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.


📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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