“So then, turn your eyes upon Him, look full into His face and you will find that the things of earth will acquire a strange new dimness.”
These words sparked the famous hymn Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus by Helen Lemmel. However, despite the renown of the hymn, few are well acquainted with the woman who inspired it. Nearly a world-famous artist, this young woman chose a life of hiddenness. I came across her story little more than a year ago, and her life is a treasure chest that I’d love to share with you!
Isabella Lilias Trotter was born in 1853 to a wealthy English family. Raised during the Golden Age of Queen Victoria, Lilias had a secure and privileged life in West End London. Her family understood the significance of pure Christianity and Lilias own spiritual aptitude was shown at a young age.
As she grew older, another talent began to bloom. She was always of an artistic nature it increased the older she grew. This talent, (with a bit of motherly manipulation) caught the attention of the foremost art critic of the day – John Ruskin. He later admitted that “For a long time I used to say, in all my elementary books, that except in a graceful and minor way, women could not draw or paint. I’m beginning to bow myself to the much more delightful conviction that no one else can.” So it was that 57-year-old Ruskin took 23-year-old Lilias under his personal tutelage. It was a wonderful time for both of them, she blossomed under his training and he was delighted with her gift.
As Lilias’ artistic talent flourished and deepened, so did her spiritual fervour. Her faith was fuelled by a number of memorable meetings during her late teens to early twenties. In that time of growth, her Christian faith and practice were solidified. She began work in the YWCA and she spent considerable time reaching out to young women in the working class as well as prostitutes at the Victoria Station. She even set up London’s first affordable public restaurant for working women to eat out of the streets. As time went on, Ruskin began to complain that the ministry was detracting from her artwork, and eventually hinted darkly that she would have to choose the one or the other. Eventually the time came when she did have to choose.
It was an intense battle for Lilias. She loved beauty, she loved her artwork, and she loved learning under Ruskin. Her own words express the inner turmoil:
“Never has it been so easy to live in half a dozen harmless worlds at once — art, music, social science, games, motoring, the following of some profession, and so on. And between them, we run the risk of drifting about, the good hiding the best.”
The “good” hiding the “best”. Isn’t that so true, girls? Brave Lilias saw it and it made all the difference for her. It was a time of deep soul searching and heartache for Lilias as she struggled to let go of her dream of artistic fame. Nights were spent weeping and praying, until she was met with such a comforting peace that she never again questioned the calling on her heart – artistry was to be her gift, not her name. Her life had another, far reaching goal now. Her new-found purpose is summed up in these words.
“What a revolution would come over the world – the world of starving bodies at home – the world of starving souls abroad – if something like this were the standard of giving; if God’s people ventured on “making themselves poor” as Jesus did, for the sake of the need around; if the “I” – “me” – “mine” were practically delivered up, no longer to be recognized when they clash with those needs.”
“Let us dare to test God’s resources…Let us ask him to kindle in us and keep aflame that passion for the impossible that shall make us delight in it with him, till the day when we shall see it transformed into a fact.”
So it was that Lilias threw herself headlong into her ministry for young women. Then, when she was in her mid-twenties she felt the call to “Go”. This command began another journey that led her and a team across the ocean, over a desert and into a city teeming with people foreign to Lilias in every respect. It was hard work, it was a struggle, yet Lilias and her team persevered to plant a seed into the souls of that hope-starved people. It was from her own experience that she wrote:
“Take the very hardest thing in your life – the place of difficulty, outward or inward, and expect God to triumph gloriously in that very spot. Just there He can bring your soul into blossom.”
Lilias’ life is one of true adventure, struggle, and ultimate blossoming. I find it intriguing every time I learn more about her. If you are interested in her story, consider watching the stunning and captivating documentary about her called “Many Beautiful Things”
As you can probably tell, I love Lilias’ quotes, and in closing, here is another soul-searching nugget. Meditate on it, girls, how serious are we about putting Jesus first?
It is easy to find out whether our lives are focused, and if so, where the focus lies. Where do our thoughts settle when consciousness comes back in the morning? Where do they swing back when the pressure is off during the day? Dare to have it out with God, and ask Him to show you whether or not all is focused on Christ and His Glory. Turn 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.”
Are you interested? Check out this website to learn more about Lilias Trotter