You can never tell to what untold glories a little humble path may lead if you follow far enough.” ~ Lilias Trotter
Nearly thirty years ago, my mom stumbled upon “a humble little path.” Really, it was just a name, a person, that she stumbled upon. Lilias Trotter.
Two retired missionary sisters happened to be wintering in the small town of Lake Wales, Florida. They happened to visit the local Presbyterian Church, which happened to be the church at which my father was pastor. They recognized his last name as being the same last name of a friend of their sister. Grace Rockness (my grandmother), had befriended their older sister many years ago while she was teaching English in Singapore. These two sisters, Jane and Betty Barbour, made their introductions and scheduled a dinner engagement with my parents, thrilled to make a connection with their dear sister’s friend’s son and daughter-in-law (did you follow that?!). It was at this dinner engagement, that Jane and Betty introduced my parents to Lilias Trotter, “a woman” (as my mother writes in her book A Blossom in the Desert) “the sisters knew only through the beautifully illustrated devotional books she began publishing in the 1890s.”
Lilias was a missionary to Algeria from 1888-1928. During her years there, she wrote and illustrated several books and leaflets, most of them devotional in nature and geared towards ministering to the Muslims. All of her writings were out of print, but the Barbour sisters had a copy of many of them. Fearing that their collection of Lilias’s work might eventually be lost, Jane and Betty slowly began to send my mom copies of Lilias’s writings over the years. As my mom wrote in her book, A Passion for the Impossible, each new addition of Lilias’s, “penetrated my soul, each one exuding a rare blend of earthiness and holiness.”
And thus began my mom’s journey down this “humble little path.” The path of Lilias Trotter. Little did any of us know where this path would take her. All she knew was that she wanted to follow this path: “Over time, a passion grew in me to find everything written by or about Lilias Trotter and then to make those works known to others” (A Passion for the Impossible).
Those of us closest to my mom became first-hand witnesses to this passion. Her love and admiration for this woman – her writings, her paintings, her life – was obvious. She photocopied sketches and paintings of Lilias’s and place them strategically around our home, often accompanied by a Lilias quote. She bought small decorative camels (representing Lilias’s life in Algeria) and placed them in our dining room. She talked about Lilias, she wrote about Lilias, she read about Lilias. At times, we teased her that she was Lilias. . . or at least she wished she was!
As she was surrounding herself with all things Lilias, my mom’s desire to make Lilias known led to some exciting things. Encouraged by Lyle Dorsett and Marjorie Mead, both of Wheaton College (Illinois), Mom wrote a biography of Lilias Trotter. That biography led to several magazine articles (one of them being in the beautiful Victoria magazine). The book and articles led to speaking engagements – not only at churches, but even at two John Ruskin symposiums in England and Venice (part of Mom’s discovery was that the renowned art critic, John Ruskin, believed that Lilias could become one of the nation’s finest artists if she put all of her efforts, time, and energy into that pursuit). Mom’s first book eventually led to the compilation and publication of another Lilias-based book, A Blossom in the Desert, which is filled with color copies of Lilias’s paintings, along with Lilias quotes and excerpts from her books and journals. This book led to greeting cards, each with a painting and a quote by Lilias.
A couple of years ago, my mom received word that there was a husband and wife, Brian and Sally Oxley, who had stumbled across her book and that the they wanted to pursue making a short documentary on the life of Lilias. This, of course, was a dream of my mom’s. To get Lilias on film. A dream that seemed out of reach. Upon connecting with the Oxleys, a Lilias Trotter Board was formed. This board began the process of pursuing this dream. Of deciding exactly how they would like to portray Lilias through film. Of finding that “right person” to produce and direct this film. Many months of planning, praying, searching. . .
Although there have multiple “untold glories” along the way of this Lilias Trotter path, I believe that I have recently had the privilege of viewing one of the biggest glories of this path: the film. Just a few weeks ago, over Christmas break, my husband, brother, and sister-in-law, along with my parents, watched the “rough draft” of this Lilias Trotter documentary. In the truest sense of the phrase, it was a spiritual experience. The award-winning film director Laura Hinson, amazingly took 30 years of my mom “living Lilias” and masterfully brought Lilias to life on screen. The imagery, the scenery, the well-placed quotes strewn throughout, Lilias’s artwork coming to life through tasteful animation, Lilias’s struggle over the opportunity to pursue fame as an artist under the tutelage of John Ruskin versus her heartbeat to live a life of ministry, the pulsating question that drove my mom to understand Lilias: was it worth it? the life she “gave up” for the life she lived. . . in the midst of this, my mom’s own journey of discovering Lilias unfolding as well. Somehow, Laura has taken all the pieces, captured the key ones artistically and strategically, and created a work of art that captures the person of Lilias, the journey and soul of Lilias, the art of Lilias…along with the journey and soul of my mom…along with a thought-provoking perspective of Faith. A faith that is captivating, challenging, and inspiring. A life that anyone, whether a Christ-follower or not, cannot help but admire.
As I watched it all unfold before me on “the big screen,” I was watching more than just the life and person of Lilias. I was watching more than the average viewer will ever grasp or understand. I was watching the end result of a dream. A dream my mom probably never really thought would happen. I dream my mom could have never fathomed as she innocently began to fall in love with the writings, the artwork, and the person of Lilias. As I watched the film, I remembered years and years of “Lilias this” and “Lilias that.” I remembered the hours and hours Mom spent taking the pieces of Lilias’s life and pulling them all together – pieces of her life that Mom had lovingly and painstakingly gathered, through trips to England, photocopying journals, sifting through Lilias’s handwritten journals, reading all that she could find, tracking down family members, making timelines and charts, searching John Ruskin resources, placing phone calls to find missing letters. I can just picture my mom behind her computer, Lilias books and journals and other random Lilias-related notes strewn about her, typing for hours on end. As I watched the life of Lilias unfold before me, I saw a piece of the life of my mom unfold before me, too. And even more than that. . . I saw the hand of God.
Knowing what I know, I cannot help but see how God has amazingly woven this all together. From the Barbour sisters (and the connections that went before) to the creation of this documentary – and all the people, experiences, and love-laborings in between. “You can never tell to what untold glories a little humble path may lead if you follow far enough.” Mom followed far enough. And this movie, in my mind, is the epitome of all the “untold glories” of this Lilias Trotter path. I cannot wait for others to see it!
In the final interview with my mom (in the film), she says this about Lilias:
What I saw in Lilias was just the idea of being faithful. Being faithful to what you believe is right. Being faithful to what you believe God wants you to do. And to not be concerned about the results.
This strikes me as true for my mom. She was faithful. She didn’t know the results. She had no idea where this path would lead. She was merely faithful to what she believed was right. She was faithful to pursuing a God-given interest and passion.
As I reflect upon the movie, and about both Lilias and my mom, it’s Mom’s words about Lilias, combined with Lilias’s quote about paths, that best capture the entire film and propel me forward as I attempt to live my life: Be faithful. Be faithful to who I am. To what I believe. To the passions, skills, and interests within my soul. To what I believe God wants me to do. I want to follow my humble path (whatever it may be). And to keep my eyes and my heart open for glimpses (or blasts!) of untold glories!