life. So detailed in her descriptions and so delicate with her words, she draws the reader into the intricate world of plant life to paint illustrations of spiritual truths. I was intrigued. What else was there to know about her and how beautiful it would be to discover it.
It is when the death of winter has done its work that the sun can draw out in each plant its own individuality, and make its existence full and fragrant. Spiritual growth means something more than the sweeping away of the old leaves of sin – it means the life of the Lord Jesus developed in us.
–Parables of the Cross
The documentary film, Many Beautiful Things, is a glimpse inside the research process of Miriam Rockness and her journey over many years in discovering more about Lilias’ life, her writing, art, and ministry in both England and Algeria in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. As I learned more about her, I was struck with a sense of beauty that seemed to effortlessly flow through her thoughts and images. Her mother had introduced her to England’s most famous art critic of the Victorian age, John Ruskin ,who helped to hone her skills and technique. At the same time, she was attempting counter-cultural and even dangerous work serving and feeding homeless street women. Eventually, Lilias was faced with an enormous decision as her mentor encouraged her to focus solely on her art. Would she pursue the greatness that Ruskin believed she could accomplish and give up her work with the poor, or continue her ministry to the homeless?
Take the very hardest thing in your life – the place of difficulty, outward or inward, and expect God to triumph gloriously in that very spot.
Just there He can bring your soul into blossom.
-Parables of the Cross
This was a monumental crossroads that she had come to. Desperate to know God’s will for her, she sought the Lord in prayer and submitted herself to His purpose for her, no matter the cost. Could she entrust her art to God? Could she give up one of the greatest gifts she had been given? What was she being called to?
Surrender – stillness – a ready welcoming of all stripping, all loss, all that brings us low, low into the Lord’s path of humility – a cherishing of every whisper of the Spirit’s voice, every touch of the prompting that comes to quicken the hidden life within: that is the way God’s human seed-vessels ripen and Christ becomes “magnified” even through the things that seem against us.
– Parables of the Christ Life
As Lilias discovered, God was changing the course of her life and setting it in an all new direction. It would still include art, but art would no longer be the goal; it would be a tool for ministry to a different people group, in a far away land.
“Before us all dawned, I think a new horizon – of the glory of the task to which God has called us – a glory in its every hardness & in the sense that we are working for the future & its coming day. ‘We were dreamers dreaming greatly.’”
23 October 1911 – Lilias Trotter
As my daughter celebrated her birthday recently, I was overjoyed to give her the gift of a children’s story about this woman called, Lily the Girl Who Could See. There are many similarities I see in my daughter and Lilias, and its a joy to see her discover her own gifts, given by the great Giver and to offer her a true story that points her to Him. The story itself, written by Sally Oxley and Tim Ludwig with Miriam Huffman Rockness is like a biography for children and the artwork in watercolors on every page are reminiscent of Lilias’ paintings further creating a holistic portrayal of this artist, writer, and missionary.
I often come across the stories of Christians in bygone eras and am drawn into their stories, the sights and sounds they experienced, the emotions they felt, the honest reflections of life detailed explicitly in journals, poems, essays and like Lilias, in her art. I am only beginning the journey of discovering her work, absorbing the images she painted, and opening my heart to what God desires to show me through what He has shown her. And He has shown her…
“many, many beautiful things”
-Lilias Trotter, her last words.
*This reflection is my small part in continuing to tell the world the story of Lilias Trotter. For more information, please visit the website of biographer Miriam Rockness: Reflections on the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter. To purchase the film, Many Beautiful Things, click here. To purchase the children’s book, click here. A full list of books, booklets and art by Lilias Trotter can be found here.