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Nightingale’s Spiritual Journey

Nightingale’s Spiritual Journey

A presentation by Lynn McDonald, in celebration of National Nursing Week, Sunday May 5, 2002, at The Cathedral Church of St. James, Toronto, ON.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was baptized in the Church of England as an infant, in Florence, Italy, where she was born in 1820. As a child she attended Church of England services with her family in Hampshire, Methodist chapels in Derbyshire (the Nightingales were a dissenting family and continued to support the chapels of their Derbyshire workmen and tenants). A Wesleyan influence will be clear in Nightingale’s spiritual journey to the end of her life.

She was probably not confirmed (records were not kept at that time and there is no reference in correspondence to a confirmation). She later prepared people for first communion and confirmation, so we know that she was not against the practice, but she seemed to take some interest in the fact that her friend General Gordon (Gordon of Khartoum), an ardent, muscular Christian of the most extreme sort, had not been confirmed.

Certainly Nightingale’s faith was very individual and not much tied to ceremony. In 1836, at age fifteen or sixteen, she was “converted” and the following year, at a very precise date, 7 February 1837, she perceived a “call to service.” She recounted the former experience fifty years later, referring to the:

American book which converted me in 1836 — alas! that I should so little have lived up to my conversion — The Cornerstone. There was such a striking chapter: Pharisees, Peter, and Judas even, all live now. And, then it gave them as they appear in these days.

The book is by Jacob Abbott, an American Congregational minister and educator. It presents a very activist faith, right from the first page, which gives its intention as the explanation of the elementary principles of “the gospel of Christ…for a human soul hungering and thirsting after righteousness.” But this gospel could not be understood “unless the heart is willing to comply with its claims.” The reader was advised to “go to God before you proceed farther.”

Nightingale also used Jacob Abbott’s The Way to Do Good, or the Christian Character Mature:

Upon the cornerstone of faith in Jesus Christ, as the atoning sacrifice for sin, there is reared the superstructure of holy life and action; and a holy life is one which, from the impulse of love to God, is occupied with doing good to man.

The Cornerstone took the reader chapter by chapter from repentance through to the practical life built on it. Nightingale would thoroughly have agreed to its teaching, although her own life went on to social reform, doing good via improved institutions, while Abbott was much more geared to personal acts of charity.

Nightingale understood her call to service as one to save lives, by nursing the sick certainly, but also by social and administrative reforms. Her family did not permit her to nurse — too lower class an occupation — -so that Nightingale for more than fifteen years suffered the frustration of not being able to act on what she believed she had been called to do. Later in life she could see that she was not ready to do the work that was really needed.

Nightingale’s spiritual journey as an invalid in adulthood was quite solitary. She read widely: the medieval mystics, Puritans, metaphysical poets, Roman Catholics, her fellow Anglicans, and various evangelical tracts and low-brow religious novels. A priest friend brought her communion at home. She was expert on the Bible, and read it and annotated it devotionally as well.

To give you at least some sense of this long spiritual journey (there are four volumes on religion in the Collected Works) I have drawn out material which gives her views of God, in three persons, and with the major religious figures who influenced her.

For Nightingale Jesus was “the most important person that ever lived.” She kept a picture of Christ, crowned with thorns, in her bedroom. She complained about the omissions in the revision of the Bible for children:

Should not, with the most important day that ever was in the world, the fullest account be given of it? At least the seven sayings of Christ on the cross should be given. The whole account is “scamped” here. The two most affecting incidents, the “Father forgive” and the “Today shalt thou be with” entirely omitted.

She worked out the chronology of the last events in detail and provided it to the various relatives who asked for it.

The cross of Christ had a “practical meaning,” for Christ:

As a victim voluntarily giving himself, offering himself up — not again in the vulgar sense, as if it were to appease the anger of a perfect Being — but in the sense of willingly incurring any and all sufferings which come in the way of helping to carry out God’s will and work.

On the Father’s sacrifice of Jesus:

O why could he, irreplaceable, not be spared? But when the Father gave up His own Son to die He might well have said “not that one, not the one precious Son.” Yet that Son was given. Oh may we not try to be perfect (in giving) even as the Father in heaven is perfect — in giving Him our best, even as He gave us His best?

Nightingale in times of great difficulty and pain reflected on Jesus’ sacrifice. To Benjamin Jowett she described herself as feeling “aghast at the new horror of the hour” she had come to, as Christ approaching his passion. Should I say:

Father, save me from this hour? And immediately as it were recollecting himself, but for this cause came I unto this hour.

Similarly she found comfort in the Beatitudes:

Nowhere Christ says: Blessed are the fashionable but blessed are the persecuted, that is, they who have to work against fashion and popularity.

