“This film is a miniature masterpiece.”–Os Guinness…“The whole world should see this movie.”–Michelle Dockery…One of the most lovely and personally inspiring films ever–Lael
A new movie, Many Beautiful Things, introduces us to a true-life young beauty of means in Victorian England. An extraordinarily gifted artist, she is mentored and celebrated by John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the era, an Oxford professor and founder of its drawing school. He hailed her as one of the most potentially celebrated artists of her time. Ruskin’s challenge: “to give herself up to art.”
If she would dedicate herself to this great gift she would take her place among the cultural elite of England. She would change minds, as she had changed Ruskin’s, about the potential for women to paint great art.
She would also have an extraordinary platform from which to expand her work on behalf of poor and disenfranchised women–prostitutes whom she coaxed into the fledgling YWCA for shelter and job skills, the working women of London forced to eat their lunches on the streets, until she helped build London’s first public restaurant for women.
But another Voice was calling her.
In this beautifully executed documentary producer and director Laura Waters Hinson (As We Forgive) takes us on location and into Lilias’ art to see where her response would take her–away from the beauty and mentoring that Brantwood, Ruskin’s home in the Lake District, afforded her, away from the sparkling company of artists and thinkers who would gather there, away from the comfort of family and friends in London, away even from England.
She wrestled with Ruskin’s challenge and finally wrote, “I cannot give myself to painting in the way he means and continue still to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God.’” For Lilias that meant taking the gospel to the Muslims of North Africa.
Turned down by a mission board because of her health, Lilias self-funded her journey to Algeria in the company of two friends. There she would pour out God’s love for Algerian Muslims for the next 40 years.
The heart and soul of the movie come from Lilias’ journals. As James Taylor once sang, it’s “how she thinks of where she’s been.” Lilias wraps beautiful words around the shared experience of anyone who truly wants to follow Christ.
When Hinson tried to imagine which actor’s voice would best capture the strength, pathos and vulnerability of Lilias’ words only one actor seemed to fit: Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary in Downton Abbey). Michelle was so taken by Lilias’ story and art that she agreed to be her voice (see the interview with Michelle here).
In addition to her journals, Lilias wrote parables– Parables of the Cross, Parables of the Christ-life. She illustrated all her works with scenes from England and Algeria, featuring the natural beauty of the deserts and lakes, dandelions and rocks, villages and people. She created memes before the internet, arranging her words over or around her art.
So, why don’t we know about this extraordinary woman?
Well, her Parables, published in the 1890s, went out of print long ago. Her exquisite sketchbooks and journals were never officially published. In her great moment of decision she intentionally chose obscurity over celebrity. Painting for an audience of One over exhibitions at galleries and museums.
Yes, she corresponded with Amy Carmichael for decades. And Elizabeth Elliott loved to read her out-of-print books on her radio program. But her legacy has been mostly confined to a rather small circle.
Then in 1999 one of that circle, Miriam Rockness, turned her life-long passion for hunting down all things Lilias into a biography: A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter. Miriam also hosts an extraordinary blog about Lilias where I discovered that Lilias’ words inspired one of my favorite songs: “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.”
Building on Miriam’s work and the continued interest of a widening circle of followers, Hinson now brings Lilias’ story to an even larger audience. And as a student of faith and culture I believe the timing couldn’t be better. In Lilias’ writing and worshipful journaling she was so transparent, completely vulnerable– qualities highly valued in today’s postmodern culture.
Also, she did not aspire to “Big.” She did not plant a church. She did not build an organization.
Throughout my life I have read many biographies, including missionary biographies– inspiring stories of risk, surrender and the amazing work of God that builds churches, orphanages, hospitals, even Veggie Tales. The narrative arc of Lilias’ story is quite different.
Lilias chose to love and serve in hiddenness, pouring out her life without reserve to the least of these in North Africa. She chose one-on-one face time with others, with God, her joy in his good gifts radiating from her sketches.
Reflecting on her decision to leave Ruskin’s circle, she wrote, “There are those to whom a blessed life of fruitfulness to God comes in a simple way, with seemingly no hard process of dying involved.”
That is what so inspired me about the movie, about her life. It was the simplicity of her motives. She did it for love. She did it for joy. You can feel the contagious sense of adventure with God. She would enter a new village and simply say, “Because I love God I’m here to meet you.” And people would eventually respond, “We have never been loved like that.”
She spoke of “a grand independence of soul” – the liberty for those who have nothing to lose because they have nothing to withhold.
Perhaps it impacted me so deeply because my own decision to go with Jack to the mission field back in 1980 was fraught with feelings of resignation and duty. I was Ruth— completely willing, “where you go I will go.” But leaving my family and friends and my faith and culture studies and in the States was so hard.
After I was diagnosed with RA it was back here in the States that God slowly moved me from relationship and obedience based on duty to desire. Having fought for the joy and found it, I’m smitten by the joy in Lilias’ life.
In Parables of the Cross, she painted and wrote about her joyful abandonment:
“The word of the Lord came to me this morning through a dandelion plant…This dandelion has long ago surrendered its golden petals, and has reached its crowning stage of dying – the delicate seed-globe must break up now – it gives and gives till it has nothing left.
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.”
From her deathbed she wrote this final entry:
“We speak of the God of Love and the God of Peace – so seldom of the God of Joy. God is the God of joy, and we must drink in the spirit of His joy. Flowers are not a necessity – they are just an overflowing of God’s gladness and if we look closely at each, it seems to reveal His joy each in a different way. . . the merry heart of the celandines and the pure simple happiness of the primrose and the shout of the daffodils’ golden trumpet. He didn’t promise us ease and comfort – but He did promise joy which we may have in the midst of any weight or heaviness that may be ours to bear.” 17 July 1928
Featuring Lilias’ art in 3D animation, the movie is available on Amazon for purchase and Amazon Prime for rental. Screening dates here. (Released 3/8/16, 70 minutes, DVD $16.99) The film sparks discussion, especially about surrender, joy and legacy. In addition to private or small group viewing I can see it showing at a retreat or a Victorian high tea women’s event.