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What Christ Means to Me: Chapter 1

What Christ Means to Me by Wilfred T. Grenfell

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As a boy, brought up in the orthodox teaching of the National Church established by law in my native land, religion was a matter of course and part of every gentleman’s education. It produced no more personal reaction that I was conscious of than in any other healthy lad. The only effect that I can remember was that I grudged having to ‘waste’ one day in seven, which as we did not have to devote it to work might of course have been used for games.

Having a constitution hardy above the average, it never for a moment worried me as to what would happen if I died. I had no intention of dying, and so far as I could gather, religion seemed largely concerned with dying. At home we always had morning prayers—a custom which was tolerated rather than enjoyed. In the summer my parents generally went abroad to Switzerland or elsewhere, and then there were no morning prayers, and the day seemed freer and longer, and the sense of restraint was removed. I should add that so also was the similar beneficial discipline of teeth-brushing.

I was not troubled by intellectual doubts. My next younger brother was very delicate, and I was unusually devoted to him. I can remember carrying him about on my back, so that he might come and share some childish pleasure with us. But when he lay slowly dying and I used to go every day to his room to bid him farewell, as I thought, every one assured me that he would be absolutely all right once he died, and I was satisfied. I was always terribly sorry for his handicap while he was with us because he could not enjoy our games and sports. I do remember being a bit surprised, however, that I was not more sorry when he died, surprised at my confidence in what every one said, namely, that he had gone to a happier home somewhere else, where he would not suffer any more.

The explanation was that we never doubted anything that our mother told us. Her faith all through her long life was a positive, calm assurance grounded firmly on the inner authority of her own spiritual experiences. What was infinitely more important to our faith was that we boys never once knew her deeds to belie her words; we never knew her to act in anger, or unjustly. There is no denying the fact that a boy or man accepts unquestioningly from a person whom he loves that which, if he doubts the teacher in any way, his mind will challenge instantly. To the mind of every boy, the mother he loves possesses naturally sources of wisdom which are not open to him. He does not query or analyze this fact. With our mother we somehow knew that she had a knowledge of truth which we did not have, and unquestionably she had. It was the inner light that Christ says comes from following in His footsteps. Even later in life, when our imperious personalities demanded a why and wherefore from every one else, when our conceit of intellect was betraying us into supposing that if we could not with our protoplasmic brain cells comprehend or find an answer to every difficulty, we must, in order to be honourable, refuse to believe it, we still found in her assurance something which satisfied us. Our mother was no talker or controversialist. A thousand times I have thought of that when I read of the Christ, who 'shall not strive or cry,’ or in a different sense of those ‘who shall not be heard for their much speaking.’

Among my treasures lies a book of my mother’s which I value more than her Bible. It is her account-book summary ledger. The cares of a large school, and a family of four boys, and endless other difficulties, which, owing to the high-strung temperament of our family, complicated the problems of a quiet routine, were sufficient to break the calm of almost any mind. Nothing of this was ever known to me. Only in looking over her books after she had left us did I discover this wonderful record of her faithful stewardship through the passing years, during which we had taken everything for granted, and unthinkingly accepted all that we wanted. Here was the record of year after year, year after year, of endless patient work, uninteresting and monotonous, and all done for us. As I looked at the rows of figures, page after page, so neat, so carefully entered, and so wonderfully analyzed and balanced, in the handwriting which I loved so dearly, a new light seemed to open up to me, showing a great deal more of what Christ had meant to me in my normal boyhood than I had ever been conscious of. He meant a mother who brought Him right into our family life just by doing daily what He would do in her place, and unquestionably into our personal lives too, even if we were not able to recognize and proclaim the fact vocally in those days even to ourselves.

In looking back on my youth after many years I have come to feel that this attitude was as it should be. Religion to deserve the title should bear the stamp of normality; and for a boy to have been too introspective about its possession during the days of childhood might have been as undesirable as a similarly attentive attitude to the welfare of his physical digestion, of which it is wisely said he should be quite unconscious.

