Missionary Lilias Trotter In Algeria
22 August 2013
It's funny how one thing leads to another in life. About ten or so years ago, I started reading to my two older kids the beloved children's books written by Patricia St. John, who worked most of her life as a missionary nurse in Morocco.
During the past year I have been reading our collection of Patricia St. John books to my youngest child — and I even found five or six "new" books which I had overlooked during that first round years ago! As I was searching for more of her books, I took a look at the list of all her works on Wikipedia.
Under the "biographical" section, I noticed a very interesting title: "Until the Day Breaks: The Life and Work of Lilias Trotter, Pioneer Missionary to Muslim North Africa." That got me wondering exactly who Lilias Trotter, born 66 years before Miss St. John, was. The fact that she was a pioneer missionary to Muslim North Africa, and that the esteemed Patricia St. John had written her biography, were two high marks in Miss Trotter's favor.
Although "Until the Day Breaks" was published as recently as 1990, try as I might, I was unable to locate a copy for purchase — which seems unusual for a book that's only 23 years old. However, as I was searching around Amazon.com, I did come upon a more recent biography of this little-known missionary, A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter by the little-known author Miriam Huffman Rockness. So I bought myself a copy — see how one thing leads to another? Thank you, Miss St. John!
As described in the early chapters of this biography, Lilias Trotter experienced a fairly-privileged, deeply-religious, upper-middle-class upbringing in Victorian England. She displayed a great talent for drawing from childhood, which expanded into accomplished water-color painting as she grew older.
In her early twenties, she was greatly influenced by encounters with D.L. Moody, Hannah Whitall Smith and her husband Robert Pearsall Smith, and the Higher Life movement and Keswick Convention. All of these influences had a profound effect on the spiritual direction of her life, both at that time and for the rest of her life as a missionary to the Muslims.
Around the age of 23 she began a close friendship with John Ruskin — 34 years her senior — the most renowned art critic and social philosopher of the Victorian age. There are a lot of detail about this period of her life which I will not go into here, but I will share something Ruskin wrote about her:
"For a long time I used to say, in all my elementary books, that, except in a graceful and minor way, women could not paint or draw. I am beginning lately to bow myself to the much more delightful conviction that no one else can. When I first met her, Miss Trotter seemed to learn everything the instant she was shown it, and ever so much more than she was taught."And even more of what Ruskin wrote to Lilias:
"I pause to think how — anyhow — I can convince you of the marvelous gift that is in you. Not seeing or feeling the power that is in you is one of the most sure and precious signs of it, and that tractability is another. All second-rate people, however strong, are self-conscious and obstinate. Of all the dainty bits of clay in the hands of the potter that were ever fashioned — I think you've the least grit in you. And you can't think what a delight it is to an old porcelain maker to get a hold of such a bit."In 1879, a crisis arose between her spiritual direction and artistic direction:
A letter Lilias wrote to a friend at that crisis time reveals both the dazzling prospects and the dizzying pain. She quoted Ruskin as saying that if she would devote herself to art "she would be the greatest living painter and do things that would be Immortal." Ruskin was laying at her feet, so to speak, his extraordinary resources for the development of her talent and the promotion of her career. Lilias understood as clearly as did Ruskin the condition for the fulfillment of her artistic potential: "to give herself up to art."Well, there's so much more I could quote here, but you'll just have to get the book and read all the details for yourself! Needless to say, the woman who later in life would pen these words was already putting them into practice much earlier: Turn full your soul's vision to Jesus, and look and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him.... For the next nine years she continued her full-time Christian outreach work in London until she sailed for Algeria with two friends in 1888, where, except for brief voyages back to Europe, she would spend the rest of her 40 years until her earthly life was over.
At this point we are only a quarter of the way through this captivating biography! Obviously I can't share much of Lilias's story here, but I will share some of the more reflective extracts which touched me personally, which I highlighted in the book with a colored pencil. The sentences in quotations are from the writings of Lilias herself:
"As seen from above, 'Thy way is in the sanctuary' all the time; clear and calm and visible; it is only on earth that it seems in the storm."
"There came such a lovely sense... of what it means to be 'buried with Christ' — not only dead but buried — 'put to silence in the grave' — 'I can' and 'I cannot' put to silence side by side — the lovely silence and stillness of 'a grave beside Him' with God's seal on the stone and His watch set, that nothing but the risen life of Jesus may come forth. 'Give me a death in which there shall be no life, and a life in which there shall be no death' — That was a prayer of the Arab saint, Abed-El-Kader — I came upon it again the other day — is it not wonderful?"
