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What Christ Means to Me: Chapter 2

What Christ Means to Me by Wilfred T. Grenfell

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THE years went by busily and on that account very joyously with me. Every day seemed to offer special ventures of some sort, and in my dreams these happy days still vie with those at my school. The clinical work in hospital, or, as we called it, ‘walking the hospital,’ had launched me into yet another new world. The human wreckage of the purlieus of Whitechapel would make the proverbial brass image stop to think. ‘The Palace of Pain,’ as some one named the great London Hospital, was indeed no misnomer. Focussed there was the suffering of the bodies, minds, and spirits of thousands of our fellow creatures. It certainly made one wonder about the ‘why’ of it all. Only the concentration in my own daily share of the work in it prevented the question obtruding itself too awkwardly. Every day, day after day, the tragedies which the sordid histories of so many cases revealed, and which it was our first business to record, forced any one with a spark of sympathy to question the value of prolonging many of the lives of the victims. The continuous stream of helpless little children that came along, hopelessly handicapped through no fault of their own, was inexplicable. At that time we could not do what common sense and a real feeling of comradeship demanded. There was practically no public-health work, no child-welfare work, no occupational therapy, no rehabilitation efforts. Those forms of everyday love for your neighbour were as entirely divorced from professional surgery as from professional religion. Nowadays, these justify more the doctors and nurses in their long struggle, and the energy and the money expended, for they do add some hope of permanency as well as some hope of preventing the recurrence of the same trouble. It was pitiful that as soon as you had weaned some little child back to health, and every one had learned to love it, you were obliged to send it straight back into the same old hotbed of squalor and vice. Many adults, on the other hand, self-degraded in body and soul, were a burden to themselves and their communities, a disgrace to their country, and a menace to their homes. It seemed almost criminal to mend up some drunken ruffian’s leg that he might go home and kick his wife again with it. In the details of treatment, of course we were interested. We knew we were storing valuable potential for the day when we ‘went out into practice.’

Once I remember getting discouraged with the meaning of my own life when we saved by infinite care a man who, while drunk, had cut his throat right into his larynx. While he was under my care, I found him a most attractive personality, but at the end of it all they took him out and hanged him, for in a moment of drunken fury he had killed his wife. It happened that I knew personally quite a number of conventionally religious men who made money in heaps out of selling this degrading poison as a beverage for their own personal gain. Among these were many professed religious leaders who drank it themselves and publicly bolstered up the traffic. A cap was put on it when one night a woman was brought into the hospital on a stretcher, dying of terrible burns. The history showed that her husband had come home drunk and thrown the paraffin lamp over her. The police, the husband, and the magistrate were immediately sent for. I can still see that miserable creature standing at the foot of the bed between the policemen, watching every movement of his dying wife. I can see today the magistrate stooping over the bed, warning her that she had but a few minutes to live and that within an hour she would be standing before her Maker. He kept imploring her to tell the truth, as he took down her dying statement. At last her eyes were raised to the face of the man, the father of her children, the man who had sworn so shortly before to love and protect her ‘until death us do part.’ Here he was now, her murderer. The silence at her bedside, as we waited for her reply, could be felt. As her eyes fell upon the familiar features, I can only suppose she saw him as once he had been, before drink claimed him as another victim. For a new light came into them, and she passed out with a He on her lips to save him. ‘My God! It was an accident,’ was the last thing she said. How I loathed the man! I longed to fell him where he stood; yet it was the intoxicant that did it. It had not yet occurred to me that I could hope to do more for any man than patch up his body. Even the psychic value of faith in God I had then little knowledge of. Much less did I dream of being able to make new men instead of only new legs, to make the morally lame, as well as the physically lame, walk straight once more.

To be able to do things, to be kind, clean of life, punctiliously ethical, and scientifically up-to-date, seemed the limit of my highest expectations. To keep my body fit, and to excel in clean sport without neglecting my work or my patients, was the larger part of any religion I possessed. I so despised a self-indulgent-looking person that I could not listen to a preacher of religion who looked fat and sensuous, however eloquent he was, any more than I could if I knew he drank intoxicants. After all these years of experience, I still believe as much as ever in the value of ‘play’ as the fourth of the quartet with work and love and worship, by which men live.

One evening in 1883, going down a dark street in Shadwell on my way from a maternity case, I passed a great tent, something like a circus. A crowd had gathered and I looked in to see what was going on. An aged man was praying on the platform before an immense audience. The length of the prayer bored me, and I started to leave as he droned on. At that moment a vivacious person near him jumped up and shouted: ‘Let us sing a hymn while our brother finishes his prayer.’ Unconventionality, common sense, or humour in anything ‘religious’ was new to me. Brawling or disturbing the order of ritual is criminal in the Established Church. Someone one said the interrupter was the speaker of the evening, so I stayed to hear him. I did not know anything about the man, nor did I see him again till fourteen years later. But he left a new idea in my mind, the idea that loyalty to a living Leader was religion, and that knightly service in the humblest life was the expression of it. His illustrations were all from our own immediate environment, much as Christ’s were, and the whole thing was so simple and human it touched every one’s heart. Religion, as the speaker put it, was chivalry, not an insurance ticket. Life was a field of honour calling for courage to face it, not a tragedy to escape from. Christ’s call was to follow Him, not to recognize, much less to comprehend, Him. What Christ asked us for was reasonable service, or the service of our reason—but real hard service either way. His religion was a challenge, not a sop or dope. The whole talk was of a living Leader of men.

