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Florence Nightingale’s Sermon “Strait is the Gate”

Florence Nightingale’s Sermon “Strait is the Gate”

by Lynn McDonald
St Peter’s Anglican Church, Toronto, 14 May 2000

Florence Nightingale’s faith underlay all her work, in founding the profession of nursing, saving lives in the Crimean War and the years after that, when she saved even more lives by bringing in scientifically-based public health care measures.

For Nightingale a perfect God created the world and runs it by laws. It is our duty to discover those laws, by scientific research, then intervene for good. We then become God’s co-workers, or συvεργoί. God is always the initiator; it is our privilege to second His work.

Good intentions, however, can be disastrous, can indeed cost lives rather than save them. Hence for Nightingale the need for careful evaluation of the results of any interventions made, using the best, hard, quantitative data.

“It did strike me as odd, sometimes,” said Nightingale, “that we should pray to be delivered from ‘plague, pestilence, and famine,’ when all the common sewers ran into the Thames, and fevers haunted undrained land.” She thought that we should remove the causes of plague, pestilence and famine, notably with a good sewer system. She prayed “deliver us from unconscientious work,” instead and affirmed “God loves a business-like woman.” Jesus said he must be about his Father’s business; so should we. When Nightingale brought in the first professional nursing to the sick poor, in the Liverpool Workhouse Infirmary, she considered that she was doing her Father’s business.

Nightingale is described in the Canadian prayer book as “nurse and social reformer” and so she was. She was also a biblical scholar—her Bible is annotated in six languages other than English. She wrote on theology, translated and commented on the medieval mystics and kept extensive journal notes on her devotional reading and reflections, all of which will be published in the Collected Works of Florence Nightingale beginning next year.

There are three sermons in her unpublished papers—the one she wrote at age eight seems to have disappeared. None of the three was ever preached in her lifetime although her sermon ideas were used by a priest friend, Benjamin Jowett. Some of the ideas in the sermon I am about to read you are unusual, but I believe the power and the passion of her faith comes through.

Source: Draft sermon, Add Mss 45843 ff253-63 (edited for liturgical use in more inclusive language)

“For strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth to eternal life, and few there be that find it.” Matt 7:14

“Be ye perfect even as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Matt 5:48

How are we to reconcile these two things? Are we to be told as a general command that we are all to be perfect? Then are we to be thrown back into despair by being told that the way to be perfect is so difficult to find that it is as it were almost useless except for a few to look for it? Indeed it did not need an angel or even a prophet to tell us this. It is a fact which stares us in the face, jumps into our eyes. It is scarcely a truth; it is a truism.

We need not look out into the world, or into history, to ascertain this fact. Every one of us, even in his own narrowest circle of experience, an proclaim the fact that few there be who find the way to perfection. But, if we do look out into the world, if we do look into history, then the conviction we gain of this fact is appalling. It is absorbing, and if any one of us were to realize the fact to its utmost extent, one can hardly suppose that it would not drive him mad.

Someone has said, I believe, that history is but the story of the crimes of the human race. And this appears not far from the truth. But is this ll? Is the world really nothing but one vast gaol of criminals, with a few, a very few, pursuing an impossible ideal, an unattainable perfection? Is history nothing but the police annals of this universe of criminals? Or is history the story of the education of the human race by a perfect God whose government of the universe which He has made is a training of each and of all of us to perfection, not indeed, in time but in eternity?

My brothers and sisters, it may seem to you a paradox, but I believe that none but those who are deeply, who are terribly convinced of the unutterable misery and vice of the world as it is, unutterable, unspeakable, whether in its extent, whether in its horror, whether in its height or its depth, or if there be any other measure, in its measurable horror, can realize the idea of a perfect God leading each one of us to perfection, can realize “eternal life,” what those two words mean. You hear incessantly of “compensations,” that “happiness is pretty equally distributed.” You hear of the “greatest possible happiness principle,” all the heavy baggage of certain schools which used to call themselves by names both of political economy and of Christianity. Is it possible that people who talk in this way can realize the lives of millions upon millions of people existing in this world in this moment whose existences cannot possibly by any stretch of reasoning, imagination [or] ingenuity be said to be worth having? Is it possible that they can realize the misery, the vice, the worn-out sin, the imbecility contained in but one large London workhouse or in one gambling railway and watering place?