When I was at the public school, Christ as a Person meant little to my consciousness. Our college proclaimed its faith in established religion as an institution. We had a chapel service each morning and evening, and two on Sundays. At fourteen years of age it was the right thing to be confirmed, after which you were allowed to stay to an after service, when the younger boys had been dismissed. I distinctly remember, however, being a bit scared when, the first time I stayed to Communion, I heard the clergyman read out, ‘He that partaketh unworthily, drinketh to his own damnation.’ One always supposed that most of the masters accepted the college religion in its entirety. I am certain, however, that some did not. But that did not interest me at the time enough to raise a question in my mind as to where I stood. Habit, and the fact that all the other boys had to observe Sunday in the same way that I did, made me think less of the taboo on sport. Besides, though I thank God that my troubles always came more from contempt of sartorial customs than from any affection for fashion or fine clothes, habit and advancing years led the ‘sans-culottism’ of my hobble-de-boyhood to make concessions unconsciously to what the boys called ‘good form.’ It was part of religion to wear a certain style of dress on Sunday, and that this formality had my mother’s sanction was marked for me by a little bouquet of flowers for my buttonhole, that used to arrive each week-end from home, packed by her own hand. Looking backward now, I can read between the lines and see how wise was her instinct of real love. For though Mohammedans around me as I write have no shame whatever in saying their prayers anywhere in public, and I heartily respect them for it, I am absolutely certain that wild horses would not have dragged me to say my prayers, say in the school quadrangle, or anywhere, except at the proper time and place. I have felt certain she knew and respected this.

Religion in those days never seemed to have any practical, personal bearing. We did not look upon it as a thing to apply to our reason. Thus it was a rule of the school that if you were never late for chapel you secured what was known as the chapel half-holiday towards the end of term. To have ‘cribbed,’ or cheated, in a class or examination in order to get the better of other boys was unthinkable, but to adopt any subterfuge to avoid losing the chapel ‘half’ was considered perfectly fair game. Without the slightest sense of incongruity, I availed myself of many such.

So far as intellectual doubt went I repeat we never had any. To have supposed that any one not mentioned in the Bible could ever have as much to contribute to mankind as one included in its pages would have outraged our whole gamut of theology. To fancy that Martin Luther, John Wesley, or even the Pope could improve on the teachings of the imprecatory Psalms, or any other portion of the Bible, would have seemed simply ludicrous.

However, I have long since come to the conclusion that there is more in this habit of formal religion, which is anathema to some minds, than I used to think; though I do not forget that succeeding ages bring demands for different methods of presenting Christ to men than the way which most vitally swayed the generation of yesterday; and personally I should vote for an expurgated Bible, prayer-book, and hymn-book for boys. The shortened Psalter recently brought out through the Cambridge Press by my brother suits me admirably.

The facts of history convince me that to our family was given a temperament utilitarian and rational, rather than mystical and emotional, which resulted in generations of our forbears conceiving that their highest opportunity to serve their day and generation lay in combating ‘vi et armis’ papal infallibility and ecclesiastical arrogance. Their religion, as was the case with many other forceful citizens, took the form of sailing forth from harbours in Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall, for the lofty purposes of ‘sweeping the Spanish Main’ and ‘singeing the King of Spain’s beard.’ That was honestly their interpretation of what Christ meant to them. Their methods of preaching their gospel are so far from our own today that we are apt in our superior conceit to disclaim any approval whatever of their vision. Yet the facts are that these were the men whose religion built empires, helped to carve out our own civilization, and held secure our Anglo-Saxon freedom. These men uncomplainingly faced danger and death for their faith, and suffered sacrifices compared with which our physical experiences for our faith are as nothing at all.