Christ’s identification with the poorest, weakest members of society was an example for her:

I don’t think any words have had a fuller possession of my mind through life than Christ’s putting himself in the place of the sick, the infirm, the prisoner — and the extension which the Roman Catholic Church (especially) gave to these words, as it were God putting Himself in the place of the leper, the cripple and so forth, telling us that we see Him in them. Because it is so true.

She wondered that Jesus was not more discouraged by the reaction to him:

There was little encouragement for Jesus’ work; few understood what he meant by “deliverance from evil” and even the little success he had seemed only to arouse greater hostility….

We are sensitive to offences committed against ourselves; but Christ was sensitive to offences committed against God.” While we might sometimes be aware of what we are and what we might be Christ habitually was. Not only was the conflict in his soul greater than in other humans, “so also his confidence in God was greater or rather absolute, for he could no more be separated from Him than he could be separated from his own being (f107).

1 John 4:10-11 tells us:

Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.

Nightingale in her Bible commented:

We love him, because he first loved us. What we ordinarily want is a belief of God’s love to us. We do not realize to ourselves all that Christ’s death shows us of God’s love; we do not believe that our own single individual soul is and ever has been the direct object of the infinite love of the most high God. It is hard, both because of our own littleness, and because of our own hardness. But, if this belief once take possession of our hearts, then are we redeemed indeed.

It is not, God will not punish, we shall therefore not surely die. It is, God loves us, therefore why will we die? One says that God is careless, the other that He is loving. It is not a belief in God’s indifference to sin, in what is called His mercy, that is — His not caring for our evil deeds, because He makes such large allowance for the weakness of our nature. It is not a belief in God’s mercy generally to all who do evil, but a belief in His love for us individually, in His real personal interest in our welfare….a belief that we ourselves are loved, and in proportion to our belief in its reality must be our desire to return it.

This is the peace of God which passes all understanding, this belief, for it tells us that God is at peace with us already; we have only to be at peace with Him….And those who have not yet believed it, and whose hearts are so full of sin that they are in no disposition to believe it, it is no less true even of them at this moment that God loves them.

At Romans 12:2 which tells people not to be “conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind,” Nightingale referred to our one day being restored, in body, soul and spirit, “to the perfect likeness of our glorified Saviour.” She asked:

Shall we put a limit which God has not put, to the degree in which even in this world the wonderful transformation shall be wrought upon us? This at least we know, that we cannot expect too much from God.

In various places Nightingale referred to the affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed about God “descending into hell.” She asked:

How can God suffer? How can God ‘descend into hell’?

Her answer was that it is more difficult to conceive of a God who does not suffer:

The good God living up there in heaven by Himself, while we, His children, are suffering all this. (Notes from Devotional Authors, in Mysticism and Eastern Religions)

She strongly disagreed with the portrayal of God the Father as a distant and heartless judge, against whom Jesus had to contend, a judge:

Always weighing and balancing our sins against our disadvantages, or listening to Christ, who is always asking Him to do what He would not do without such asking! Who would wish to have such a God?

Alluding to the words used in the absolution in the Book of Common Prayer she remarked that “were a man to ‘desire the death’ of anyone who had offended him,” would we not feel “just abhorrence of such character”? (Notes from Devotional Authors)

Nightingale did not believe in a permanent hell but did believe in judgment. Some would be admitted directly into the “Immediate Presence.” For herself she was more diffident. At a time of serious sickness she described to Jowett her expectation of standing naked before God in judgment, conscious of her weakness and mistakes, utterly dependent on “God’s providence alone and not…anything of my own at all.” But even for herself she looked forward to seeing God.

On the Holy Spirit Nightingale remarked:

Some of the disciples did not so much as know that there was a Holy Spirit and we who know…make no use of Him.

Nightingale understood the function of the Holy Spirit as the communication of the real essence of God, a communication necessary to combatting the dominant culture which always conspires to tell us what we want to hear. Thus for her the “sin against the Holy Spirit” was:

Always finding a moral reason for doing what one likes, always finding an argument for thinking what one likes….O how much there is of that now!

Or the sin against the Holy Spirit was alleging the experience of the past, “not as a ground for doing something but for doing nothing.”

Nightingale tended to use the usual masculinist language of her day, but sometimes revised it, to refer to God and Jesus in the feminine. A letter late in life to comfort a friend affirmed:

God grieves for our troubles like a heavenly Mother as well as Father, and sees us all safe through as earthly fathers and mothers cannot do as they would.

