The Rev. Canon Laura Howell
Trinity Church, Bethlehem
Jesus said, “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” (Matt. 10:6) Few people in the history of the church have taken that commandment as literally as did Florence Nightingale.
She was born into a wealthy British family in 1820. Very much against her family’s wishes, she trained as a nurse in the state-of-the-art hospitals in Germany and Paris. She felt that God was challenging her to a deeper kind of service, and in 1854, she volunteered to raise a staff of nurses and to go to the hospitals in the Crimea, where a particularly brutal war was raging between the British, Russian, French, Italians and Ottoman Turks.
She and her nurses were appalled at the unsanitary and filthy conditions in the hospitals, where many more soldiers died from infection than from wounds. She set out to rectify the situation, spending many long hours caring personally for the patients, while also fighting the bureaucratic quagmire that prevented improvements from being made. Her practice of going on rounds through the wards at night won her the name “The lady with the lamp.”
In 1856, Florence returned to Britain and began her own war against ignorance and lack of sanitation in the military’s medical establishment. She raised 50,000 pounds to start a school to train professional nurses, and was instrumental in forcing Parliament to form an Army Medical Staff Corps. She wrote a book of instruction and practice for nurses that was the standard textbook for many years. She had a long long list of accomplishments, even though in the second half of her life, she was in increasingly poor health.
St. Thomas Hospital has been established as a Florence Nightingale Museum. The collections held there are searchable and provide a fascinating look at the history of nursing and Florence’s part in it.
Of greater interest to me, though, is Florence’s spiritual life. Some of her diaries are available and they reveal a profound mystical sense of communion with God. With thanks to hagiographer James Kiefer, here is a selection from the time before she left for nurses’ training (1850):
March 7. God called me in the morning and asked me would I do good for Him, for Him alone without the reputation.
March 9. During half an hour I had by myself in my cabin, settled the question with God.
April 1. Not able to go out but wished God to have it all His own way. I like Him to do exactly as He likes without even telling me the reason.
May 12. Today I am thirty–the age Christ began his mission. Now no more childish things. No more love. No more marriage. Now Lord let me think only of Thy Will, what Thou willest me to do. Oh Lord Thy Will, Thy Will.
June 10. The Lord spoke to me; he said, “Give five minutes every hour to the thought of Me. Coudst thou but love Me as Lizzie loves her husband, how happy wouldst thou be.” But Lizzie does not give five minutes every hour to the thought of her husband, she thinks of him every minute, spontaneously.
All of us on our pilgrims’ way require care and healing from time to time. Thanks be to God for those carers like Florence Nightingale, who, out of sheer love for God, love and look after the rest of us.
O God, who gave grace to your servant Florence Nightingale to bear your healing love into the shadow of death: Grant to all who heal the same virtues of patience, mercy, and steadfast love, that your saving health may be revealed to all; through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.