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Word from Wormingford

03 July 2015

Ronald Blythe thinks of a Scot who led prayer in the South Sea islands

THE Collect being the one which asks the Lord to keep us under the protection of his good providence, and the second lesson being the one about St Paul and his nephew, I remember Robert Louis Stevenson and his mother on Samoa, ruling the natives with a Scottish rod of iron. The wonderful writer had gone there to seek a climate which might add a few more months to his life. He was 44, and had written some 40 books. What they had not expected was to have to rule the roost.

But these were the days when the British Empire unblushingly saw "lesser breeds as children", thus in this instance summoning the Samoans to family prayers. Young and old, men and women, boys and girls, bathed, put flowers in their hair, sang Scottish hymns, and worshipped God the Edinburgh way.

Many years after her husband's death, Mrs Stevenson published the prayers which Stevenson wrote for this Edinburgh worship on a South Sea island. In it, she likens it to the prayers which a child says at his mother's knee.

"The average Samoan is but a larger child in most things, and would lay an uneasy head on his wooden pillow if he had not joined, even perfunctorily, in the evening service. With my husband, prayer, the direct appeal, was a necessity. . . After all work and meals were finished, the 'pu', or war conch, was sounded from the back veranda and the front.

"I don't think it ever occurred to us that there was any incongruity in the use of the war conch for the peaceful invitation to prayer. . . The Samoans, men, women and children, trooped in through all the open doors. Once, the Chief left the room suddenly - "I am not yet fit to say 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.'" Stevenson's last prayer was for the renewal of joy. "Look down upon the dry bones, quicken, enliven; create in us the soul of service, the spirit of peace; renew in us the sense of joy." He calls God "our guide and our angel." They called him Tusitala - storyteller - and buried him on a hill where he had walked to see the setting sun.

In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson novelises the dual nature of man: its goodness and its evil, although there was nothing in his own existence that justifies the latter. His brilliant output made him too busy to be bad. Forty on the whole wonderful stories, an American wife and her son by an earlier marriage, an Edinburgh mother, and some of the best letters in the English language, a physical restlessness which kept him walking, sailing, and those collapsing lungs which cried for more and more air, kept him amazingly on the go every minute of the day. Thus his evening prayer.

"Prolong our days in peace and honour. Give us health, food, bright weather, and light hearts. . . Let us lie down without fear and awake and arise with exultation. . . Let us not lose the savour of past mercies and past pleasures; but, like the voice of a bird singing in the rain, let grateful memory survive in the hour of darkness."

Later on, he asks God to "teach us the lesson of trees and the meaning of fish". When I was a child, I was given his Child's Garden of Verses, with its poem "The Lamplighter", and I can just remember such a person cycling round our small Suffolk town, touching a gas-jet here and there, but leaving a mile of darkness to our house. Stevenson's father built lighthouses - including the Eddystone lighthouse.

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