Robert Louis Stevenson’s Real Treasure Island
To see the infinite pity of this place,
The mangled limb, the devastated face,
The innocent sufferers smiling at the rod,
A fool were tempted to deny his God.
He sees, and shrinks, but if he look again,
Lo, beauty springing from the breast of pain!
He marks the sisters on the painful shores,
And even a fool is silent and adores.
The above poem was a gift from Robert Louis Stevenson to the Catholic sisters taking care of lepers at Molokai, Hawaii. At the height of his fame, RLS had spent 8 days there helping them care for the sick.
In addition to attending to hygiene and health, the sisters insisted on beauty and art, and RLS felt this deeply - he was an artist long burdened by the tuberculosis which would take his life at the age of 44, just four years after his visit to Molokai. He later sent them a piano “that there would always be music.” (For more on the sisters, go here).
I like this poem. The last line, however, was not quite true. When RLS wrote it, plenty of Monday morning quarterbacks had already chimed in with detraction (or attempted detraction) about the recently deceased priest who had beckoned those sisters, Fr. Damien de Veuster.
One such not-silent, not-adoring fool was Rev. Hyde of Honolulu (no relation to the character from Stevenson’s ground-breaking novella, published before these events).
Hyde wrote a private letter that was accidentally published - the 1890s had no internet, but it did have humans - complaining that Fr. Damien’s posthumous popularity was undeserved.
Hyde, a Presbyterian minister, tossed in a deprecating remark about how Catholics are always trying to win their own salvation with acts of heroic charity like living and dying among lepers. It seems Hyde had been reading too much Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli, not enough Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul. Hyde's main concern, however, seemed to be the many character flaws he had perceived in the famous priest.
When Stevenson stumbled upon Hyde's letter in the obscure paper The Sydney Presbyterian, he put his full literary talents at the service of his righteous rage. He published the resulting sed contra article in newspapers around the world. This was an act of true ecumenism, as RLS was a Presbyterian like Hyde. (RLS had advocated for Catholics before this, as well: he was so moved by a visit to Junipero Serra's grave at the ruined mission in Carmel, California, that he wrote an editorial pleading for donations to restore the building for full use. The ship that brought Serra to the Americas, by the way, was the same one raided for the treasure that RLS made famous in Treasure Island.)
In any case, Stevenson's widely-read letter spread the fame of those dedicating their lives to Christ in the distressing disguise of the disfigured, and it probably contributed to the canonization of Fr. Damien.
Years later, the incomparable Orson Wells named Stevenson's letter a favorite work of literature. I think the letter meets the Common Core standard of being “a seminal document...of historical and literary significance“ and so should make it into a high school syllabus here or there.
Friends, it is LONG. If you are looking for the TLDR version, just skim, and you'll catch enough gems to be enriched.
But the whole 11-page letter is a treasure chest, both as a piece of writing and as a piece of practical theology.
I challenge you to read it, and as you do, pretend you are Hyde: You are a minister who professes Jesus Christ; you have dedicated your life to bringing both the eternal-life-saving gospel and worldly-life-saving smallpox vaccines to a faraway land; you are, that is to say, the older brother of the Prodigal Son. Now read the letter in persona Hydis.
Ready for the challenge? Go here.
May we be touched with the zeal of RLS, the generosity of Fr. Damien, and the constancy of Mother Marianne Cope. All you holy men and women, pray for us.
None of my research for writing this was original. Many thanks to archivists, RLS enthusiasts, and bloggers, including Kathy Schiffer,
Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash