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Lilian Staveley’s life and work
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Lilian Staveley
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Biography of Lilian Staveley

The following biography of Lilian Staveley is adapted from Joseph A. Fitzgerald's preface to A Christian Woman's Secret.

Most of us, seeing a respectable lady shopping in London’s Bond Street, searching, let us say, for a sensible pair of new shoes, are hardly likely to suspect that we are looking at a God-intoxicated mystic, comparable in her inner nature to a St Francis of Assisi or a Sri Ramakrishna.[1] So it was with Lilian Staveley (c. 1878-1928).  People familiar only with her rather conventional outer life little realized that she was one of the most remarkable mystics of recent times.

That the name Lilian Staveley is largely unknown[2] is no accident: the “white-heat” of her “spirit-living” was her secret treasure, the existence of which she divulged to none, not even to her beloved husband, Brigadier General John Staveley. Yet in three anonymously written books of a deeply personal nature, Lilian Staveley laid bare, for the benefit of fellow souls, the course of her own soul’s journey toward God. It is the journey not of an unusual person “midway between men and angels”; rather it is the slow, up-and-down progress of a self-described “ordinary soul” possessing, however, extraordinary love for God and His creation.


In her autobiographical The Prodigal Returns, Lilian states that her upbringing was not typified by outward religious observance: “attendance at church upon Sunday—if it did not rain!—and occasionally the Communion.” But her family’s daily life was firmly based on Christian principles, and she possessed the simple—though somewhat fearful—faith of a child: God was a white-robed figure in the sky, who “took the trouble to make everything very beautiful . . . [and] could not bear sinful children.”


Lilian’s parents were people of leisure, learning, and culture who raised their children, Lilian and her two brothers, according to the same values. She experienced summers in Italy, tutors, governesses, boarding schools (Lilian spoke four languages fluently), and, when she came of age, a glittering world of balls, parties, and suitors. Of her first ball, Lilian tells us, “That night—and how often afterwards!—I knew the surging exultation, the intoxication of the joy of life. How often in social life, in brilliant scenes of light and laughter, music and love, I seemed to ride on the crest of a wave, in the marvelous glamour of youth!”


At the same time, despite the seeming paradox, she developed the ability to lose herself in contemplation of the beauties of nature. In solitude and silence, and with a view of the boundless sky, all thoughts and forms passed away, while through a process mysterious even to herself, she “inhaled the very essence of the Beautiful.” It was a day-dream in which, without fully realizing it at the time, she dreamt of God: “Half a lifetime was to go by before I realized to what this habit was leading me—that it was the first step towards the acquirement of that most exquisite of all blessings—the gift of the Contemplation of God.”


But Lilian still had a long road to walk. Before she could find God, she first had to move farther away from Him. She became an atheist. An ardent, new-found belief in the truth and power of scientific “fact” replaced her belief in God Most High. It was a painful two year struggle for her to regain her lost faith, a struggle between her mind, which claimed that the God she had worshiped was a childish dream, and her heart, which nevertheless longed for His consoling presence. Faith finally prevailed over doubt when there arose within her heart a longing for her Lord so painfully real that the longing could not be denied. It happened to her while she was in Rome, in the presence of temples dedicated to the worship of an unseen God, and surrounded by the loveliness of nature. The beauty of worship, one could say, showed Lilian the way back to God. 


Refinding faith was not Lilian’s only struggle. She knew that many men, even otherwise great and holy men, have looked down on womankind, but, what was worse, she feared that in God’s eyes also she was not of the “acceptable sex.” This apparent disparagement she could not understand: “What profound injustice—to suffer so much and to receive no recognition whatever whilst men walked off with all the joys after leading very questionable lives!” For several years her shame at being a woman was such that, although she continued to believe in and pay homage to her Lord, she could do so only with a certain reverent sadness, and not with love.


The fullness of loving faith came to Lilian in time, as she realized that God, in His turn, does not differentiate in His love between man and woman. Despite the habitual arrogance of certain men, she came to understand that: “Clothed in the body of either man or woman, the soul is predominantly feminine—the Feminine Principle beloved of, and returning to, the Eternal Masculine of God.” The spiritual journey of each soul to her Maker is a journey shared alike by man and by woman.


