Robert Louis Stevenson, Ecumenist

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Though it may not seem the most obvious or natural thing in the world to link hiking and ecumenism, in fact they have gone together right from the start. Robert Louis Stevenson, author of childhood favorites like Treasure Island, more or less invented the idea of hiking and camping for pleasure (rather than for military necessity or scientific study or exploration to expand his majesty’s empire). The story of this maiden voyage is recorded in his book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (quotes from this version). I picked up the book because I live in France, like to hike, and like to read—but despite being an ecumenist, I had no idea how much ecumenism makes up the central drama of the story.

In 1878, when Stevenson went for his historic walk, ecumenism didn’t really exist. There were certain impulses in that direction, various meetings among Protestants to try to sort out their old quarrelsm, but what we now call the ecumenical movement didn’t start in earnest until 1910. But Catholics were not a part even of these early efforts—it was not for a good 85 years after Stevenson’s trip in the Cévennes that the Second Vatican Council officially entered the Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement. But Protestant-Catholic relations are at the heart of Stevenson’s proto-ecumenical narrative.

Stevenson himself was Scottish and (almost consequently) Presbyterian. He seems on the one hand to hold these convictions lightly—especially when they tend toward suggesting the eternal damnation of those outside the fold—and on the other hand to discover his own strong Protestant identity and unwillingness to change. The two sit awkwardly in his own person, itself a sign of nascent ecumenism.

Along the way he almost accidently gets into theological squabbles, the very fact of which causes him profound distress. This distress is rooted in a conviction that, after all, Protestants and Catholics do share the same faith. For example, in the first chapter about the mountain town of Le Monastier, which strikes a perhaps homesick Stevenson as “a Scottish landscape,” he notices that they rest on the Sabbath, just like Presbyterians, from “the patriarch to the baby.” Despite that, he observes, “this people is eager to proselytise; and the post-master’s daughter used to argue with me by the half-hour about my heresy, until she grew quite flushed. I have heard the reverse process going on between a Scotswoman and a French girl; and the arguments in the two cases were identical. Each apostle based her claim on the superior virtue and attainments of her clergy, and clenched the business with a threat of hell-fire… One cheerful circumstance I note in these guerilla missions, that each side relies on hell, and Protestant and Catholic alike address themselves to a supposed misgiving in their adversary’s heart. And I call it cheerful, for faith is a more supporting quality than imagination” (126-7). Elsewhere he describes these exchanges: “Thus, to the high entertainment of the angels, do we pelt each other with evangelists, like schoolboys bickering in the snow” (161).

A good portion of the story tells of his stay at a Trappist monastery. He approaches this dramatic locale and finds his heart failing him. “I had not gone very far ere the wind brought to me the clanging of a bell, and somehow, I can scarce tell why, my heart sank within me at the sound. I have rarely approached anything with more unaffected terror than the monastery of Our Lady of the Snows. This it is to have had a Protestant education” (166). The monk who welcomes him in (after finding out he’s an author, not a peddler) is keenly interested to learn that Stevenson is a Scotsman, for he has known many Irish priests who have kept him abreast of ecclesiastical news in England. “And he asked me eagerly after Dr. Pusey [an Anglican leader of the tractarian movement], for whose conversion the good man had continued ever since to pray night and morning. ‘I thought he was very near the truth,’ he said; ‘and he will reach it yet; there is so much virtue in prayer.’ He must be a stiff, ungodly Protestant who can take anything but pleasure in this kind and hopeful story. While he was thus near the subject, the good father asked me if I were a Christian; and when he found I was not, or not after his way, he glossed it over with great goodwill.” In the evening, in the room for retreatants, Stevenson finds among other Catholic paraphernalia the memoirs of Elizabeth Seton (an early 19th-century Catholic educator and founder of a religious order for charitable works in North America), which causes Stevenson to imagine that she and Cotton Mather (a Puritan minister in 17th-century New England) reside in heaven together as “the dearest friends, and gladly unite their voices in the everlasting psalm” (171).

Stevenson surprises himself by his positive impressions of the Trappists. At one point he comments, “I am astonished, as I look back, at the freshness of face and cheerfulness of manner of all whom I beheld. A happier nor a healthier company I should scarce suppose that I have ever seen” (173). He ponders at some length, and approves of, their diet, their occupations, their schedule rung out by the bells, their separation from women, and their long novitiate. “There were none of those circumstances which strike the Protestant as childish or as tawdry in the public offices of Rome. A stern simplicity, heightened by the romance of the surroundings, spoke directly to the heart” (175). Nonetheless, as he leaves, he notes: “I blessed God that I was free to wander, free to hope, and free to love” (176).

