Seven years after she founded the nurses’ training school in Brussels, the clouds of war gathered over Europe. And yet she did not seek safety in her native England. When the German army marched into the Belgian capital on 20 August 1913, she stood watching among the ‘sullen and silent’ citizens.
Just over a year later, a German chaplain, Pastor Le Seur sits with her in her cell in the St Gilles Prison. ‘Can I not show you some kindness? Please do not see in me now the German, but only the servant of our Lord.’
The next morning, 12th October 1915, she was executed at dawn for helping Allied soldiers escape to neutral Holland. Pastor Le Seur prayed with her before the shots rang out.
And so died, at the age of 49, Edith Cavell.
Pastor and condemned woman, united by their faith in the same Lord. It underlines the blasphemous obscenity of war: each side Christian, each side mercilessly killing the other’s youth.
Edith Cavell was a vicar’s daughter, born in Swardeston, near Norwich. She worked first as a governess (including a spell with an affluent Brussel’s family) before training as a nurse. In 1907 she was invited to establish a pioneering training school for nurses in Belgium where she showed herself to be a skilful teacher, administrator and carer.
Many of us today are aware of gathering clouds of international tension. We feel threatened by global economic collapse, intractable political problems, and the possibility of nuclear conflict in the Middle East. Some Christians with a particular view of Bible prophecy saw last week’s ‘blood moon’ as a sign of impending calamity.
In these fraught times, Edith Cavell reminds us that there have been many crises in the past, when some Christians have felt that the end must surely be near, and were mistaken. But she also teaches us how to live in difficult times.
She told her nurses that they must treat friend and foe alike. But she also became involved in an underground network helping allied soldiers (her ‘lost children’, she called them) to escape over the Dutch border from where some made their way back to the trenches via England. She was arrested in August 2015, tried as a ring-leader of the network, and sentenced to death.
We have an insight into her inner life because she regularly read The Imitation of Christ, a 15th-century devotional book by Thomas à Kempis and marked passages of particularly significance to her. She was a woman who sought to be an imitator of Christ.
Like Christ, she found the mission she had glimpsed when she was younger: ‘someday, somehow I am going to do something useful.’ Like Christ she loved and served others: ‘I have loved you all, much more than you can know,’ she wrote to her nurses from her cell.
Like Christ she did what was right even when it brought her into conflict with the authorities. Like Christ, she faced death with faith: on the night before her execution she marked a passage from à Kempis – ‘There is none to help me, none to deliver and save me but Thou, O Lord God my Saviour.’
‘I die for God and my country,’ she declared the next morning, facing her executioners. But why? Why does God not save her? Why is she felled by those merciless guns?
I think in times of chaos we often look for ‘top down’ intervention by God, something dramatic, unmistakable. But often God works from the bottom up. Movements begin with people on the ground, perhaps simultaneously in different parts of the world who have a vision that the wind is changing direction and run with it, even at great cost.
|Cavell Gardens in Inverness|
Often God’s change comes as people on the ground are changed and seek to be imitators of Christ, working out what that means at the heart of their ordinary lives. We fear economic collapse, the failure of power and fuel supplies, empty shelves in the shops, and we fear desperation and anarchy. What would it mean in those scenarios to be imitators of Christ, agents of change?
Thomas à Kempis sought to imitate Christ by turning from the world. Edith Cavell turned inwards and reflected on her soul and her God, but she also reached out, engaging in love with a chaotic world, and seeking to save some, and in this her imitation of Christ was more rounded than his.
For Jesus’ mission was one of bottom-up change. The shoots of new life sprang from the darkness of an empty grave, and began a spiritual movement which will continue until that day when wars cease.
Wrote à Kempis ‘After winter followeth summer, after night the day returneth, and after a tempest a great calm.’
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 8th October 2015)