Lilian’s writings unfold for her readers what to expect, step by step, along the soul’s journey of love back to God. Her starting point is always her personal experience of that mystic journey. Outside of the Bible, she neither read nor relied on “religious” books.[3] She did not need to—with enraptured eyes she saw for herself the spiritual realities that the best books of wise and learned men describe.[4] That she never speaks second-hand may explain why Lilian’s own writing is so often startlingly fresh and immediate in its quality of expression.


To whom does Lilian speak? To extraordinary monks and nuns who live apart from the world, or to ordinary men and women who live as a part of it? The answer must be that she speaks to both, but to the regular men and women of the world especially. With a natural sense of balance and harmony, Lilian teaches us how to combine an inner and hidden “blessed intercourse” with God, along with an outward life of everyday duties and intercourse with fellow-beings. To learn to live this “double life” took her time, but ultimately she discovered that love is one, and that sincere love of God must be combined with an equally earnest love for His human creation. For Lilian, such human tendernesses as charity and visitation of the sick are united in importance with heartfelt prayer and serene contemplation of the Lord.  


Lilian Staveley published three books during her lifetime: The Prodigal Returns, The Romance of the Soul, and The Golden Fountain.[5] A forthcoming edited compilation of her writings, entitled A Christian Woman’s Secret,[6] will be published by World Wisdom. Her writings are such that they can easily and profitably be read either cover-to-cover, or a passage here and a passage there. Most of all, the reader is encouraged to remember that Lilian speaks directly from her heart and her wisdom is the wisdom of love. She is confiding in you her secret, the mystical love she carries within. Therefore listen to her with an open heart, as she whispers the sweet talk of love in your ear.




NOTES

[1] A bold analogy, though not unprecedented: in his book Modern Mystics (London: John Murray, 1935; reprinted New York: University Books, 1970), Sir Francis Younghusband explicitly compares Lilian Staveley with the likes of Ramakrishna and St. Therese de Lisieux. Younghusband also points out that the spiritual experiences Lilian Staveley describes bear “remarkable resemblances to the experiences of Hindu mystics”.

[2] As mentioned above, Staveley’s writings were known to Sir Francis Younghusband, a writer, diplomat, and Himalayan explorer. Her writings were also known to Evelyn Underhill, a respected authority on comparative mysticism, as well as to Frithjof Schuon, a preeminent writer in the Perennialist school of comparative religion. 

[3] Lilian makes it clear that her understanding came neither from men nor from books; she tells us of two religious books that she did read, but these served only to confirm knowledge she had already possessed.

[4] Frithjof Schuon described Lilian Staveley as a “solitary,” an individual gifted with a natural and, so to say, “spontaneous” understanding of the Divine who requires, therefore, no outside spiritual instruction.

[5] Lilian’s works are here presented in reverse order of their date of publication: The Prodigal Returns (London: John M. Watkins, 1921); The Romance of the Soul (London: John M. Watkins, 1920); and The Golden Fountain or, the Soul’s Love for God: Being Some Thoughts and Confessions of one of His Lovers (London: John M. Watkins, 1919; reprinted by John M. Watkins, 1936, 1964, and by World Wisdom Books [Bloomington, IN], 1982). Editorial changes include the deletion of certain passages and the addition of new section breaks and headings.

[6] A Christian Woman’s Secret: A Modern-Day Journey to God (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom Books, forthcoming).


Books/DVDs containing the work of Lilian Staveley

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Lilian Staveley’s Writings Online
 TitleSourceAuthor 1Author 2SubjectWW HTMLWW PDFExternal Link
From Childhood to Visitation on the HillA Christian Woman’s Secret: A Modern-Day Journey to GodStaveley, Lilian Christianity, Spiritual Life
Closing to a Bud AgainNot of this World: A Treasury of Christian MysticismStaveley, Lilian Christianity
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Lilian Staveley’s Bibliography

Books


A Christian Woman’s Secret, (World Wisdom, 2008)

The Prodigal Returns, (John M. Watkins, 1921)

The Romance of the Soul, (John M. Watkins, 1920)

The Golden Fountain or, the Soul’s Love for God: Being Some Thoughts and Confessions of one of His Lovers, (John M. Watkins, 1919; reprinted by World Wisdom, 1982)



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