Unfortunately, the happy occasion is once more interrupted by theological dispute. True, most of the monks are easygoing with him; one Irish deacon does no more than pat him on the shoulder and say, “You must be a Catholic and come to heaven.” But later Stevenson finds himself in the company of a country parish priest and a former soldier who’d become a novice, “bitter and upright and narrow, like the worst of Scotsmen.” They demand if Stevenson really intends to die in his Protestant faith, and when Stevenson affirms that he does intend to do so, the priest cries, “You must change. You have come here, God has led you here, and you must embrace the opportunity.” When Stevenson appeals to family considerations, the priest replies: “Your father and your mother? …Very well; you will convert them in their turn when you go home.” And on it went. “It was an odd but most effective proselytizing. They never sought to convince me in argument, where I might have attempted some defence, but took it for granted that I was both ashamed and terrified at my position, and urged me solely on the point of time” (179).

The awkward situation brings out a universalist impulse in Stevenson, which in light of the religious warfare he describes later appears to be the only charitable option available to him. “For one who feels very similarly to all sects of religion, and who has never been able, even for a moment, to weigh seriously the merit of this or that creed on the eternal side of things, however much he may see to praise or blame upon the secular and temporal side, the situation thus created was both unfair and painful. I committed my second fault in tact, and tried to plead that it was all the same thing in the end, and we were all drawing near by different sides to the same kind and undiscriminating Friend and Father. That, as it seems to lay spirits, would be the only gospel worthy of the name. But different men think differently; and this revolutionary aspiration brought down the priest with all the terrors of the law” (181). After a brief release, “at dinner the Work of the Propagation of the Faith was recommenced, and on this occasion still more distastefully to me. The priest asked me many questions as to the contemptible faith of my fathers, and received my replies with a kind of ecclesiastical titter.” When Stevenson finally protests against this “uncivil usage,” the priest replies that he is not laughing at the Protestant’s expense, but thinking only of his eternal salvation. Stevenson comes away impressed at least at his sincerity of purpose. He concludes that “it is not always the most faithful believer who makes the cunningest apostle” (182).

From one extreme to the other, Stevenson leaves Our Lady of the Snows to enter Camisard country. Camisards were southern French Huguenots whose most exciting and violent moments came in the early 18th century, some years after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Their descendents still lived in the Cévennes and kept the memory alive. Seeing their territory and community seems to be part of Stevenson’s motivation in taking his trip at all—perhaps understandably curious to find the pockets of Protestants in mostly Catholic France. In the book he records some of the Camisard history in stirring detail. Reflecting on it, he writes: “The persecution on the one hand, the febrile enthusiasm on the other, are almost equally difficult to understand in these quiet modern days, and with our easy modern beliefs and disbeliefs. The Protestants were one and all beside their right minds with zeal and sorrow. They were all prophets and prophetesses. Children at the breast would exhort their parents to good works” (197). As much as anything in this history, though, Stevenson is struck by the utter fruitlessness of religious oppression. “A persecution unsurpassed in violence had lasted near a score of years, and this was the result upon the persecuted: hanging, burning, breaking on the wheel, had been vain; the dragoons had left their hoof-marks over all the country-side; there were men rowing in the galleys, and women pining in the prisons of the Church; and not a thought was changed in the heart of any upright Protestant” (198). Stevenson is especially disturbed by the figure of François de Langlade du Chayla, a missionary priest in China who was himself persecuted and yet turned around to persecute French Protestants ferociously.

As he gets close to the towns, Stevenson wonders if the remaining Camisard community “were a bare survival, or a lively and generous tradition” (193). He first runs into a man who turns out to be a Plymouth Brother. This fellow asks Stevenson if he knows the Lord, and Stevenson replies that “it is not easy to say who knows the Lord; and it is none of our business. Protestants and Catholics, and even those who worship stones, may know Him and be known by Him, for He has made all” (207). A little later he remarks, “[W]e are all embarked upon a troublesome world, the children of one Father, striving in many essential points to do and to become the same” (207-8). But in answer to his curiosity about the current state of the community, he finds that they contrast quite nicely with the presumably freer Presbyterians back home. “Those who took to the hills for conscience’ sake in Scotland had all gloomy and bedeviled thoughts; for once that they received God’s comfort they would be twice engaged with Satan; but the Camisards had only bright and supporting visions. They dealt much more in blood, both given and taken; yet I find no obsession of the Evil One in their records… They knew they were on God’s side, with a knowledge that has no parallel among the Scots; for the Scots, although they might be certain of the cause, could never rest confident of the person” (209).

