The real thing

Daily Reading for October 9 • Wilfred Thomason Grenfell, Medical Missionary, 1940

I remember the wild northern shores from which these stories come; gray rocks; dark little forests; restless, changeful seas. There is no introduction to that land, no guide book, no cicerone. Sailing over the sombre blue of waves that never quite forget the fierce cold of winter, you approach the sheer and silent coast, tranquil, reserved, impassive alike to roaring wind and caressing sunlight. You enter a little harbor, sheltered by naked islands. All that it has to offer you is yours at once: the rounded gray slopes of stone, the long recumbent hills, the black rocks breaking the water, a river valley, perhaps, marked by evergreen woods, a few wooden houses clustered along the edge of the sea and blending almost imperceptibly with the landscape. This is all; but over this scene, so cool and quiet in color, so open in its large outlines, Nature is weaving her spell of wonder and mystery, with lights of morning and evening, now opaline and seductive, now clear as crystal,—a spell so deep that it subdues the heart, and makes one feel as if that bare and lonely beauty were the only reality, and all the richer, softer regions of earth were but dreams and illusions.

I remember also some of the people who spend their lives under that wide enchantment of the double wilderness; homely, rugged folk who cling to their habitations among the rocks with an infinite, pathetic patience, as if the world had no better home to offer them; courageous, hardy fishermen, who come back year after year to these wind-vexed, uncertain waters, as if there were no safer fields where they could glean their scanty harvest. Men and women of the plain human kind, these—no pretense and no formality—rather silent in their ways, for the most part, but frank, kindly, helpful, ready to meet you without an introduction.

I remember a night last winter when I sat beside my study fire in the small hours, listening to the man who has given his life to the service of these people—a brave, steady, quiet voice, telling of difficulties overcome, and dangers faced, and victories won against the black odds of ignorance and disease, making rather light of peril and hardship so far as his own part was concerned, brightening the darkest scenes with touches of irrepressible humor, giving pictures of human character and conduct so real and vivid that they warmed the heart with sympathy, and bearing testimony not to be doubted of the power of plain religion to comfort and save plain folk in time of trouble. It was like hearing a report from one of the messengers who went out in the beginning, when Christianity was young and simple and fearless, to tell men about Jesus of Nazareth and help them for his sake.

Here, in these stories, I see again that wild, unforgettable coast, those little-speaking, much-enduring fishermen and “liveyeres”; I hear again the strong, manly, tranquil voice of Wilfred Grenfell telling the things that befell him and his friends. What does such a book need of an introduction?

You who love Nature, not trimmed and embroidered, but in the largeness and mystery of her wild charm; you who love humanity, not disguised and trained for the stage, but frankly living its own life and expressing its primitive feelings; you who know a man when you see him, and like him best when he does things; you who feel that religion is just as real as Nature, just as real as humanity, and that brave adventures may be achieved in the name of Christ,— this book is for you. This is the real thing.

From the Introduction by Henry Van Dyke to Off the Rocks: Stories of the Deep-Sea Fisherfolk of Labrador by Wilfred T. Grenfell (Philadelphia: The Sunday School Times, 1906).

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