A Past Voice from the Field: On Darkness, Light, and Skies of Brass

Zermatt, Switzerland

Today I’d like to share a post that connects two others I’ve written. The first one addresses the quotation “Don’t forget in the darkness what you have learned in the light,” attributed by Philip Yancey to Christian publishing executive and author Joseph Bayly. The second discusses the life and work of Lilias Trotter, British artist and missionary to Algeria.

I had read Yancey’s attribution in his book Where Is God when It Hurts? but more recently, it was while thumbing through Miriam Huffman Rockness’s A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, that I came across

Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light.

While not exactly the same as the words of Bayly, Trotter’s are close enough to show a relationship in the idea and phrasing. And I knew that Trotter’s writing easily predated Bayly’s quotation, as she died in 1928, when Bayly was only eight years old.

Knowing that Rockness authors a blog about Trotter, I contacted her for more information. In response, she not only told me that Trotter had written the phrase in her diary in August of 1901 but also gave me some background on its meaning. Rockness writes that the diary entry came from a time when Trotter was visiting her brother in Zermatt, Switzerland, “taking a ‘break’ from the heavy load” she was experiencing in North Africa. While high up in the mountains, she wrote:

“Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light” – That was this mornings “first lesson” – For when I opened my shutters about 5.30, there was a lovely clear happy morning sky above the grey gold rocks a[nd] glistening snow of the Weirshorn & Roth-horn. While a thick bank of white cloud lay below in the valley – Half an hour more & it had risen around us till there was nothing to be seen but a few dim ghosts of trees. Yet one knew having once seen that sky, that a radiant day was coming, & that the clouds could do nothing but melt. And me[lt] they did, the peaks glimmering like far off angels at first, & clearing till they stood out radiant & strong, with the fogs dropped down to their feet like a cast off mantle. All depended on what one had seen first.

Elsewhere in her blog, Rockness puts the quotation in more context, describing Trotter’s “heavy load”:

It is interesting to note that when Lilias recorded the above statement of faith in her diary, she was in the midst of an unprecedented and sustained period of challenge in ministry. After more than 3 years of political opposition  and spiritual oppression, their work had come almost to a halt. Activities in Algiers and itineration in Algeria were severely curtailed as they were dogged by the shadow of suspicion.  Even their most beloved Arab friends pulled away in fear of being identified with them.

In A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Rockness writes that the difficulties faced by Trotter included the investigation of English missionaries by the ruling French government and the targeting of young Algerian converts by sorcerers using poison and “black magic.” Also, a missionary family that had come to help in the ministry left after six months, unable to meet the demands of caring for their three children in Algeria.

Trotter wrote in 1897, again in her diary,

One literally could do nothing but pray at every available bit. One might take up letters or accounts that seemed as if they were a “must be”—but one had to drop them within five minutes, almost invariably, and get to prayer—hardly prayer either, but a dumb crying up to the skies of brass.

For Trotter, during difficult times, the skies could turn to brass and clouds could obscure the sun and envelop the world around her. But she had seen the “clear happy morning sky,” and she knew that a “radiant day was coming.”

“Believe in the darkness,” she learned, and passed on to us, “what you have seen in the light.”

If you’d like to know more about Lilias Trotter, you can watch the 2015 documentary Many Beautiful Things, featuring the voices of Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings). It also includes insights from Miriam Huffman Rockness. The trailer is below, and the complete film is available free here.

(This post is adapted from an earlier one at ClearingCustoms.net.)

(Miriam Huffman Rockness, ed., A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House, 2016; Rockness, in a comment (September 5, 2016) for “Lilias Trotter Symposium,” Lilias Trotter, August 17, 2016; Rockness, “Believe!” Lilias Trotter, July 28, 2012; Rockness, Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House, 2003)

[photo: “Switzerland-55,” by Strychnine, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

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