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Florence Nightingale at Prayer

5. Florence Nightingale at Prayer

Niagara Anglican, October 1999:15

Nightingale was still a girl when she discovered that her prayers were not answered, that is, the conventional petitions for God to do this or that for us or for someone else. Methodical as ever, she related in Suggestions for Thought that she had recorded the date and nature of her various requests, allowing a suitable time for divine action. She did not give up on prayer but radically changed how and for what she would pray. In unpublished notes she stated what would be “reasonable” as prayer:

We may review our faults, begging him to take from us all vanity, levity, sensuality, and to infuse into us a new mind and character. We may think of any good which we can do to others, remembering them individually in the presence of God, not so much praying for them, as praying that we may be actively inspired to help them…So many topics of thought are there on which we may reflect and at the same time wish, for prayer is a union of wishing and thinking, not as some imagine a mere enthusiasm or act of prostration but requiring the highest exercise of the intellect as well as the deepest affect of the heart.

Of course Nightingale was not at all consistent on this point, but soon returned to the conventional practice of asking for specifics (one prayer asks for £15,000 for Bosnian refugee relief!) Her prayers for India show great exasperation; surely God could do more for the peasants versus the landlords. Her confidence in God’s answering prayer is reflected positively in many places. If we did not think this, indeed, “we thus represent Him as dealing with us, as we are conscious we should not ourselves deal with the meanest creature dependent on our bounty. Are these worthy thoughts of Him whom we are taught to call ‘our Father?’” She came to realize that prayers apparently not answered might have been for a good reason, that she was not ready for the gift she sought. Nightingale rejected the whole idea of litanies, for their tiresome petitions to be delivered of something it was our duty to deal with ourselves, as she said in Notes for Devotional Authors of the Middle Ages:

Litanies—did we know more, should we not call them irreligious?—are to tell God what to do, to teach God. Whereas we think prayer is for God to tell us what to do, to teach us, which He does by His laws.

She faulted both Roman Catholics and evangelicals for taking it for granted:

that there is not much we can do to improve the world. Nobody thinks that God is answering, as loud as He can speak, to every prayer in the litany, you men are yourselves to remove the occasion for this and for this—not to ask me to remove it—much less to submit to it.

Instead of the litany “We beseech thee to hear us good Lord,” we should know that perfect service lies in acting ourselves, first finding out with scientific research what we should do, and assessing our work with further studies.

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