"'Fall into the ground and die' — not upon it. The road outside our lodging is strewn with acorns that will never come to anything because they are just lying on the ground, not in it. 'Fall into' — not 'struggle into.' It has come with a sense of utter rest, these last days, that God expects nothing from us in all this or in anything else for that matter — and it is when we have got to the point of seeing that God expects nothing from us, that we can expect everything from Him."
"One literally could do nothing by pray at every available bit. One might take up letters or accounts that seemed as if they were a 'must be' — but one had to drop them within five minutes, almost invariably, and get to prayer — hardly prayer either, but a dumb crying up to skies of brass."
Yet Lilias found no lift in her own spirit. When she went to write in her journal, she felt such a burden of prayer that she could "only lay down the pen and yield to it." The same was true with her drawing, her journal pages bearing only one painting for the entire summer.
At a four-day gathering for mission workers in Algeria, "there were those who had come longing for blessings... and yet who had not known that God must break down before He can build up."
"I am coming to see that our own 'experience' so far as a conscious emotional thing, matters nothing, if He is free in His working all around."
She respected always the prescribed etiquette of the Arab culture, yet she continually wrestled with the empty conventions that bound Algerian and missionary alike, suggesting: "For them as well as for us there needs to be a 'loosing' from conventionalities when 'the Lord hath need.'"
"Today's 'first lesson' was in these little mountain paths. I followed mine only a few yards further this morning and such an outburst of beauty came. You can never tell to what untold glories any little humble path may lead, if you follow far enough."
"Trained faith is a triumphant gladness in having nothing but God — no rest, to 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."
"I am seeing more and more that we begin to learn what it is to walk by faith, when we learn to spread out all that is against us. All our physical weakness — loss of mental power — spiritual inability — all that is against us inwardly and outwardly, as sails to the wind and expect them to be vehicles for the power of Christ to rest upon us. It is simple and self-evident — but so long in the learning." The walk of faith that she proposed required a fellowship with the Father as current as breathing.
"'As an eagle... fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings — so the Lord alone did lead him.' Fluttereth over — the early stages of faith are reaching upward, like the eagles for their food when the mother bird is overhead.... it is an older faith that learns to swing out into nothingness and drop down full weight on God — the broken up nest of former 'experiences' left behind — nothing between us and the abyss but Himself."
"The word of the Lord has come these days in the story of the pillar of cloud and fire. The cloud spread for a covering links on with Colossians 3:15 — 'Let the peace of God legislate.' There is such a sense of infinite rest in the desert in being under a great shadow — it seems to bring a cool river of peace through all one's being. God's guidance, if our soul's instinct is healthy, tallies with the sense of rest — in a very real way, this sense of rest guides us — and legislates for us. Anything that brings a sense of restlessness means that we have got from under the cloud shadow — we have gone off on some self devised path, or we have not kept pace with God.... It is the same in cases of perplexity — where there is no clear command in His word to guide up — where the sense of rest falls (always taking for granted that our wills are in His Hand) there is His path — it is there that the shadow of His cloud is falling."
"The blessedness of being hemmed in.... Oh we are slow to see that it is only our weakness that He needs!"
"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 surcharged, like the bees, with potential life. It is God and His eternity that will do the work — Yet He needs His wandering, desultory bees!"
"Time is nothing to God — nothing in its speeding, nothing in its halting — He is the God that inhabiteth eternity." And children of eternity "can afford to tarry His leisure no matter how short their time is." To Lilias this meant that even when there were no outward signs of encouragement, she would keep a listening heart tuned to her Father's voice, then faithfully do what He said. As she loved to say, "HE knew what He would do." And it meant for the future that same waiting on God, content with simple obedience, understanding that the results of one's work on earth may be realized long after one's time on earth is finished. Over and over, throughout the pages of her diary, Lilias writes this faith refrain: "Blessed are all they that wait for Him."
Those who had known Lilias for many years observed a great calm and joyous peace. A colleague said to her, "Lily, you seem so rested in soul." She answered, "Yes, because I have no strength left and am living entirely by the power of Divine inflowing."
"'Two glad Services are ours, both the Master loves to bless. First we serve with all our powers, then with all our helplessness.' These lines of Charles Fox have rung in my head this last fortnight — and they link on with the wonderful words "weak with Him" — for the world's salvation was not wrought out by the three years in which He went about doing good, but in the three hours of darkness in which He hung stripped and nailed, in utter exhaustion of spirit, soul and body, until His heart broke. So little wonder for us, if the price of power is weakness."
