Tag Archives: John Ruskin

Lilias Trotter: And how the higher life doesn’t need to kill you

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“Lilias Trotter” c.2014 by Austin Blasingame

I have been thinking a lot about Lilias Trotter lately. For one reason, she was the subject of a 2015 movie which made her a bit more notorious — it is great when Christians discover an interesting spiritual ancestor and tell their story! I am happy, but also cautious, when I hear stories about great Christians from the past. I think it is safe to say that one often finds what she is looking for in history — the stories that get told often end up looking strangely like the autobiography of the historian!

Nevertheless, Lilias Trotter, presented by her admirers or suspected by her detractors, has had me thinking ever since she appeared in The Transhistorical Body last week. I love her, even if at the same time I think she may have been a bit deluded. And I respect her, even though I know remembering her has the capacity to drive certain Christians to despair.

A bit about Lilias

In case you didn’t read the blog entry, Trotter was an English socialite in the Victorian era who committed herself to the “higher life” in Christ and ended up being a missionary in Algeria. She was so sickly, the missionary board would not send her. But she and her friend, having resources of their own, struck out for North Africa anyway and spent 30 years trying to help Muslims meet the living God, risen in Jesus. That would be an inspiring reason enough to remember her, but it is even more inspiring to know she left her very promising art career behind to serve Jesus. She was so talented that no less than John Ruskin told her she might become one of the greatest English artists if she applied herself. But she left her development as an artist behind to follow her calling. Fortunately, she still did a bit of art, but she could never give her heart to the pursuit, since her heart belonged to Jesus.

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El Oued desert 1895 — Lilias Trotter

When I brought Lilias Trotter into our cell dialogue last week, I started with the quote from Jesus with which the Daily Prayer blog started:

“…unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Jesus – Matthew 5:20).

I will not attempt to unpack all we had to say about that piece of scripture; we just scratched the surface, anyway. What we started discussing is the fact that we, like the Pharisees, tend to get stuck in a “box” of our own making that we consider about as good as it gets (or as good as we can do) and we become satisfied with it, or defensive of it, or stuck within the confines of it, or unable to see beyond it. We are all prone to the frailty of mortals, even if we are trying to be as righteous as the Pharisees were trying to be. We need the Lord, in our case the risen Lord, to tell us, “Your ways will not get you into the kingdom of heaven; you must join me where I am. I will show you the way, personally.”

The higher life

When Lilias Trotter lived a movement began among Christians in Europe and the United States. Many people heard a call from Jesus and immediately looked around at their boxed-in lives and boxed-in religion and made every effort to get out of the box. It has been called the “higher life” movement. Trotter learned of this higher life in the Spirit and about died seeking it, all the while thinking death would be fine, because she did not want to be in the box when Jesus returned; she would rather have died than to miss out on her highest calling. She gave her utmost for the Lord’s highest.

Several people in our cell grew up in environments where word of this higher life was the constant message of their parents and elders. They constantly heard, “You need to get out of wherever you are and go further. You need to make sure you are not missing your highest calling. Ordinary people filled with the Holy Spirit do extraordinary things.” So they were always quite sure that there was a further place to go and they had not made it yet.

Even when they tried to be as good as they should be, they secretly felt guilty for not being  good enough.  In the name of spiritual freedom they felt completely condemned! This may not have happened to you, but a couple of people experienced such anxiety and depression they felt even more faulty, since an “extraordinary” day for them might be getting out of bed and actually going to work! Having the devotion of a Pharisee in a righteous box might seem like success! So when Jesus appears to say such limited righteousness is not enough to get them into heaven, it is devastating. They’d never even gotten into a religious box yet, much less would they have the wherewithal to get out of it!

They were glad our church was so gracious to accept them where they are, even though it is filled with “higher life” types (like me) who are rearin’ to go most of the time. Our church is, essentially, a radical kind of place that, by nature, might not seem like the best place for someone who feels successful if they make it to the Sunday meetings a couple of times a month. We are often blasted with messages from people who would have loved to follow in Lilias Trotter’s footsteps to Algeria. And yes, she and her type will be celebrated as admirable ancestors in “our transhistorical body” blog while we appear to overlook the millions of Jesus followers who few remembered after they died.

It is OK to be at the “level” you are

I ended the dialogue in our cell like I am going to end this blog post, with this question. Why can’t Lilias Trotter be celebrated for who she is and each of us be celebrated for who we are? If she is greater, why not love her for it? If you aren’t, why not love you for it? Isn’t that the gospel, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and we are all saved by the redeeming work of Jesus? As soon as the Lord makes us all equal in his love as he dies for us on the cross, do we immediately need to turn around and create a hierarchy among us according to how much glory someone is reflecting, or not?

