Lilias Trotter: The Bigger Picture

January 17, 2017 in Visual Faith

In anticipation of our screening of  Many Beautiful Things this Friday night, we're happy to share this reflection on Lilias Trotters' life from Steve Scott.

Lilias Trotter (14 July 1853 – 28 August 1928) was a young woman who pioneered ministry and mission methods, at first among the poor and the vulnerable on the streets of Victorian London, and eventually among the Muslim women and children in Algeria. Her spiritual awakening occurred as she heard Hannah Whitall smith teaching in London buther deepening hunger for ministry flourished  under a variety of other circumstances.  She was deeply touched by the impoverished and vulnerable young women on the streets of London, and looked for relevant and often innovative ways of reaching out/and ministering to them. Her administrative work for Christian organizations of the day also seeded and shaped skills that would come to fruition in her own later years of ministry in North  Africa….

However, she was also a talented artist, and, under the guidance of mentor figure John Ruskin considered a career in this field. Ruskin was a leading art critic and social theorist of the day, so his mentorship and influence were invaluable. He was deeply disappointed by her eventual decision to abandon an art career and pursue ministry, first in London, and then in Algeria. This was hard choice for her to make. Other setbacks made it harder.  She went to Algeria  `Against Medical Advice’ using her own resources to seed the trip after being turned down by established missions organizations  on the grounds of her frail health. 

I had been initially attracted to Trotter’s life and work after reading the excellent biography by Miriam Huffman Rockness. Some of the classes I took as part of Fuller MAGL brought Trotter’s life and work into deeper focus for me. Dr. Robert Clinton’s Leadership Emergence Theory class gave me insights into how God can sovereignly prepare and shape someone like Trotter for service. I saw that the spiritual, social, and circumstantial factors surrounding Lilias, even the premature death of her father when she was 12, were all elements that played a role in molding her vision and priorities. Her pioneering ministry methods  and work in London, even her administrative work on behalf of evangelist D.L Moody, and then the YWCA, all helped her explore and unpack the gifts that she would need in eventually living into her vocation among the Muslims in Algeria. The MAGL Mentoring class taught by Dr. Wilmer Villacorta highlighted the vital role of teachers, peers, companions, and even those one taught (downward mentoring) in strengthening and shaping  an individual and her calling. Even though she  strongly disagreed with art critic john Ruskin over her life choices and priorities, one can still sense  his continued  guidance and influence in her life and work.  This suggests  that some mentoring relationships, while somewhat  disruptively  strained, survive and continue to be valuable to the recipient.

Some years ago, I was asked to make suggestions  to an organization compiling a bibliography on Art and faith. I mentioned the biography of Lilias Trotter by Miriam Huffman Rockness. However, some were concerned that an account of  Lilias’s choice of missions over art might send `the wrong message’ to struggling artists.  Wasn’t art a valid calling?

Lilias Trotter never gave up art. She merely stepped off a career path.   The guidance and mentoring of Ruskin  can be seen  in her sketchbooks, drawings and watercolors. Some of these artworks ended up illustrating  the books she wrote on the spiritual life during her times of convalescence and recovery from the rigors of  her work in Algeria.  Her choice to go into this work `against doctor’s orders’ providentially created the need for periods of such rest. As she rested, she wrote. She supplemented her writings with artwork. She also illustrated her prayer letters with landscapes, buildings and people so that supporters could get a glimpse `through her eyes’ of the reclusive, mystical Muslim community, the Sufi, she was pouring out her life among. She built relational bridges and listened to their heart’s quest for deeper truth. She wrote a careful exposition of Jesus’s identity statements in John’s gospel that was sensitive to the context and culture of these hearers, while remaining faithful to John has inspired words.  From her closely observed drawings and watercolors  to her deeply pursued  conversations  with those she was sent to , we can sense  a relational and exploratory approach to life and ministry that bears all the hallmarks of `the artist’s path.’

Bibliography

Rockness, Miriam Huffman. A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter. Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers , 2003."

Steve Scott is an artist, writer and director of CANA (Christian Artists Networking Association)

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