If by “compensation” they mean that the poor worn-out prostitute in the workhouse can enjoy her stolen drop of gin, stolen perhaps from a sick or dying inmate under her care (?) or her pipe, are we talking of men or beasts? Do we consider these pleasures, these “compensations” as constituting a life worth having in any sense of the word? The pleasures of the gambler perhaps I need not dwell upon. But I will take less extreme cases. Is, on the whole, the life of women whom you see blocking up Hyde Park in their carriages every summer afternoon and London churches every Sunday morning worth having—while hundreds of thousands of their fellow creatures, in the very city in which they live, are rotting in misery and shame—no vague words, within sight of their carriage windows? If you call the butterfly’s life worth having, then certainly theirs is. Is the life of the collier, the needle woman, those lives spent in the hardest, most incessant toil, with no other prospect, hope or thought but that of obtaining scarcely enough of daily bread and perhaps rest—are these lives worth having? They are like the lives of the beast, hunting for food for itself and its offspring, but without the pleasure of the hunt. If you say they have the pleasures of marrying and of having children; why so has the dog.

If anyone thinks my picture over drawn, let him live among the pauper class, the class which to the disgrace of England be it (not) told, forms, I am afraid to say, what proportion of her vast population. To anyone who really realizes what these millions of lives are, no better than the beasts, in China, in Africa, in England—the thought must be ver urgent, ever goading: is there a good God after all? If there is, what were all these lives created for? To satisfy a moment’s lust between a male and female human animal? Was this the purpose of the perfect God? These poor people who could by no possibility of their own prevent themselves from coming into this world, who could by no possibility of their own raise themselves from what they are. (Let this be understood not as a theory but as a plain matter of fact which nobody will dispute) can that be a perfect God who creates and who governs a world where these things can be? Or is this world hell?

Much confusion exists in the ordinary, popular mind about the much-used and much-abused words salvation and damnation. The ordinary/popular idea seems to be that of a God who sits like a chairman of Quarter Sessions or rather like the Lord Chief Justice and deals out sentences according to the verdict of acquittal or guilt. Is not this the lowest possible idea of God? Attached to this, but unworthy even of a Lord Chief Justice, is the idea that there is a certain quantum of suffering which God chooses to dose out to His creatures—one does not see exactly why—if one does not have it, another must. We hear much talk of a “better world.” Suppose this world is the better world. But how can this be; is hell the better world? If there is a scheme in God’s government for bringing each one of us to perfection by God’s laws in eternity, then is not each stage of this eternity a “better world,” the best of worlds? Perfection, salvation, life, eternal life, these are all synonymous. Yet few there be who find salvation or perfection (in this life), yet we are all to be perfect. As far we can understand, for human creatures perfection is only infinite capability of progress. As far as we can understand, God’s government is that of laws by which people are perpetually progressing; humankind that is, not always the individual person, is the supplying means and inducements to infinite progress. He has said humankind shall create humanity, and this humankind shall have eternity to do it in. Why should we despair? Is not all eternity ours?

If this be all, had not God better not exist at all? Is this all He can do for the creatures He has made? On the other hand, the conception of God in the philosopher’s mind is apparently that of a sage who looks on unmoved at the world He has created, rather shall we say at the ruin He has made, unmoved by the intensity of the sufferings He has produced, Nero fiddling while Rome is burning. “They kill us for their sport,” as Gloucester may well say of the gods, or rather a Roman emperor looking on at the show fights in the Coliseum.

The repulsiveness of this impassive God, even when veiled in philosophical language, is such that the humble Christian may well say that the philosopher has no God at all. The wise person, it is said, attributes no human affection to God. He recognizes a power, necessary, eternal, which animates all nature, and he resigns himself. No, he recognizes a Power all wise of which his own wisdom is a spark, all good, of which human affections are but emanations, and he does (not resign himself, he) tries to second this all-wise, all-good Power. To ay that the Deity has no affections is actually to say that people are better than their God. And so they often are. For is there anything higher in the idea of a God creating this world and all its suffering inhabitants on scientific principles than of a juggler performing his tricks, unless indeed there is a scheme by which all these wonderful laws of God are to bring every one of humankind to perfection, salvation, eternal life, call it which we will.