I know being loved as we are and feeling hope for a higher life is hard to accept when we are depressed and anxious, or when our parents and associates have made us feel like we are not worth much, or sin at work in us has warped our view of self and God so much we can’t see straight. I freely admit that many Christians have been a menace, acting all holy and doing terrible things in the name of their righteousness. In spite of their sin, we need to receive our new self in Christ whether it lives in a messy, yet-to-be-perfected box or not! It is the crucial act of putting on the new self of God’s beloved that leads us out of every restrictive box and onto the unusual ways of faith in Jesus.

Valor: An antidote to the impedimenta

Wealth, therefore, is “THE POSSESSION OF THE VALUABLE BY THE VALIANT”; and in considering it as a power existing in a nation, the two elements, the value of the thing, and the valour of its possessor, must be estimated together. Whence it appears that many of the persons commonly considered wealthy, are in reality no more wealthy than the locks of their own strong boxes are, they being inherently and eternally incapable of wealth; and operating for the nation, in an economical point of view, either as pools of dead water, and eddies in a stream (which, so long as the stream flows, are useless, or serve only to drown people, but may become of importance in a state of stagnation should the stream dry); or else, as dams in a river, of which the ultimate service depends not on the dam, but the miller; or else, as mere accidental stays and impediments, acting not as wealth, but (for we ought to have a correspondent term) as “illth,” causing various devastation and trouble around them in all directions; or lastly, act not at all, but are merely animated conditions of delay, (no use being possible of anything they have until they are dead,) in which last condition they are nevertheless often useful as delays, and “impedimenta,” if a nation is apt to move too fast.  — John Ruskin “Ad Valorem,” 1860

Chuck put this quote on his Facebook page the other day. It is so great and so coolly old, that it bears repeating. It reminded me that the sleeping bear of the younger class is finally waking up in response to its self-interest. It is finally finding its voice in response to, you guessed it, economics. Its entire childhood and youth has been nurtured in an atmosphere of debate about economics and in preparation to be employed as part of the economy. Its elders have systematically denuded the societal landscape of meaningful dialogue and morality and reduced everything, socially or philosophically, to a “free market.”

Sleeping lions awake

Christians generally have nothing meaningful to say about this change, either being swept up in it or totally marginalized by the new narrative. So in the spirit of Ruskin, I want to redo his quote for the faithful. Since the sleeping lion is really asleep, and the source of true wealth that so many of the younger generation are seeking is not going to be found in the “economy” or in political justice or in freedom or in any of the other sources upon which the 99% (a purely economic designation, but the title that is sticking) are making demands. Here I go.

Faith, then, is the possession of the valued. It is not only valuable in itself, but it makes the possessor valorous and so valuable to the world. The question has always been, if a supposedly faithful person is not valorous in the cause of his or her faith, are they faithful? Many people who attend meetings and wear the name Christian, are no more faithful than a time schedule or a title, since they never act on anything the meeting implies or the name includes. They are not receiving or dispensing living water, they have, in fact become dead water, they are eddies in a stream – they no longer are part of the live flow, but one could die of them if they should fall into them, and should they become fully separated from the Savior and his people they could be a stagnant pool growing contagion. Worse yet they become dams, sitting among the faithful impeding what could be done if the water did not have to come up against them or find a way around them or wait for them to deteriorate enough to break apart.

The threat of being impedimenta

Harry Potter zaps Impedimenta

Does anyone want to be “impedimenta?” Of course not. It happens when valor is misdirected, at best, or is no longer an aspiration, at worst. Among us people become impediments when their valor is spent on their part in the economy and they have no practical plan for home or shop that has anything to do with Jesus. When the economy runs us around and God seems too nice to demand more courage we’re dying.

A few suggestions for being faithfully valorous: 1) Follow the inspiration(s) God will give you after you have spent ten minutes, or so, every day with him in concentrated relating for a week. It doesn’t take much to get marching orders. 2) Multiply your cell with people who are not delivered to you by the “church” — go ahead and include them in your life rather than merely being included in theirs.  3) Take the steps in your marriage that will bring it to a place where positive, God-inspired things are directing it rather than your energy-sucking power struggle. 4) Make your church something that makes a difference, never merely inhabit it. 5) Use the occupy movement as a tool for your faith; love, relate, discuss, protest, but don’t be the backside of the “economy.”