The Documented Life

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.”

This entry was posted in meditation, nature, reflection, rest, restoration, soliltude, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The Documented Life

  1. Jan Kolstad says:

    Thank you Miriam for continuing to share with us Lillias and her impact on you. It is helpful to be reminded to take time to notice with wonder God around and within.

  2. Angelika says:

    This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing.
    ♡ Angelika

  3. lesleyhumphreys2014 says:

    Dear Miriam,

    I hope you don’t mind me pointing out that the word ‘gamete’ is not appropriate in this passage; it means a reproductive cell. It is similar to the word you meant which is ‘gamut’, meaning the full range of something.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    God bless you, Lesley Humphreys

  4. Susan Helms says:

    Thank you. As always your writing is encouraging and beautiful, and just what I needed to hear this morning. 🌷

  5. Leslie Bassett says:

    Thank you Miriam for this lovely email and it’s contents. It exudes peace and loveliness all in one. Thank you for your devotion to Lilias Trotter and all of her writings and drawings.

  6. Debbie Boulware says:

    I love the examples – first of Lilias, then of yourself – of this diligence of documenting one’s life. My own practice has only encompassed the last third of my life; nevertheless, I am curious if you have developed a system for finding that ‘nugget of truth’ revealed years ago. As the archives grow, I find a need from time to time to share that lesson revealed to me long ago. I do have my journals in date order and have to dive into that long term memory to retrieve the time and place where the Light occurred. I know God will use it for His good, and I want to be His instrument. Have you ever transcribed the entire history to make it searchable?

    I also love the multiple ways you have illustrated of documenting. While it might be words and watercolors for me, for my sister, it’s bird watching.

    You continue to teach and inspire me and I am truly grateful.

    • mhrockness says:

      What an interesting question: a system for finding that “nugget of truth’ revealed in previous years. I have pondered that challenge when, from time to time, I try and locate a quote or incident. People who document on their computer have word search to track down sites. But that is NOT my preferred method of documentation. I suppose one could make work of going through one’s journals and documenting subject/date on their computer for future reference.
      It might even make for a wonderful journey back in time. As Lilias’ said: “the tracing of His Ways.” But it would be quite a committment, wouldn’t it? Let me know if you come up with an answer. As to your question about “transcribing the entire history,” I have given serious consideration to using my Beholdings journal to document dates relating to the search/story of my discovery and journey with Lilias. It is such a story of God’s initiation and me being simply a tool for His purposes that I do think a record of the same would be edifying and nurturing – to say nothing of mapping of the journey for the record. You have given me much to think about! Best blessings, Miriam

  7. Paula Suarez says:

    I’m so glad you take the time to remind me of the outlook of Lilias. I’ve been so blessed by all the things you have researched and shared about her life. Sometimes I forget and these reminders cause me to go back and enjoy again her blessed perspective. Thanks for being faithful.

    • mhrockness says:

      I’m so glad that Lilias’ “outlook” has been a source of blessing to you. Your words are an encouragement to our (Lilias Trotter Legacy) mission “to let Lilias continue to speak.” Best blessings! Miriam

  8. Anne Connell says:

    Thank you so much for this! I have journaled for many, many years. My purpose has been to leave a “paper trail” of God working in my life for my children. It also helps me to remember the same.

    Your email is enlarging my vision and purpose. Again, I truly thank you!

    • mhrockness says:

      Thank you for taking the time to write these words. It is wonderful to hear your story and to know that Lilias is affirming and encouraging you in your life and vision. Best blessings, Miriam

  9. Hello, Miriam. I hope you are doing well. Back in 2016, I communicated with you through your blog about Lilias’s quotation “Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light,” and I appreciate the information you gave me on that. My wife and I just recently watched, and greatly enjoyed, “Many Beautiful Things,” and I have another question: At 33:40, Lilias is quoted as writing, “In all the withholdings of this year, God has been opening a door where he closes a window.” Could you tell me where this appears in her writings? I like to trace the origins of well-known sayings, and I’m wondering if this is the genesis of the common “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” Thank you very much, Craig

  10. mhrockness says:

    May 6, 1904 Interesting question. It is similar, isn’t it? Lilias’ take on the subject is more expansive – as is her thinking in general. The Glory of The Impossible. She was, perhaps, the early “possibility thinker!” I enjoyed your piece on “Travelling – Travel (!) – Mercies having grown up with that familiar prayer! Well done.

    • Thank you! – and glad you enjoyed the post on travelling mercies. I’ve done some more digging and find references to “When God shuts a door, he opens a window” as an Italian proverb. Interestingly enough, one of them is in the introduction of “The Works of John Ruskin,” published in 1907.

  11. Pingback: Closed Doors, Opened Windows – Clearing Customs

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