“The Sufi is a man who has the purpose of discovering secrets, and they are the secrets of Divine truth and Divine power. He leaves to other men the lifeless husk, that is to say, the things that are seen, and he desires with all his heart to break through to the kernel, that is, to the things that are unseen, and that have in them the essence of eternal life.” The Way of the Sevenfold Secret 1926
Lilias’s love for the Southlands began soon after her arrival in Algeria. It was on her first major expedition south (1895) that she made acquaintance with Sufi Mystics who would capture both her heart and her mind throughout her years in North Africa. From her very first contact, in Tozeur, she sensed in these “sons of sonshine” a “lovely spirit of listening” as they would gather round and beg her to read from scripture. Several years later (1900), a highlight of her visit to another southland village, Tolga, was an invitation to a fraternity house of the Sufi brotherhood – a rare honor for an outsider, a European – moreover a woman. “Up a winding stair we went into a big booklined room, the floor spread with great camel skins – round the skirting boards were solemn white-robed figures, sitting or squatting round. We had coffee & talk & promised them a Bible for their library.”
Through the decades she would repeatedly return to the Southlands – dependant on the political climate, national and international – to “that particular stretch of desert,” between Tozeur and Tolga, that in her words “we have always felt was especially given to us for our corner,” eventually setting up a permanent winter post. The artist in her responded to the artist in the Sufis, their great writers of old being as much poets as philosophers. Her heart responded to their efforts to seek after God.
In contrast to the cold formalism of orthodox Islam, she found in certain Sufi mystics -particularly of the lay brotherhoods – sincere hunger for things of the spirit. She made it a point of serious study to understand not only what they believed but how to establish effective dialogue with them. “Till you show them by some word that you understand them and care for them and are ‘reaching forth’ also to ‘the things that are before,’ they will remain within their shell.” Lilias penetrated that shell with her love, sensitivity, and profound understanding of their way of thinking. “She knows about The Way,” they would say of her.
She witnessed the Sufi’s thirst for the unseen mysteries, yet recognized their need for “objective, verifiable and divine revelation” in contrast to their search in the “subjective realm of their own consciousness.” She dreamed of a future “where 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 of the Church an element that no others can offer.”
Toward that end, at the close of her life, she completed a work – arguably her magnum opus – written specifically for the Sufi Mystics: The Way of The Sevenfold Secret. Lucid, elegant, and strong, it appealed to the common ground shared by Christian and Sufi alike: the purpose of discovering the secrets of divine truth and divine power. Addressing the Sufi’s means of seeking divine union through a succession of seven spiritual states, which in the end still may not please what they see as an arbitrary God, she presents an alternate path “Wherein we have found joy and peace from the first step.” She takes the seven sayings of Christ about Himself contained in John’s Gospel and explores how each offers the “secret” for which the Sufi’s long: Satisfaction (Bread), Illumination (Light), access (Door), Leadership (Shepherd), life (Resurrection and Life), progress (Way), and the ultimate union (Vine).
Within three years of publication, it went into six new editions in four languages – Arabic, English, French, and Persian – creating a spiritual resonance for seeker and believer alike with its mystical nuances grounded in solid biblical truth. It is relevant today being, in my opinion, a singularly comprehensive and succinct presentation of the Christian life. (See transcript of The Way of the Sevenfold Secret.)
We, like Lilias, are connected with people who may not have the same sensibility as her beloved “sons of sunshine” but for whom there is a longing for truth. Who are the soul thirsty people in my life? What have I done, what am I doing, to understand their hearts? To what extent have I made it my intent to understand the constructs which motivate their assumptions and actions? Am I willing to engage with them in our search for the deep things of God?
“God hath revealed them unto us by His Spirit,
For the Spirit searcheth all things, yea
the deep things of God.”
Painting from Journal: “A Week in a Strong City” 1908)