A Christian Woman’s Secret: A Modern-Day Journey to God
by Lilian Staveley, edited by Joseph A. Fitzgerald, foreword by Phillip Zaleski. (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2008), 144 pages, ISBN 978-1-933316-58-1
Reviewed by Mara Lief Crabtree, DMin, OSL
Lilian Bowdoin Staveley, (1878-1928), published three accounts of her spiritual life: The Prodigal Returns, The Romance of the Soul, and The Golden Fountain or, the Soul’s Love for God: Being Some Thoughts and Confessions of one of His Lovers. Staveley’s spiritual journey speaks to the serious scholar of the Christian mystical life and theology as well as to others who desire a rich spiritual life and the practice of contemplation. Her writing is especially meaningful to Christians not called to the vocation of a cloistered life, but rather to outward, public responsibilities requiring daily engagement with family, local community and the wider world. Staveley provides a clear example that authentic contemplative life is also a fully practical life. Her model of spiritual life evidences that the mundane aspects of everyday engagement with practical matters fit within the call to contemplation and are inclusive to a life of prayer—not outside of it.
Staveley, a British citizen, was raised in a privileged and wealthy family with a heritage, on both sides of her family, descending from the Huguenots of French nobility. She grew up during an age when the emerging faith in scientific, rather than spiritual solutions to life’s needs, became prominent. Although Lilian attended Anglican services, her early life was not fully awakened to the possibility of a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It was not until the end of World War I that Lilian brought to John M. Watkins, London, her first manuscript for publication, yet insisted upon anonymity in view of her very pubic social standing. Staveley’s autobiography, expressed in The Prodigal Returns and in her other books, is atypical of some historical examples of Christian women mystics, in that she did not seek vocational affiliation with a religious order. Although her accounts of spiritual life contain only brief mention of specific religious traditions or denominations, she recounts one of her earliest significant experiences in a traditional Christian context:
We went to one of the great ceremonies in the Vatican: we had seats in the Sistine Chapel . . . as [the Pope] came slowly along he raised his hand in a general blessing upon the multitude. As he came nearer I saw the delicate ivory face—the great dark eyes shining with a fire I had never seen before. For the first time in my life I saw holiness. I was moved to the depths of my being. Something in my gaze arrested his attention . . . and leaning over me, he blessed me individually—a very great concession during a large public ceremony. There was no longer anything anywhere in the world but Holiness—and my enraptured soul. Holiness then, was far beyond the beautiful, I had not known this until I saw it before me (7).
She also describes the dimensions and events of her outward life: marriage to a prominent military figure, Brigadier General William Cathcart Staveley, and the daily responsibilities of her social station in life. Staveley has been characterized as “a hidden saint” due to the nature of her life which required engagement in all the normal responsibilities of daily existence in society while inwardly committed to a constant, passionate pursuit of God. The formation of Staveley’s spiritual life, concomitant with the formation of her marriage relationship and social life, instructs and encourages those Christians called to the milieu of social, public vocations “in the world” yet who desire an authentic, inward spiritual life that is “not of the world”.
Lilian expresses, with honesty and in detail, her spiritual autobiography beginning with the pre-Christian years of her youth. Staveley’s narrative of faith follows the classic pattern of formation common to other mystics. She recounts her understanding of the stages of spiritual awakening, purgation, illumination in truth, and her sense of spiritual union with God. Staveley carefully explains her struggles in the life of prayer; her experience of both the kataphatic (God revealed) and the apophatic (God concealed) aspects of her spirituality as well as the joys and tensions in the life of prayer. She does not neglect other themes that are common among Christian mystics: abandonment to God, detachment from seeking worldly possessions and happiness, the nature of ecstatic experience, the Ignatian concepts of spiritual consolation and desolation, and the tension between God’s perfection and eternal life as compared with both the joys and sufferings of temporal life.
Lilian’s faith is strongly Christocentric as well as balanced in expressing the Trinitarian reality experienced in both the development and maturing of her spiritual life. Staveley expresses her contemplative life of prayer to the Father; prayer for the purpose of desiring to seek and to know the Son. She does not neglect the Third Person of the Trinity, writing specifically of the presence and movements of the Holy Spirit as essential to her life of faith.
On becoming truly desirous of finding God it is necessary that with great persistence we pray to the Father in the name of Jesus Christ that He will give us to Jesus Christ and fill the heart and mind with love for Christ. Only through Jesus Christ can we find the God head . . . The soul is awakened, revived, re-glorified by Grace of Jesus Christ; and the Holy Spirit effects the repentance and conversion of the heart and mind, for without this conversion towards a spiritual life the soul remains in bondage to the unconverted creature (13).