Salvation is not a place or a time. It is a state, a state always progressing but always here. It is represented in the scriptures by the word “life.” If anyone will take the pains of looking through all the passages where our Lord or St Paul make use of the word “life” he will perhaps be surprised to see how constantly it is used in this sense, as a thing present, a salvation not to come but here. And in this sense you may say this is the better world, you well may say this is hell. God could not create other gods, that is, other perfect beings. What then as to be done? (I speak as a fool.) Was it not to create beings susceptible of an infinite power of progress, but to work this out for themselves, to work out their own salvation. Those words seem to express the real scheme of God even with philosophical nicety. “Work out your own salvation. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do.”

People ask if God has a plan by which everyone is to be brought to perfection; what part is left to us? Everything is left to us; it is we who have to do it. God only supplies means and inducements. Humankind is to create humanity, but each person is to help in the creation, that is, in the perfection of humankind. This is the practical application, this the practical religion of our lives. If I did not think I was working as part of a scheme of God to bring us all to perfection I should shirk work, for what could I do among so many miseries and sins? It is because it is God’s plan to be completed in God’s eternity that I work at all. People seem divided between the delusion God is to do it all, and that God is to do nothing.

Nothing? Why it can exactly in the measure that I am in accordance with God’s will, with His active will, that I can do anything. Yes, but (people say) if God will not alter any of His scheme in accordance with our prayer? Is not prayer rather to ask God what He wishes of us than what we wish of Him? The mystics of the Middle Ages were far before us in this. Prayer is, when I have the instrument of the dentist in my mouth, not to ask that it may not hurt me, but that I may be willing to bear the hurt. Prayer is when I get up in the morning not to get up because it will be unusual if I do not, because I shall be too late for breakfast or too late for my day’s toil, but to get up to do God’s work. “And thus the work of prayer begun; Thou well may say God’s will be done.” But let no one say God is bringing us all to perfection if he himself is doing nothing in the work.

Far nearer the truth is Wesley springing on the cart which takes the murderer to the gallows to speak to him of Christ’s blood, or St Catherine of Siena going with the criminal to the scaffold who would not be shrived—“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.” 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.

Far nearer are these even to the speculative truth than the philosopher who reads and speculates in his library and says, let my wife teach the boys the catechism, they had better belong to the Church of England—it poses a man better in the world. He who perhaps least understands the ways of God is he who speculates on the perfection of this world without once giving a hand to further it, or on the wickedness and imperfection of this world without once taking a step to mend it.

The little girl who the other day ran back across the railway and snatched two babies whom she saw in danger, “crashing them down,” as a bystander said, “between herself” and the safe platform, giving herself to certain death under the advancing engine but saving the babes without a scratch. She was a greater preacher of righteousness and of the ways of God than all the fathers of the Church who ever were born to write.

Let none think that it matters a straw whether he believes in a good or a bad God, in a moral or in immoral philosophy, in a scheme of universal perfection or universal damnation, if he will not lift a hand to help the one or to prevent the other, if all he lives for is his dinner, his amusement, his health, his comfort and perhaps his Sunday church. My sisters and brothers, let us be fellow workers of God. Then shall we learn to know of His spirit and of our own too, what manner of spirit we are of. Let us second him as far as we know of His ways.

Nightingale’s sermon leaves out here, the thought unfinished. I will not attempt to finish it for her.

Let us thank God on the occasion of her birthday for the life, faith, work and witness of Florence Nightingale, His servant, handmaid and co-worker.

Prayers of the People (Brian Gerrior) (May 14 2000)

Today we especially give you thanks for and commemorate the life of your departed servant, Florence Nightingale, nurse and social reformer. We remember her work as your instrument in the world, the care and comfort she brought to your people in adversity. We remember her as a loyal follower of Christ and a servant to the Christian way. May her life serve us as a testament of witness and may we all follow her fine example of loyalty, dedication and service to people everywhere.

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