Then it turns out not only to be the lack of devil-talk that commends the Camisards, but also a remarkable social pluralism. As he seeks advice in the town of Florac about where to go next, “[e]veryone had some suggestion for my guidance… Most of these kind advsiers were Protestant, though I observed that Protestant and Catholic intermingled in a very easy manner; and it surprised me to see what a lively memory still subsisted of the religious war” (211). “Later in the day one of the Protestant pastors was so good as to visit me: a young man, intelligent and polite, with whom I passed an hour or two in talk. Florac, he told me, is part Protestant, part Catholic; and the difference in religion is usually doubled by a difference in politics… Black Camisard [Protestant] and White Camisard [Catholic], militiaman and Miquelet and dragoon, Protestant prophet and Catholic cadet of the White Cross, they had all been sabreing and shooting, burning, pillaging and murdering, their hearts hot with indignant passion; and here, after a hundred and seventy years, Protesant is still Protestant, Catholic still Catholic, in mutual toleration and mild amity of life” (212).

For all this, and for all his fondness for the Trappists, Stevenson is forced to admit that “I met these Protestants with delight and a sense of coming home. I was accustomed to speak their language, in another and deeper sense of the word than that which distinguishes between French and English; for the true Babel is a divergence upon morals. And hence I could hold more free communication with the Protestants, and judge them more fairly, than the Catholics” (212). But locally the distinction doesn’t seem to be one of doctrine or language or morals at all. It is much more profoundly a matter of birth and heritage. Stevenson notes about the local Frenchman: “His religion does not repose upon a choice of logic; it is the poetry of the man’s experience, the philosophy of the history of his life. God, like a great power, like a great shining sun, has appeared to this simple fellow in the course of years, and become the ground and essence of his least reflections… He is a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Plymouth Brother, in the same indefeasible sense that a man is not a woman, or a woman not a man. For he could not vary from his faith, unless he could eradicate all memory of the past, and, in a strict and not a conventional meaning, change his mind” (217). Protestants and Catholics alike express to Stevenson the conviction that “[i]t’s a bad idea for a man to change” (220, 227), whatever he may be. Deterministic, perhaps, but it removes altogether the need for the tiresome proselytizing Stevenson has witnessed and been subject to earlier in the journey. Yet he doesn’t seem altogether pleased as the implied fatalism of birth, either.

Stevenson found himself in a world where Protestants and Catholics could at least socialize; they were no longer attempting mutual murder. But the possibility that they might already share a common faith never occurred to them. Either a half-hearted universalist relativism or a deterministic segregation based on birth appeared to be the only options for peace. The greatest historical legacy of Stevenson’s memoir might be his invention of the sleeping bag, but his prescient desire for a better kind of church unity is the real drama of the story.

2 thoughts on “Robert Louis Stevenson, Ecumenist

  1. I very much enjoyed this post, as I have enjoyed following your journey. I have never considered myself an ecumenist by avocation, but my life has led me in that direction. I was raised Lutheran, attended Lutheran schools until college, and was blessed enough to marry an Irish Catholic woman (and, of course, her extended family). Our 4 children (two baptized in the Catholic church, two in the Lutheran, not because of any attempts at parity as much as the circumstances of our lives at the time) attend Catholic school in the middle of the Bible Belt. My tendency now is to appreciate the common ground between me, my in-laws, and my community, rather than smugly take note of the differences. I cannot say this was always true, especially during my early schooling in the 70’s. Even so, I remain tied to my Lutheranism the way a boat is tied to its anchor, moving back and forth with the tide and the wind, but not cast adrift. What struck me as most meaningful in your post was Stevenson’s statement that ” . . . the true Babel is a divergence upon morals.” That seems to me a profound truth, and so perhaps I am a ecumenist. If nothing else, we are providing “high entertainment for the angels,” which is only fitting, since they have done so much for us.

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