"God needs that helplessness as truly as the negative pole is needed to complete the electric circuit and set free the power. And so when one can only lie like sort of a log, unable to even frame the prayers one would like to pray, His Spirit will find the way through that lowest point which He so strangely needs and life them up to the Throne."
"It is true — Tauler had much to do with Luther's kindling — and Tersteegan and the other Friends of God kept the flames alight in the dreary years of the Thirty Years War, and so did Fenelon and Madame Guyon in their dead time, also George Fox was given to raise the witness of the Quakers. And it would be very much like our God, who is a rewarder of them who do diligently seek Him, if He bestowed on these Moslem Mystics of today the heritage of all that long line of their spiritual ancestry of seekers, in making them in their last days, the channel of His life to the wilderness of the Moslem world."
"Long ago — fifty years or more in the past, it was a joy to think that God needed me. Now it is a far deeper joy to feel and see that He does not need me — that He has it all in hand!"
"It has come these days with a new light and power, that the first thing we have to see to, as we draw near to God day by day, is that "our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ." If we can listen in stillness, till our souls begin to vibrate to the thing He is thinking and feeling about the matter in question, whether it concerns ourselves or others, we can from that moment begin praying downwards from His throne, instead of praying upwards toward Him."
"It was at our dear old Belaid's funeral that came Si Sultane's call.... He has told Mr. Theobald that when he was asked to speak there he felt 'I cannot' — he could see nothing but the glaring eyes of the bystanders and the great knotted clubs in their hands — Then it came to him — 'I can die but once' and he spoke out, unafraid. From that day all shrinking and fear have vanished, and believing in the God who kept the crowd in stillness that day, he has given his witness unflinchingly, and with a heavenly touch of life power in place of the old facile and somewhat glib utterance of the past."
On 3 April 1926, Lilias marked the anniversary of her first year confined to bed, noting, "I think it has been quite the happiest year of life!" Lilias's medical condition baffled the experts, and her doctor called in another physician for an outside opinion. "His verdict was that is was 'très bizarre' that I should be in this world, but this being so, I might, under the same conditions remain in it. It is a very solemn thing to realize that physical, as well as spiritual, life depends on that channel to the Upper Springs being kept clear for the quickening of the mortal body by the Spirit that dwelleth in us, till our work is done." However mysterious to some, it was perfectly clear to Lilias that she would remain on this earth till her work was done.
"One learns as one goes on, not to fear the detours by which God leads on."
"Last Wednesday's committee meeting was, as we expected, a crisis day, for several debatable points were before us, as well as the whole policy of going forward into new ventures of faith. Again and again we held on for the heavenly solution and again and again the moot questions vanished into clear agreement and we hardly knew how except that God was in it."
"It may be you have, half unconsciously, avoided looking the situation square in the face, lest faith should be weakened. But faith that has to ignore facts is not real faith."
"My dream is of a future where the Christian mystic shall go after the Moslem mystic, and that thus these Brotherhood men, when their thirst has been quenched by the Living Water, may be drawn into their own development on Christian lines, and bring into the compacting [building up] of the Church an element that no others can offer."
As you can see from the above abundance, that interwoven with the story of her life are many little gems of wisdom and insight which she had gathered during her earthly pilgrimage, and which we, the readers, get to benefit from as we treasure them in our hearts. And there are many more gems which I didn't share in this article!
This is a wonderful and inspiring book which I can highly recommend — I hope you will get it, read it, and ponder it. As final note, it was by reading this book that I found out about another missionary to the Muslim world — Samuel Zwemer: Apostle to Islam.
You can send comments to me privately at: email@example.com
On May 27, 2015, R. Barry Tait wrote:
Brian, I came across your blog looking for more images of Lillias Trotter. Patricia St. John led me here. We too have loved her books.
These quotes from Lillias Trotter kept me reading much longer than I expected. Thank you for this wonderful extension of her thought and legacy.
Blessings, R. Barry Tait.
On August 1, 2016, Flora wrote:
I am reading the book by Patricia St John "Until The Day Breaks" and it is a very inspiring story. I had heard of Lilias Trotter but I am delighted that I found this book at The Bible For Missions Thrift Store in St. Thomas I believe.
Lilias Trotter unreservedly served the Lord for forty years in Algeria to love and reach the Muslims for the Lord Jesus Christ.
A book that speaks of a life devoted to the Lord and the often difficult work of evangelism amongst the Muslims in Algeria.