Oh the joy of being here (Cornwall) again and then the joy of a fortnight alone crowns it all – it is a gift from God. I have been making some first attempts with my “Brownie” (camera) . . . last year’s (diary) was a very dull one as regards illustrations, for want of time to get into the spirit of drawing, specially in Algers. When one gets away one’s storing of mental photographs & incomprehensible scribbling come back against the leisure of a resting time. Diary 1900
Lilias rhapsodizes over the pure joy of getting away, alone, sifting and sorting the events of the past crowded months. She recently had returned from a rigorous albeit invigorating “Spring Tournee” to several villages in Teniet then down into the Southlands to Tolga where, outside their primitive rented-house, Lilias and a co-worker received a constant stream of visitors for Scripture readings and follow-up conversation. Here also they had their first encounter with followers of the Sufi Brotherhood resulting in the unprecedented invitation to their fraternity house. Exhilarated but exhausted she took her summer break, in England, with the specific intention of catching up with her soul “against the leisure of” this annual time of rest – as would be her lifetime practice.
This year, as always, Lilias sought out a place of solitude and beauty and once again feasted upon God’s created order: “Today I sat for hours among the boulders on the slope of the cliff of a little bay, looking across to the goldenbrown cliffs opposite, with one huge cavern like a cathedral door – The sea below every shade of emerald & sapphire & lapis lazuli, with deep purple shadow where the seaweed covered rocks shews through & above the tilt of moor – tawny turf & amethyst heather, broken with the grey-green of the rocks – & a strip of quiet sky above looking down on it all.”
Part of this resting time for Lilias, included the documenting of her daily life – outward and inward – reconstructing events from “mental photographs & incomprehensible scribblings” into journal letters (1888-1898), page-a-day diaries (1899-1928) augmented by travel journals. A practice that spanned the four-decades of her years in North Africa.
The documented life. What sense is there in borrowing time from an already busy life to relive and record the same? Is it the egotistical belief that what one has to say holds importance for posterity? The excessive indulgence of the self-absorbed? What then does one do with these records? Frederich Buechner wryly wondered in his memoir, The Eyes of the Heart, “What will happen when I die. . . to all the documents and photographs I have amassed and filed away along with the diaries I have kept for the past forty years or so with their relentless and nearly illegible account of where we went and who went with us and what we did when we got there.” I discovered to my dismay, that my mother before moving to their retirement home, reread her journals then ceremonially burned them, one after the other, in their fireplace!
What is the purpose in documenting one’s life? There are, most likely, as many reasons as persons but a careful study of Lilias’ recordings clearly reveal a pattern and a purpose. Her pattern was to balance periods of intense activity with times of reflection implemented, in part, through writing and painting. Her annual breaks during her early years to the continent, United Kingdom or Switzerland, or in the later years to places of retreat in North Africa, provided a precious couple weeks of uninterrupted solitude, Additionally, throughout the working months in Algeria she continually sought to find time to keep current her recordings. To document her life.
Her purpose, it seems, was two-fold. First, to preserve a record of God’s workings and His ways. Her leather-bound daily diaries appear to be the primary source from which her mission reports and devotional insights were drawn. She indicates as much in her Last Will & Testament, leaving those diaries as a permanent record of and for the fledgling Algers Mission Band. “A tracing of God’s ways,” to quote Lilias.
Secondly, it is evident that she was processing these events through deeper spiritual realities: examining God’s purposes in the setbacks and disappointments as well as the joys and triumphs. Her soul seeps through her writing in the short paragraphs and empty spaces during times of testing or sorrow; a rush of words – two lines to a space – crowd her telling of wonderful surprises, God’s dealings or unfoldings. Seeking out places and spaces of natural beauty – garden, desert oasis, sea coast, mountainside – her heart was fully attuned to God’s revelation of Himself through His created order. She would thus pen in parables insights gleaned from nature and illuminate them through paintings of the same. Lilias regularly carved out of her busy schedule time to process and preserve – document – her inner and outer life. Like breath to ones lungs it was life for her soul.
Through the years of my life I, too, have taken to pen to record my thoughts and feelings, observations and reflections, questions and doubts. I have run the gamut in journals: my first 5-year diary bound in blue leather – an embarrassing chronological account of my development (or lack thereof) from sixth grade through my sophomore year of high school, spiral notebooks of varying shapes and sizes to pour out adolescent angst and parental ponderings, my current red leather-bound journals more selective in content and restrained in verbiage (thank God for little things!). Putting my life into words has helped me to come full circle with my experience, to reflect on life and to become more observant of the world around me. Yes, to catch up with my soul.
But words are not the only way to take stock and preserve matters of significance. The artist with canvas, the musician with notes, the dancer with movement, the seamstress with needle and thread, the potter with clay, the gardener with spade and seed – each pause and ponder in his or her unique way. I think of one woman whose boutique shop was filled with objects of art and beauty. Over time her store-front windows were increasingly inhabited by sculptures of larger-than-life sized women clothed in gauzy white garments. There was something spectral, even haunting about them, evoking questions and comments from passersby. I worked up the courage to ask if she would be willing to comment on them. Or would the artist prefer to let the work speak for itself? Hesitatingly she ventured. “Those figures represent my life. I’ve come to a point where I must make sense of my life and this is how I am attempting to do it.” Pointing to the first sculpture, a woman grasping a scroll in her hand, Natalie said, “That is my mother. Rather than deal with raising a black-and-white child alone in the South, she had decided to offer me up for adoption. At the last hour, she changed her mind. The scroll is my reclaimed adoption papers.” That was the beginning of processing and preserving her life – through sculpture.
Whatever the purpose or venue in “documenting” one’s life, something happens in the very process. One slows down. Separates one event from the next. Steps away momentarily from routine and duty – and pauses. The very act of picking up pen or brush – whatever one’s tool of choice – slows the pace and creates the space to reflect. . . ponder. . . attend. . . To come full circle with one’s experience. To make sense of one’s life. And to act accordingly, with the implications of God’s revelation of Himself – and one’s own identity.
Before me is an unmarked journal, Beholdings, which contains short quotes and cameo paintings culled from the very repositories in which Lilias documented her life over one-hundred years ago. A bit daunting are the lined and blank spaces inviting me to document my life. I hesitate to mar the beauty with my scattered thoughts and illegible markings. Then I recall her original diaries: crowded script, crossed out words, penciled notations (“sap green for leaves”). Pasted on or tucked between pages are canceled stamps, pressed flowers, photographs and news clippings yellowed with age, quotes and poems from writers, ancient and current, even government documents.
I cannot model her diaries – much less her depth of insight or brilliance of artistry – but I will allow her example to inspire me in my efforts to document my life. This lovely journal, lavish with Lilias’ writings and watercolors, will be a tool to help me slow down and, prompted by her wisdom, reflect upon the wonders of this world – and the God Who created all things. To behold!
“Be still and know that I am God.”