After citing an Italian writer, probably Fra Eguido, a companion of Francis of Assisi, on our inability to know as much of God as a grain is to the universe, she quoted his statement:

All scripture but speaks to us of God as a mother makes soft inarticulate sounds to her babe, the babe that could not otherwise understand her words.

Similarly she was moved by the “motherly language” ascribed to God by Fra Eguido, the “pretty little noises” stammered as a mother “caresses, encourages, controls, warns her infant.” In describing the settled life of birds and foxes she noted that for the “Son of man” or the daughter of man there is none. And speaking of nurses in a workhouse infirmary she put Jesus’ words into inclusive language: “Whoever will take up his or her cross and follow me, I am one with him or her.”


At Exodus 33:18, to Moses’ request, “Show me thy glory,” God answered: “I will make all my goodness pass before thee.” Nightingale’s annotation brought the two ideas together:

The glory of God is His goodness. [God] does not want to be praised, to be adored, to have His glory sung. We can scarcely conceive a good man…wishing it. How inappropriate, then, to Him all this praise!

Nightingale sympathized with Moses, for having to live among people “who are always provoking you and irritating you.”


Mary’s acceptance of her role at the annunciation was one Nightingale identified with throughout her life:

Mary said “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” and so have I said in my youth.

She applied the annunciation to others whom she saw as serving likewise, for example Margaret Verney: “Hail, Margaret, blessed art thou among women. Ave Margherita, gratia plena [full of grace], ecce ancilla Domini [Behold the handmaid of the Lord].” To Margaret Verney’s sister Maude she used the Latin version: “stella matutina, ancilla Domini” [morning star, handmaid of the Lord). To a night nurse she prayed,

May we all answer the angel as Mary did: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to Thy word.’

St Paul:

Nightingale was moved by Paul’s statement (in Gal 6:14): “God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” She called it:

One of those grand bursts of heroic enthusiasm which there is nothing in all history to compare to. (Notes from Devotional Authors)

Nightingale paid tribute to an MP from the tough industrial city of Sheffield, who was said to have been “qualified by his fight with the wild beasts of Sheffield to become member for Ephesus. How I wish I could qualify to be member for Ephesus.”

She compared the shipwreck suffered by nurses on return from Egypt to that of St Paul. On landing the women made, like Paul and his companions, “a great fire of sticks,” and like them were shown “the most generous kindness” by the islanders (in the nurses’ case Corsica, in Paul’s, Malta).

Ignatius of Loyola:

Nightingale copied out Ignatius of Loyola’s “first principle and foundation” in her Bible in Rome 1848, presumably when she did her retreat at the Trinita de’ Monti. This expresses the principle of indifference to one’s worldly condition: whether rich or poor, to live a long life or short, with which Nightingale obviously did not agree. But she liked Ignatius’s “soldier’s exactness” and seriousness. Ignatius of Loyola did:

Not intend his spiritual disciples to go on sinning and repenting any more than Christ did.

Nightingale however faulted the Ignatian Exercises for their impracticality. The process of deliberation Ignatius proposed “does not answer in real work.” It only makes the state of mind more anxious:

It is a positive fact that to be thinking too much of God’s will prevents one from doing His will. A nurse, in particular, must not be always examining herself to see whether…she thought of nothing but God’s will. She must be thinking of them [her patients]. (Notes from Devotional Authors)

St Teresa of Avila:

The mystics lay down the rule of passive conformity with the will of God in the most absolute beauty. What is more, they practically lived up to it in the most complete perfection. But then they did nothing; they made it a rule to do nothing. They did a few little manual works just as we take exercise, because they were wise enough to see the necessity of keeping the physical part of their spirit, so to speak, in order.

St Teresa expressly described “works of charity” as a “last resort” when the soul is incapable of contemplating God, or as an act of self-mortification. (Notes from Devotional Authors)

Nightingale identified with Teresa, as she recorded in her Bible at the passage of Paul’s (Gal 2:20) I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me:

There is nothing that I would not do for Your service.

Teresa was aged forty-three when she wrote that, Nightingale forty-seven:

From that time I opened a new book, that is, I began a new life. That which I had lived hitherto was my own, but that which I have lived since, I may say, has been God’s, for it seems to me God has lived in me.

For Nightingale, the mystical state was the essence of common sense. She described the mystics as being ahead of us in their ideas of God and prayer:

Where they failed was in supposing this world is not what God has given us to work upon. All I mean by mystical theology is what Christ meant. He was the first great mystic who was at once yet the most active reformer that ever lived. The real essence of all true mysticism lies in his words: And my Father will come unto him and we will etc.” Was mysticism “not the attempt to draw near to God not by rites or ceremonies but by inward dispositions? Is it not merely a ‘hard word’ for ‘the kingdom of Heaven is within’”? (Notes from Devotional Authors)

Francis of Assisi:

Nightingale was not being entirely facetious in her belief that non-human species share in prayer; she was enormously fond of the psalms, in many of which animals, mountains and rivers praise God. In a letter to her sister she referred to birds, “whispering at dawn their prayers to God.” At the end of war in Egypt she commented to her brother-in-law:

Every little bird seems to sing its praise for this great mercy.