Staveley’s narrative expressing her journey of spiritual formation, conformation and transformation through her relationship with Jesus Christ is a profoundly meaningful and valuable contribution to her readers. As common in personal narratives of mystical Christianity, Staveley recounts that during a season of intense crisis preceded by a traumatic event, she was drawn to a more intimate relationship with Christ. During ten years of “almost unendurable” suffering, the result of being struck by lightning in Africa, Lilian noticed a change in her husband’s love and was “deeply pained, almost horrified by this revelation of the natural imperfection of human love” (12). It was this revelation that led her to reflect deeply on the true nature of Jesus’ love: “I began to know that nothing less than His perfect love could satisfy me. In this illness I was tremendously alone.” (12). At the age of 36 she “commenced to meditate upon the life and the character and the love of Jesus Christ. Gradually He became for me a secret Mind-Companion” (12).
Perhaps Staveley’s most moving revelation is her doxological expression of love for Christ: a relationship that is both worshipful and orthodox in understanding the Savior’s completed work of salvation. In this, her writing also evidences an evangelistic tone. She reveals a balanced understanding of the Christian life: the presence of both joys and sufferings as normative to the spiritual journey:
The point to remember here is this, that whether we follow Christ or no we shall have woes; if we forsake him, we are not rid of woes, if we follow Him, we are not rid of woes –not yet . . . Christ leads through the woe, because it is the shortest way. The unguided soul wanders beside the woe, hating and fearing it, unable to rid herself of it, gaining nothing by it, suffering in vain, and no Companion comes to ease the burdens with His company (35).
Staveley recognizes the reality of spiritual struggle in the life of contemplation, asserting that “The Spirit of Christ easily overcomes every spirit, every evil, every fear, and in order to ourselves overcome all things, we need to unite with the Spirit of Jesus Christ by concentrating upon Him with love and ignoring spiritual obstructions”(40). She embraces the common practice of the mystics in viewing “the key to progress” in the contemplative life as:
. . . a continual dressing of the will and mind and heart towards God, best brought about by continually filling the heart and mind with beautiful, grateful and loving thoughts of Him. At all stages of progress the thoughts persistently fly away to other things in the near and visible world, and we have need quietly and perpetually to pick them up and re-center them on Him (133).
The holiness of the mystics is often revealed in their limitations and imperfections; in their struggles to understand and interpret the Scriptures. These weaknesses reveal the treasure of God existing, as St. Paul explained, in imperfect “earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7). For example, Staveley asserts her concern with a perceived prejudice of some toward her gender: “How often I noticed . . . both in the monks of today with their averted eyes as if the shadow of a woman falling on them were pollution, and long ago, Paul, and Peter also, and Moses, and many others, showed surprising weakness of intolerance and harsh judgment against Woman!” (31). In regard to gender, her commentary aligns with certain, but not all, feminist interpretations of the historical and cultural aspects of gender issues in Scripture.
Staveley’s trilogy expressing the nascency, development and continuing maturation of her spiritual life, follows closely the classic pattern of spiritual development as “noetic, transient and ineffable.” As with Evelyn Underhill, Staveley describes stages of spiritual development that align with awakening, purgation, illumination and union. The author describes the life of prayer as “the golden wedding ring between ourselves and God” (133). She distinguishes her spiritual and emotional struggles in the life of prayer moving from self-effort in petitioning to, by grace, embracing a generous surrender to God. Lilian’s surrender resulted in a lifting away of the “pain and fatigue,” the “strain and difficulty” in prayer to a place of self-giving joy in prayer. She discovered the spirit of intercession: that “God causes the soul to pray this joyous, this exquisite prayer for total strangers . . . holding them up before God for His help and His blessing” (51-52).
Although Staveley reveals little of a personal rule of life, those specific daily disciplines that are characteristic of a contemplative vocation, she explains that her prayer is:
. . . under His command; and of offering, that I come to it of my own high, passionate desire. I make upon my knees, three times a day, three short and formal prayers of humble worship as befits the creature worshipping its Ineffable and Mighty God; and for the rest of my time I sing to Him from my heart and soul, as befits the joyful lover, adoring and conversing with the Ineffable and Exquisite Beloved” (133).
Though not lacking in the intellectual and theological aspects of Christian spirituality, Lilian Staveley’s autobiographical trilogy provides a profoundly intimate, experiential account of her spiritual development and life of faith; one that provides a meaningful and encouraging message to believers desiring authentic spiritual growth.
Mara Lief Crabtree, DMin, OSL is Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation and Women’s Studies in the School of Divinity.