See in these wild iris-pods how the last tiny threads must be broken, and with that loosing, all that they have is free for God’s use in His world around. All reluctance, all calculating, all ‘holding in’ is gone; the husks are opened wide, the seeds can shed themselves unhindered.
Lily’s Choice. Most of my mental and emotional energy this week has been expended in preparing a talk about the friendship of Lilias Trotter and John Ruskin to be presented, early May, to “The Friends of Ruskin” at Brantwood, Ruskin’s home in the Lake District of England. It was here that Lilias’s friendship and art was nurtured by the great arbiter of art of the Victorian Age. And, it was here that Lilias made the life-defining decision about the role of art in her life.
As I scroll through her paintings, for the slide presentation, and review the facts of her life leading up to her decision – “Lily’s Choice” – I admit to struggling all over again with the questions that haunted me while researching this aspect of her life. Was it necessary for her to sacrifice her art for God’s Kingdom? Could she not have been perhaps an even greater “witness” by developing it to its full? Was it worth it?
Ruskin put before her the brilliant future which he maintained that undoubtedly would be hers – if she were to give herself fully to the development of her art. A letter written at that time to a friend reveals both her dazzling prospects and her dizzying pain. She quotes Ruskin as saying that if she would devote herself to art “she would be the greatest living painter and do things that would be Immortal.” But it came with a caveat: “To give herself up to art.”
However untested Ruskin’s belief in her potential, this is certain: he saw in Lilias a unique artistic gift and a teachable spirit; he was laying at her feet, so to speak, his extraordinary resources for the development of her talent and the promotion of her career. Lilias understood as clearly as did Ruskin the condition for the fulfillment of her artistic potential: “To give herself up to art.”
She admits, in a letter to a friend, her anguish of spirit believing that the moment had come to make a choice. “It seems as if I had lived years and years, at first I could only rush about in the woods all in a dream, and it was all like a dream for the first day or two. Since then an almost constant state of suffocation half intoxication so I can hardly eat or sleep.”
We know, of course, her decision: “I cannot give myself to painting in the way He means and continue still to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God.'” And we know the life and legacy she left as a result of her choice.
I might agonize over the “what if’s” and “might have been’s” but one thing is certain: Lilias didn’t! The decision made, she continued to enjoy art, yes, but she pursued what for her was the higher path, without looking back, and with an undivided heart. She spoke of “a grand independence” – the liberty of soul for those who have nothing to lose, because they have nothing to withhold. This was demonstrated in the following decade in which Lilias devoted her life to “loving London” followed by her remaining 40 years in the land that became her heart’s home: North Africa.
Steve Scott, in his poem LILIAS, has distilled both the essence of Lilias character – and the implications of her total surrender to God’s Purposes summed in this lyrical phrase: “So, Lilias. . . in my hand you are my brush. I will find and blend new colors. . .”
We, too, have a choice. It will be as individual as the person making the choice. The key, as Lilias states in Parables of the Cross, is “to be free for God’s use in His world around” – whatever that may be as God unfolds it in our lives. We too, can be – should be – “brushes in the hand of God.” What does God want to paint with my life? What does He want to paint with yours?
Painting: Color Plate from Parables of the Cross
Note: link to Youtube, LILIAS poem/video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7Q3xnz1YgY