Like Francis of Assisi Nightingale had a special fondness for birds. Early in life she told her cousin:

There is nothing makes my heart thrill like the voice of birds, much more than the human voice. It is “the angels calling us with their songs.

She noted:

St Francis of Assisi did not like the ants because, he said, they were ‘so anxious.’ But the birds, he said, were just right: industrious, I suppose he meant, but not anxious.

A letter from late in life, to her brother-in-law, raises several delights of nature:

I think of you and learn a lesson of your faith. I never see a soap bubble when I am washing my hands without thinking how good God was when he invented water and made us invent soap. He thought of us all and thought how He could make the process of cleansing beautiful, delightful to our eyes, so that every bubble should show us the most beautiful colours in the world. It is an emblem of His spirit, when we put our own into it and handle them too roughly; immediately they break, disperse and disappear. So I try to put as little of my own as possible into things.

Some Scotch doctor says, wait for the buds and the birds and trust in God. So I scarcely ever see that lovely thing, a bird, without thinking it teaches me to trust in God.

Martin Luther:

Nightingale’s view of Martin Luther was largely favourable, although there is a reference about his being a tyrant, where he is grouped with John Calvin, about whom there is not one favourable mention.

It is perhaps impossible to overrate the gigantic effort of mind of a Luther who inquires into that which he has been educated to think is blasphemous, impious to inquire into.

Luther’s reforms “swept away some absurdities” of the church and this had itself “moralized the Church of Rome.”

Nightingale wrote an extract from Luther on the Lord’s Prayer into her Bible at the place (Luke 11:2):

Whosoever professes that he has a father in heaven acknowledges himself to be a stranger upon earth — hence, there is in his heart an ardent longing like that of a child that is living amongst strangers, in want and grief, afar from its fatherland.

John Wesley:

Nightingale’s references to John Wesley are consistently positive and some are warm indeed. “Let us all be Wesleys” she declared in a sermon, referring to Wesley jumping onto the wagon to save a condemned man being taken to the gallows.

One word, one minute, or the poor wretch will be launched to everlasting damnation. There is time yet, say you believe, one tear, one sign — see he believes; he is saved. Glory be to God. It is as important as Wesley thought it to get one word to tell that poor wretch of the love of God. It is only that that is not all that is important. Let us all be Wesleys, so that the day may come when there are no more who sin and have to be snatched from death, as Wesley would put it.

A note to Jowett refers to “the gallant fervour of the Puritans and later of John Wesley.” In Suggestions for Thought she said that Wesley had diminished the numbers of the Church of England “but moralized their lives, and thus the church was really strengthened.” When she read Julia Wedgwood’s book on Wesley she so “dog’s eared and docketed…mauled and marked” it that she could not return it.

Theodor Fliedner of Kaiserswerth:

Theodor Fliedner and his first wife revived the deaconate for women at their institution at Kaiserswerth, near Düsseldorf, in the 1830s. Nightingale spent three months there in 1851, with Fliedner and by then his second wife and family. She remained close to the Fliedners from then on, was godmother to a son, raised money for their missions, etc. The experience did not advance her knowledge of nursing, but introduced her to Christian fellowship with other serious, dedicated, women.

Pastor Fliedner himself taught: “Think it a privilege to tend Christ in an infectious disease or any other.” The deaconesses indeed were to do so with “with pleasure,” for “if you lose your pleasure in works of love, they are worth nothing.” Years later Nightingale would herself use the expression that it was a “privilege” to nurse in a cholera epidemic.

On Pastor Fliedner’s death in 1864 Nightingale felt that she had lost a “father,” that he had been her first “maître ici-bas [master here below].”

Other Missionaries:

Dr David Livingstone was for Nightingale “the greatest man of his generation”:

Dr Livingstone stood alone as the great missionary traveller, the bringer-in of civilization, or rather the pioneer of civilization — he that cometh before — to races lying in darkness. I always think of him as what John the Baptist, had he been living in the nineteenth century, would have been.

