by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894)
As starts the absent dreamer when a train,
Suddenly disengulphed below his feet,
Roars forth into the sunlight, to its seat
My soul was shaken with immediate pain
Intolerable as the scanty breath
Of that one word blew utterly away
The fragile mist of fair deceit that lay
O’er the bleak years that severed me from death.
Yes, at the sight I quailed: but, not unwise
Or not, O God, without some nervous thread
Of that valour, Patience, bowed my head,
And with firm bosom and most steadfast eyes,
Strong in all high resolve, prepared to tread
The unlovely path that leads me toward the skies.
I had the good fortune to find in my local used book store a little gem of a book last Saturday. It is a limited edition, one of 200 by Melville Press. It is titled Prayers, (sometimes also referred to as Prayers Written at Vailima) by Robert Louis Stevenson, and has an introduction by Mrs. R. L. Stevenson.
Mrs. R. L. Stevenson begins the introduction:
In every Samoan household the day is closed with prayer and the singing of hymns. The omission of this sacred duty would indicate not only a lack of religious training in the house chief, but a shameless disregard of all that is reputable in Samoan social life…
What makes this small volume of prayer interesting is that if you read most accounts of Stevenson’s life he was an avowed atheist. He admitted to his parents that he had rejected Christianity by age 23, following his father’s inquiries into his membership into the RJR club (Liberty, Justice, Reverence) whose motto reads; “Disregard everything our parents have taught us.”
This would be the second time Stevenson had broken with his father’s hopes for him, the first when he had decided to not pursue a college degree in engineering and join the family firm in designing, and building lighthouses, instead choosing to become a writer. The second decision he felt an ever bigger betrayal in his parents eyes, becoming a godless bohemian. Stevenson wrote:
“What a damned curse I am to my parents!” As my father said “You have rendered my whole life a failure”. As my mother said “This is the heaviest affliction that has ever befallen me”. O Lord, what a pleasant thing it is to have damned the happiness of (probably) the only two people who care a damn about you in the world.
So how does one reconcile this beautiful book of prayer published after his death, with his prior public statements as a non-believer? Is it a case of his wife trying to do a bit of postmortem PR on his behalf to rehabilitate his reputation for posterity? Or did Stevenson have a change in spiritual perspective late in life? Stevenson was sickly his entire 44 years. He would not be the first person who proclaimed loudly his rejection of Christianity only to have a change of heart when realizing that death was drawing near.
However, as someone who has been an agnostic his entire adult life, and yet attempts to write prayerful poetry, I keenly recognize that these two seemingly contradictory stances by Stevenson can cohesively co-exist. The language of reverence is the same for all religions. And even atheists may write a prayer of grace, including the word Lord, knowing it will make it meaningful to a broader audience. The word, Lord, a nod to their own admonition of uncertainty or certainty as for what or whom their particular Lord might represent in their minds, even if it is different from Christians.
Only Stevenson knows what he believed at the end of his life. He may very well have continued to reject some or all of Christianity, and at the same time used his skills as a story teller to pen prayers to make it possible to more fully participate in the community he was living.
Mrs Stevenson explains in the introduction:
“Vailima lay up some three miles of continual rise from Apia, and more than half that distance from the nearest village. It was a long way for a tired man to walk down every evening, with the sole purpose of joining in family worship; and the road through the bush was dark, and, to the Samoan imagination, beset with supernatural terrors. Wherefore, as soon as our household had fallen into a regular routine, and the bonds of the Samoan family life began to draw us more closely together, Tusitala (Samoan for storyteller, referring to R.L.S.) felt the necessity of including our retainers in our evening devotions. I suppose ours was the only white man’s family in all Samoa, except those of the missionaries, where the day naturally ended with the homely, patriarchal custom. Not only were the religious scruples of the natives satisfied, but what we did not forsee, our own respectability – and incidentally that of our retainers – became assured and the influence of Tusitala increased tenflold.”
These services were simple and would have sounded exotic to a former Presbyterian Scot’s ears, suitably unconventional to satisfy whatever lay in his own heart. They began by his son reading a chapter from the Samoan bible, then Tusitala saying a prayer, impromptu or from his notebook, modifying them to fit the needs of the day. Then came the singing of a hymn in the Samoan language, accented sometimes by the strangely savage monotonous noise of native drums from inhabitants close to his household at close of day, and then closing with the Lord’s Prayer, also in Samoan. Mrs. Stevenson writes, “many of these hymns were set to ancient tunes very wild and warlike and strangely at variance with the words.”
What better setting and mood for a man to craft his personal theology, than to take the foundation of spiritual beliefs from his upbringing and reshape them as a humanist in a foreign land.
On the evening before his death, the service was unusually short, and Mrs. Stevenson asked him at its conclusion, “What is it?” He replied. “I am not yet fit to say “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.” I recognize that reluctance in Stevenson’s admission, my own doubts having silenced me into ponder on occasion at precisely that same line.
Mrs. Stevenson concludes the introduction with the following:
It is with natural reluctance that I touch upon the last prayer of my husband’s life. Many have supposed that he showed, in the wording of this prayer, that he had some premonition of his approaching death. I am sure he had no such premonition. It was I who told the assembled family that I felt an impending disaster approaching nearer and nearer. Any Scot will understand that my statement was received seriously. It would not be, we thought, that danger threatened anyone within the house; but Graham Balfour, my husband’s cousin, very near and dear to us, was away on a perilous cruise. Our fears followed the various vessels, more or less unseaworthy, in which he was making his way from island to island to the atoll where the exiled king, Matafa, was at that time imprisoned. In my husband’s last prayer, the night before his death, he asked that we should be given strength to bear the loss of this dear friend, should such a sorrow befall us.”
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Grant that we here before Thee may be set
free from the fear of vicissitude and the fear of
death, may finish what remains before us of
our course without dishonor to ourselves or
hurt to others, and, when the day comes, may die
in peace. Deliver us from fear and favor: from
mean hopes and cheap pleasures. Have mercy on
each in his deficiency; let him be not cast down;
support the stumbling on the way, and give at
last rest to the weary.