The preacher was an ordinary-looking layman, and Histened all the more keenly because I felt he had no professional axe to grind. Some one, after the meeting ended, gave me a booklet entitled ‘How to Read the Bible,’ by D. L. Moody, the man to whom we had been listening, and during the next few days, as I got time, I followed the advice in it, and read the familiar legend with new interest and from a new viewpoint. I was searching for some guide to life in it, exactly as I sought in my medical textbooks a guide to physical treatment. I seemed to have suddenly waked up and to be viewing from outside the life which before I just took for granted as it came. The idea of this living Leader, a Sir Lancelot, a Bayard, whose spirit all worth-while people such as Clark-Maxwell, Newton, Gordon, Livingstone, Havelock, Lincoln embodied, who could and did transform all who accepted Him, and who in every rank of life everywhere literally would walk with ordinary folk and enable them ‘to play the game’ and ‘endure as seeing Him who is invisible,’ fascinated me. It tallied also with all my knowledge of history and my personal experiences, but it seemed too big an idea to accept—I seemed halted at a crossroad.

Some time later, I forget how long, some famous athletes known to all the world interested in sports were advertised to speak in East London—cricketers, oarsmen, athletes of national and international fame. I was intensely interested in hearing what they had to say. Seven of them a little later, known on both sides of the Atlantic as the ‘Cambridge Seven,’ all went to China. That their faith was no more an emotional flash in the pan than John’s or Peter’s or Paul’s is proved by the fact that they are all still there in the field thirty-five years later, though all are men of ample means to live at home in comfort. The speaker whom I actually heard was a great cricketer. For the last forty years he has been the leader in boys’ work in London through the Polytechnic Institute; and the last time I saw him, he was disguised in the gorgeous apparel of High Sheriff of London, at a city banquet given to the Prince of Wales. After all these years I can still remember the whole drift of his talk. It was the old call of Joshua, ‘Choose today whom you will serve,’ self, fear of comrades and others, or Christ.

I felt then, and I still believe today, that he was absolutely right. The advance in our ability to understand things, such as the constitution of matter or the realization of the definite limits of our understanding, makes religion more and more a matter of choice. The will to believe is essential. Experience alone will make it knowledge, or, as Christ put it: ‘Follow me and you shall have the light of life.’ The increasing modesty of science after its marvellous discoveries during the past twenty-five years is permitting us ever more freely to accept this faith. The very conceit of Christ’s challenge makes it seem divine. For His ‘Follow’ meant ’Do as I would do in every relation of life.’ No one is certain whether the atom is something or nothing moving around in an orbit. I am not sure I am sitting here, but I am so convinced that treading in the footsteps of the Christ explains the meaning of life, that even when I fail not a shadow of doubt about it softens my sense of regret and self-condemnation.

A truth I learned then and one which the years have confirmed is that real religion involves real courage. The inefficiency which I had associated with it had not been its fault, but ours. We had not dreamt of taking Christ in earnest. At the close of that address, the speaker urged all present who had made a decision to stand up. There were a number of my friends in the meeting and I felt chained through fear to my seat. Sitting in the front semicircle of seats were almost a hundred husky lads, all dressed alike in sailor suits. They were from a training ship in the harbour. Suddenly one smallish boy got up and stood there, the target of many astounded eyes. I knew well what it would mean to him, when the boys got back aboard, and it nerved me to stand up also. This step I have ever since been thankful for. It is invaluable to know where you stand. The decision fairly to try out in the laboratory of one’s own life, that faith which has challenged and stirred the ages, is, I am convinced, the only way ever to obtain a fixed heart on the matter. The prize is to be won, not swallowed, as must be everything else we know of that is of permanent value.

Whatever else was the result of so apparently ephemeral a thing as a decision, it certainly entirely changed the meaning of life to me. I enjoyed everything in it more than ever, and the sneers of my fellows, which I honestly dreaded at first, wore down to a good-humoured chaff when they realized that religion made one do things.

My parents said little or nothing to me, leaving me to work out my own salvation. They could not help noticing my increased interest in evening prayers and my new real interest in the readings of my father, generally from the original Greek of the New Testament and occasionally from the Latin of the Vulgate. For the first time I noticed that he made passages from the King James Version intelligible and interesting.

