Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders You have done.
The things You have planned for us no one can recount to You;
were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare.
—Psalm 40:5

“When God looks at you, there is a smile on His face. He embraces you in love, sets a place for you at His table, serves you with His own hands, converses and delights Himself with you incessantly, and invites you to be part of His loving actions in the world.” So writes Brother Lawrence.

Oh, how I hunger to experience God in this way. I’m guessing you hunger for this kind of life, too.

In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster shows us the way into this kind of rich, intimate friendship. Foster explores the spiritual practices that kept Jesus in constant fellowship with His heavenly Father and sent Him into the world as a powerful agent of change, bringing light and life to all He met. It is the Contemplative Stream of Christian life and faith that places us at the feet of Jesus to learn the language of prayer and the rhythms and practices of a life lived in the kingdom of God. If we will but still ourselves as did Jesus, and listen, God is eager to share life with us, and, if we ask, disclose His perfect design for our lives.

What we need is a picture of a contemplative life. A glowing example is found in the story of Lilias Trotter.

Passion for Beauty and Service

Isabella Lilias Trotter was born in July of 1853 and grew up in London’s exclusive West End. Her spiritual sensitivity was evident even in childhood but deepened in her early twenties through the “Higher Life Movement” which swept through England bringing a fresh spiritual vitality. She learned from notable Bible teachers like Hannah Whitall Smith and D.L. Moody that intimacy with God always shapes and prepares us to express God’s love in service to others.

Lilias already was sensitive to the plight of the poor in London, particularly women. She was active in the YMCA and founded London’s first affordable public restaurant for women so that they would not be forced to eat bag lunches on city sidewalks. She went out alone at night to find and befriend prostitutes at Victoria Station, offering them safe housing and vocational training. Lilias led Bible studies to share the good news of Jesus Christ and introduce women to the Good Shepherd of their souls. She was beautiful of soul and wonderfully alive with the joy of the Lord.

Paralleling her zeal in service to others was a passion for beauty, matched by an exceptional God-given artistic talent. It was her unique gift for watercolor that brought Lilias to the attention of John Ruskin, an acclaimed artist and adjudicator of art in Victorian England. When Lilia’s mother showed him her daughter’s work, Ruskin immediately took Lilias under his wing to tutor her as a budding artist. “She seemed to learn everything the instant she was shown it,” he said, “and ever so much more than she was taught.”

An Immortal Offer

Following three years of close observation, Ruskin made an offer. “Ruskin says I could be England’s greatest painter,” Lilias confided to a friend, “that I could do things that would be immortal. Please understand that it is not from vanity that I tell you, at least I think not, because I have no more to do with my gifts than with what is my color of hair, but because I need prayer to seek God’s way more clearly.” Ruskin had explained that there was a condition to his offer, Lilias must conclude her life of service and “give herself up to art.”

While Ruskin’s generous offer was received by her family with great enthusiasm, it shook Lilias to the core. She was very much attracted to the idea of a life devoted to painting, yet she hesitated. Green-Armytaer observes, “A contemplative makes the love of God his main, his only object in life” (John Who Saw, p.47). 

Lilias immersed herself in prayer, asking Jesus what He wanted her to do. Her request was answered: “I see clear as daylight now, I cannot give myself to painting in the way [Ruskin] means and continue to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness.’”

No one knew better than she how her refusal of Ruskin’s offer would impact her life, yet her decision gave Lilias “a grand independence of soul,” which she later described as “the liberty of those who have nothing to lose because they have nothing to keep.” Lilias threw herself into her London mission work with renewed passion and joy, assuming that she would continue in this work indefinitely. But Jesus had other plans.

Answering the Call to Africa

As biographer Miriam Huffman Rockness puts it, something was growing inside Lilias that came so quietly that when the moment of recognition arrived, there was almost an inevitability about it. Lilias heard a missionary tell about Muslim people in North Africa who knew nothing of the saving work of Jesus. At the close of the meeting he asked, “Is there anyone in this room whom God is calling for North Africa?” Lilias rose to her feet, and replied, “It’s me. He is calling me.”

God calls people to serve Him in different ways. What we share in common is a willingness to renounce anything that stands in the way of God’s design. The root of our contemplative life with God will blossom in the way that best fits God’s plan and our abilities. For Lilias, it seems her contemplative life of prayer found ultimate expression in a creative combination of all six traditions of the Christian faith Foster mentions in Streams of Living Water: holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical, and incarnational. In fact, Lilias anticipated that this might be true of all who pursue a life of devotion. Lilias called it a “trained faith”:

“The early stages of faith are reaching upward, like the eaglets for their food when the mother-bird is overhead. It is an older faith that learns to swing out into nothingness and dropdown full weight on God—the broken-up nest of former ‘experiences’ left behind—nothing between us and the abyss but God Himself. Trained faith is a triumphant gladness in having nothing but God—no rest, no foothold—nothing but Himself. A triumphant gladness in swinging out into that abyss, rejoicing in every fresh emergency that is going to prove Him true. ‘The Lord alone’—that is trained faith.”

Lilias applied to the North African Mission board to serve overseas as a missionary. When she was turned down for health reasons, she and two friends prayed about it and felt compelled to commit their own personal resources to go on their own. Even though they knew no one in the country and could not speak a single word of Arabic, thirty-five-year-old Lilias and her friends set off for Algeria. They secured lodging in the poorest Arab section in the city of Algiers and set about learning the language of the people. 