She called Livingstone’s work:

The most glorious work of our generation. He has opened those countries for God to enter in. He struck the first blow to abolish a hideous slave trade. He, like Stephen, was the first martyr:

She then quoted the hymn of the “missionary bishop,” Hebert, which was used at her own funeral:

He climbed the steep ascent of heaven
Through peril, toil and pain;
O God! to us may grace be given
To follow in his train!

“Missionary” was always a positive expression in Nightingale’s writing. Rural public health nurses were “health missioners.” Sir John Lawrence was a “missionary statesman” in India for his work on sanitary reform. An Indian sanitary expert was a “missionary” like St Francis Xavier, the Jesuit who served many years in India. Members of Parliament could be “God’s missionaries,” when they were passing legislation for good, even more so than religious persons:

Here is a legislature doing God’s will without knowing it while saints and missionaries, who are always thinking of God’s will from not knowing what it is, never do it. (Notes from Devotional Authors)

From her call to service for the rest of her life Nightingale saw herself as God’s servant. To her father, discussing the sorrowful loss of their vicar’s child she explained:

Nay, it strikes me that all truth lies between these two: man saying to God, as Samuel did, Lord, here am I, and God saying to man as Christ did, in the storm, Lo it is I, be not afraid. And neither is complete, without the other. God says to man in suffering in misery, in degradation, in anxiety, in imbecility, in loss of the bitterest kind, in sin, most of all in sin, Lo, it is I, be not afraid. This is the eternal passion of God. And man must say to him, Lord here am I to work at all these things. I have said all my life, “Here am I, Lord,” but I have been “afraid” all my life, and have never believed “the Lord’s “Lo, it is I.”

You see, so far from disliking the biblical language, as you do, I always fall into it. The Bible puts into four words of one syllable what whole sermons cannot say so well. The whole of religion is in God’s Lo, it is I, and man’s Here am I, Lord.

Journal notes reported in Spiritual Journey are highly personal, recording prayers, reading, frustrations and reflections. Here are a few from old age:

1893 Bless the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me, all: repentance, remorse, anxiety, disappointment, all bless His holy name. Bless the Lord O my soul and forget not all His benefits: Crimea, India, nurse training, all all. Who forgiveth all thy iniquities, Who healeth all thy diseases, Who crowneth thee with loving kindness and tender mercies, Who redeemeth thy life from destruction, Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things, so that thy youth shall be renewed like the eagle’s.

Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Father, forgive me, for I knew not what I did. O God, the Father of an infinite Majesty, 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. This alone will make us happy; without this we cannot be happy. Thy Holy Spirit (twenty times a day) to give me — nothing else matters — love, forgiveness, suffering, joy and the counsel of the Highest.

1894: Be joyful in the Lord, my heart. How much He has brought out quite unexpected since that time, which then seemed impossible.

Do Thou, then, put such thoughts into my mind, such words into my mouth, every hour. To make the final decision between Christ, God and self with prayer.

To make the decision whether God’s or self’s. Ye are bought with a price, ye are not your own. O how happy to be God’s. Help of the helpless, and what help? The Father of an infinite majesty, charity. Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me, nevertheless, not as I will but as Thou wilt.

1895: Personal union with Jesus Christ; without this we are nothing. Father, give me this personal union. Come in, Lord Jesus, come into my heart now. There is no room. Each day more and more of this new year, 1895, and may it be a better and a happier year than any before. So help me/us God!

To believe in Christ as our friend, that is faith. To act for Christ as His friends, that is practice.

1896 All Saints Day/All Souls Day Yes: one does feel the passing away of so many who seemed essential to the world. I have no one now to whom I could speak of those who are gone. But all the more I am eager to see successors. What is that verse? That the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons (and daughters) of God, and that the whole earth groaneth and travaileth until now. I am thankful for the many noble souls I have known.

Christmas Day 1896 Christ has arrived. What will be His first word to me/us? Lovest thou me? And what will be my answer? Lord, I love Thee; help Thou my want of love. Would you offer less than a perfect nursing with a perfect love to God?

The last material we have on Nightingale’s spiritual journey, from 1904, consists of a report by a Kaiserswerth deaconess who visited Nightingale at her home. “Dear Kaiserswerth,” Nightingale told her, “how well I remember it.” She asked the deaconess if she had been happy as a sister and got the answer:

Dear Miss Nightingale, if I had to live my life over again, and if it were ten times, I should always wish to serve the Lord as a Kaiserswerth deaconess.

The deaconess took her leave when she saw that Nightingale was tiring, but Nightingale ordered her: “Pray!”

So I knelt down to thank the Lord for everything He had done for us poor women, who desired to glorify His name only. She kept saying “Amen” and “Praise the Lord” so that I came to the conclusion that she must be a devout Wesleyan. So with my heart full of prayer and praise I came away.

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