I confess some of the difficulties were the people who only talked about religion. A religious ‘sissy’ was anathema to me. It was the antithesis of my idea of the Christ. On the contrary, a quotation from that paragon of fearlessness, Paul, was a constant help to me, for the need of a power beyond my own, to win out, was always before me. So much so that forty years later, when my memory is supercharged with details, and when forgetfulness, an inevitable appanage of one’s seventh decade, besets me, I can quote the chapter and even the verse, 2d Timothy, chapter 1, verse 12, without a second’s hesitation. It reads: ‘I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.’

Intentions must find occupation or wither; emotions must find outlet or burst. Work is the only salvation of what is good in man. Having only limited time to devote to anything apart from work and play, I followed the not unnatural plan of a novice, of dropping around and asking the nearest expert what I could do. In other words, I asked a professional preacher what work for Christ meant for me. I knew him to be an earnest evangelical preacher and so was nonplussed at the barrenness of his ideas. He had nothing to offer but a class in a Sunday school, which was a bigger venture for him than he was aware of, as I had never been inside one, and a much harder one for me than I ever dreamt of. I launched into the work with much zeal, only to meet with little but discouragement. Boys from the streets of Bethnal Green and Whitechapel are not bound by conventions, and why they first came to the school at all I never yet have been able to decide. It certainly was not any overwhelming desire to acquire what was intended to be learnt there. I made so little progress that I shall never forget my surprise when the superintendent informed me that the following Wednesday night it would be my turn to give a model lesson to my class for the benefit of the other teachers. All week nights were work nights with me, and I had never even heard of a gathering of that kind. However, as it seemed part of the venture, I turned up on time. The boys, to my surprise, came at my request, though they did seem possessed of the spirit of the very devil. I think probably the reason they came was that they knew I was beginning really to care very much for them. We had secretly constructed a small gymnastic outfit in our back yard, where we gave boxing and parallel-bar lessons on Saturday nights. That action had afforded me the pleasure of getting in some of my athletic colleagues to help in the only way they could or would. This was one activity which they had already begun to approve of amidst what they considered my new craze. The lesson for teachers was a failure—I punished publicly, in the way I was punished at school, an offending scholar who sucked peppermints, which I considered rude. The method is still at issue in my mind. Even Christ did not come to do away with laws, and Solomon, who commended the stick, was a wise man. I appealed to the parson himself, and invited him to visit my Saturday evening class and decide from actual experience whether self-control, good sportsmanship, and belter manhood were not being taught there, besides a growing respect being inculcated in my little ruffians for their teacher. Alas, he utterly refused to inquire personally, He had never even seen boxing and could not understand how the game teaches a boy to come up smiling even when in difficulty. He would not admit that it was any training for Christian warfare. His decision was that boxing was ‘a soul-damning sin,’ which he conveyed to me in writing so as to avoid mistakes, and I was politely asked to transfer my activities elsewhere than his Sunday school.

With some college chums I had just hired a house, a communal affair, and we had taken in a truly democratic household. One was a beloved English athletic fellow student, another a young Antiguan negro who had become a very famous debater for the Christian Evidence Society in the parks and public forums of the East End of London, a man bubbling over with humour, whose laugh would drive the melancholy out of a professional funeral mourner. He was a most fearless and lovable personality, and was eager to get a chance to study medicine. The skin-colour-scheme of the human being never worries the English. The third was also ‘deficient’ in this respect. He was a man from Madras, a gentle, retiring creature who had been helped over to England to get education and had somehow become stranded, and needed help to enable him to finish his medical training. Him, too, we all sincerely loved, though he seemed to us at the absolute opposite end of the pole from us in most of his reactions. In our household he was a suppressed mystic. He took to the cold bath, however, according to our morning rule like a good sportsman, though I think he hated it. The last member was a clever medical colleague, a strong Kingsleyite and good athlete, now in Australia.

My love and respect for men of the sea has been instinctive and hereditary. My forbears have been fighting men through the centuries, men from Cornwall and Devon, and have followed the old Admirals—from Drake and Howard and Raleigh to Rodney, Boscawen, and Nelson—and today close relations not a few follow the honourable profession of the Navy. I can understand why Christ chose so many men who went ‘down to the sea in ships’ as the safest repositories for His truth—honest, brave, self-reliant, resourceful men, even if a bit behind in their education. Moreover, He apparently could not get any one else except one doctor and one business man.

Our hospital patients came from the great London docks and Billingsgate fish-market, and many a good sea story from many a grand old shellback came our way during that, their ‘final docking’ before they ‘crossed the last bar’ from the wards of our ‘Alma Mater.’ Their sorrows and troubles, their difficulties and temptations, their robbery at the hands of land-sharks and rumsellers, did not fail to interest us and create a real sympathy for them. So together with a young Australian from Melbourne, a fellow student, I began some open-air Sunday song services amongst their haunts in the famous thoroughfare known as Radcliffe Highway. We visited in half a dozen of the miserable underground joss-houses where often the sexes mixed promiscuously, laws and police notwithstanding.