Over the next four decades, Lilias and her small team established mission outposts all along the coast of North Africa and south into the Sahara desert, sharing through word and deed the love of God in Jesus Christ. She went door-to-door, pioneering methods of reaching people that were one hundred years ahead of their time. Lilias published a collection of beautifully hand-crafted gospel materials in Arabic, illustrated by her own paintings, along with a book designed especially for the Sufi mystics, introducing them to the Jesus Way. (A sheik of one of the Sufi brotherhoods asked, after her death, to receive a book he could barely understand because on the front cover was her photograph.)

Over the span of her ministry, Lilias worked vigorously to do all that Jesus put in her heart to do, which is why it was difficult to understand the apparent lack of results.

When Lilias arrived, Algeria had been living under the pressure of French Colonization for nearly seventy years. The French resented the presence of the English missionaries in a Muslim world that resented Christianity. All along there were multiple setbacks and blocked opportunities to share the good news of Jesus. At the end of four decades there was little visible evidence to show for their loving investment—no schools, no hospitals, no churches. In her journal Lilias wrote, “Nerves get overstrung in this climate. An exhaustion comes through the body to the spirit so vivid at times that the very air is full of the powers of darkness. Things still look very dark and heavy all around, but when the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth. It is better to wait for the torrents that will set life going. I am beginning to see that it is out of a low place that we can best believe.”

A New Way of Seeing

Her practice of contemplative prayer was giving Lilias a new way of seeing. The physical toll of the ministry was significant and the results were difficult to measure, yet what she could see was children believing in Jesus, girls being saved from abusive marriages, women learning marketable skills, young men devoting their lives to Jesus—all evidence of changed lives. She was learning to trust God for all that remained unseen. “We are working for the future and its coming day. We are dreamers. Dreaming greatly.”

Through all the days of her life in Algeria, Lilias kept journals—a page for each day, illustrated with watercolors to record the messages she received through her times of meditation on Scripture and nature. In the end, she did not give up her art, she used it to illustrate the lessons she received through prayer. The following are samples taken from her journals.

Lesson From a Bee

“A bee comforted me very much this morning concerning the desultoriness that troubles me in our work. There seems so infinitely much to be done, that nothing gets done thoroughly. If work were more concentrated, as it must be in educational or medical missions, there would be less of this— but we seem only to touch souls and leave them. And that was what the bee was doing, figuratively speaking. He was hovering among some blackberry sprays, just touching the flowers here and there in a very tentative way, yet all unconsciously, life—life—life was left behind at every touch, as the miracle-working pollen grains were transferred to the place where they could set the unseen spring working. We have only to see to it that we are supercharged, like the bees, with potential life. It is God and His eternity that will do the work. Yet He needs His wandering, desultory bees!”

In another entry, Lilias reflects,

“How childish it must seem to them up in heaven, when we treasure the importance of a thing by its size. ‘Fulfilling His word’ …‘The meeting of His wishes’—that is all that matters.”

The Power of Persistent Prayer

When one of the support columns in their ancient Arab home collapsed suddenly one morning, shattering on the pavement below and carrying with it a block of masonry and shower of bricks and blue and white tiles from the arch above it, Lilias learned from an architect that bakers in the attached shop next door were the cause. Every night for the past eight years, they had swung on a huge see-saw to knead their bread. Every blow backwards and forwards had sent a vibration through the house, and now at last the result was seen in the shattering of masonry that had looked as though it would last as long as the world. 

As she meditated on this occurrence, Lilias recognized in it an illustration of the power of persistent prayer that Jesus urges upon us in Luke chapters 11 and 18.

“There is a vibrating power going on down in the darkness and dust of  this world that can make itself visible in startling results in the upper air  and sunlight of the invisible. Each prayer-beat down here vibrates up to the very throne of God, and does its work through that throne on the principalities and powers around us. We can never tell which prayer will  liberate the answer. But we can tell that each one will do its work. ‘This is  the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according  to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of Him’ (1 John 5:14-15).

Fire Upwards!

“A story of the first Napoleonic wars has often come back to me. Napoleon  was trying, in a winter campaign, to cut off the march of the enemy across  a frozen lake. The gunners were told to fire on the ice and break it, but the  cannon-balls glanced harmlessly along the surface. With one of the sudden  flashes of genius he gave the word, “Fire upwards!” and the balls crashed  down full weight, shattering the whole sheet into fragments, and the day  was won. 

“We can “fire upwards” in this [spiritual] battle, even if we are shut out from  fighting it face-to-face… . We can as truly, as effectually, as prevailingly, do our  share within the four walls of our rooms. ‘To You, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in  You I trust, O my God.’ (Psalm 25:1-2).”

Lilias Trotter was shaped and tempered by a contemplative life of prayer that poured from her in a loving service characterized by holiness, the power of the Holy Spirit, a passion for justice, and a heart for evangelism. She incarnated the love of God in such winsome and kind ways that she won the hearts of all who knew her. 

When, at 75 years of age, her body finally wore out, she died surrounded by the Algerian people whom she loved. Those present say at the last she described seeing beautiful things. Then she raised her arms as though she would hold them all in her embrace, lifted her hands in prayer, and quietly slipped away. Her body was laid to rest in the soil of her beloved North Africa.

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