Saturday, 29 May 2010
This year sees the centenary of Nightingale’s death, and last Wednesday, her birthday, a chapel was dedicated to her at Westminster Abbey. It’s the first time a chapel there has been named after someone not either a member of the royal family or a saint.
In recent weeks, various writers have described Florence Nightingale as a ‘secular saint’. But is that not a contradiction in terms: isn’t a ‘saint’ by definition someone dedicated to God?
If by calling Nightingale a ‘secular saint’ people mean that she was an outstanding person with no Christian faith, then they are wide of the mark. For she was unquestionably a believer. Born in 1820 to affluent parents, she was brought up as an Anglican. She describes being ‘converted’ in her mid-teens, and on 7th February 1837 received what she described as ‘a call to service’ from God.
Nightingale believed that each of us is loved with ‘the infinite love of the most high God.’ Her faith was Jesus-centred - ‘Personal union with Jesus Christ: without this we are nothing,’ she wrote. And she saw herself standing before God after death, ‘utterly dependent on God’s providence alone and not…anything of my own at all.’
Her beliefs were not entirely orthodox – she couldn’t, for example, accept that the love of God would not eventually persuade all his enemies to turn to him, and so did not believe in hell. But there is no questioning the authenticity of her faith.
I suppose by ‘secular saint’ people could mean a Christian who lives out their vocation in the everyday world. This was certainly true of Florence Nightingale, and we can learn from her example. For we all have a ‘vocation’: the word has come to mean simply a ‘job’, but originally it described a call from God to make a difference, to build God’s kingdom. Nightingale’s call took her to Scutari, and motivated her later campaigning from her sickbed to improve the Army Medical Service, and to influence hospital design, public sanitation projects, and the status and training of nurses.
She regarded Christians as ‘fellow workers with God.’ His plan is to bring everything to perfection, and our vocation, as we’d put it today, is to reflect in the present the values of the coming kingdom. Nightingale wrote ‘It is because it is God’s plan to be completed in God’s eternity that I work at all.’
She believed in the need for the Holy Spirit’s presence. ‘O God’, she prayed, ‘Give me Thy Holy Spirit (twenty times a day) to convince me of sin, of righteousness, above all to give me love, a real individual love for everyone.’
Yet she saw working for God as a matter of discovering the rules God has put in place governing all aspects of his creation – including health, sanitation and social welfare – and work along with these laws to bring improvement. In this we feel she was missing something. She regarded God’s laws as unchanging, and did not seem to acknowledge that the God who made the rules might choose to work outside the rules, that the Holy Spirit can work miracles.
She was a saint working in the everyday world. But really, does that make her a secular saint? Wasn’t her whole point that for the saint, nothing in creation is ‘secular’, for God has an interest in it all?
But the words ‘secular saint’ could conceivably refer to someone whose goodness is recognised by people who do not share their faith. This was certainly the case with Florence Nightingale. In this sense, we’re all called to be secular saints, bearing in us the lamp of God’s truth and of God’s healing presence, and bringing others within the circle of its light.
Florence Nightingale once said that the whole of religion was summed up in two four-word phrases from the version of the Bible she used. A boy says to God ‘Here am I, Lord.’ Jesus comforts his disciples by coming to them during a storm and saying ‘Lo it is I.’ And so at the birth of our faith and ever afterwards, Jesus comes to us in our fear, and we respond.
Nightingale wrote that often she would say ‘Here am I, Lord,’ and think she had to do everything herself, forgetting that he journeys with us. And we too forget that the strength of God’s presence comes to us in our weakness, as he says with commanding reassurance ‘Lo it is I.’
(My column in the Highland News, dated 22nd May 2010)