As I try now to analyze the facts, it seems to me that though religion at school was to a large degree cubbyholed, and any individual expression of interest discouraged rather than the contrary, there was no little wisdom in these restraining methods of developing character, while many serious pitfalls were avoided. I remember on one occasion at Oxford being very much puzzled. During a largely attended afternoon tea, in the rooms of the dean of a certain college, who was also the priest of the chapel, I spoke of Christ’s attitude as it appeared to me on some very ordinary subject that they were discussing. The dean was one of the most lovable and generous of men. But after the others had gone, he took both my hands in his and said quietly, ‘My dear Grenfell, we never speak of these things in general conversation.’

At school, every Sunday morning, we heard read in chapel the Commandments of Moses, and we prayed mechanically that we should not murder, steal, commit adultery, bear false witness, or blaspheme. We all knew that any gentleman would avoid these indulgences, while to honour one’s father and mother was as natural to us boys as to breathe. But we often forget that back of the English gentleman stand these very Commandments, and though we may have failed to see the connection we were wrong in considering their teachings as quite apart from religion, as wrong as we were in supposing that religion was meant for the chapel and the sick-room. There was some bullying and not a little evil going on around us in the school world, though all the boys observed exactly the same religious ordinances. Undoubtedly today the question as to what Christ means to each boy personally is in the English schools receiving increasing attention. ‘Autre jours—autres moeurs’ On the other hand, the high ideal of being an English gentleman, working hard and playing fairly, was constantly set before us, and I have heard more than one schoolfellow in subsequent years, who broke those Canons then, confess that he was perfectly aware at the time that he was in the wrong, and that he had lived to regret bitterly, not that he did not know better, but that he did not do it.

It has been the recognition of this need of help for the schoolboy whose reticence prevents his taking his troubles to any human adviser (least of all a master of his school) that has forced the hands of all our educators, who realize that inspiration is a larger part of education than is information.

There are those who will not admit that the methods, the mode of life, the language of our ancestors, permit us to believe that Christ meant personally as much to them as to us. But I have always fell that their heroic sacrifices, their unflinching courage, their unlimited hospitality and ungrudging loyalty, testify just as convincingly to the presence of a vision of the Christ at the bottom of their hearts as do any claims of ours on account of greater intellectual accuracy, or any professions of purer creeds, under whatever names their adherents label themselves.

The only books about religion that I can remember that were any help to me at that period of my life were those of Charles Kingsley, a kinsman of ours and at one time a visitor at our home. There was nothing ‘sissy’ about him. He was a born fighter, a fine naturalist, and loved everything in nature. He was a good sportsman, and his books ‘Westward Ho,’ ‘Hereward the Wake,’ ‘Alton Locke,’ and others featured red-blooded men. He was the first parson to give me the idea that religion made men efficient, or rather did not make them inefficient; or that religion, if you permitted yourself to discuss it, had anything beyond tradition to recommend it. It really was a relief to think that such a trusted authority felt that nobody really ‘knew it all.’ He allowed people to think and to do differently, and yet be Christians. Kingsley was not interested so much in doctrines. To him a Christian was a man who cleaned out the filth in his own back yard himself, and not the man who asked God to keep away typhoid from his house while He himself did nothing. I did not read Kingsley’s sermons. I never read any sermons that I did not have to. But Kingsley’s religion stimulated me.

When the old British Chief was stepping into the font to receive baptism, he asked the ministrant what had become of his ancestors who had faced their last judgment unbaptized. On being told that they had gone to hell, he stood thoughtful for a moment, and then, wrapping his wolfskin cloak around him again, he said simply, ‘I will take my chance with them.’

To departmentalize anything always involves a risk. In religion the danger of losing sight of that conscious personal relationship between God and man which Christ’s very incarnation teaches us should exist, must be kept in mind. But the ideal, especially for childhood, is that it should be accepted unconsciously, like relationship to one's own parents, or a flood digestion. The cumulated common sense of the Anglo-Saxon mind dreads the smug, the religious smug most poignantly of all. I cannot help thinking, more and more the older I grow, that in spite of the fact that Christ was a very silent partner in the life of us English boys at public schools. He was a very real companion of many of us all the same.