Generous Christianity

Daily Reading for August 12 • Florence Nightingale, Nurse, Social Reformer, 1910

Florence Nightingale evoked very different opinions from contemporaries and later critics. The novelist Mrs. Gaskell thought her ‘completely led by God as Joan of Arc. . . . It makes one feel the livingness of God more than ever to think how straight he is sending his spirit down into her, as into the prophets and saints of old.’

Lytton Strachey, however, remarked that her conception of God was ‘certainly not orthodox. She felt towards him as she might have felt towards a glorified sanitary engineer. . . . One has the impression that Miss Nightingale has got the Almighty too into her clutches, and that, if she is not careful, she will kill him with overwork.’ Half a century later, for Ida Görres, the practical achievements of Nightingale surpassed making up ‘spiritual posies’, and stressing the supernatural to avoid facing reality. She was a ‘glorious embodiment of the best of the nineteenth century—with its enthusiasm for Progress in all its pristine freshness. . . . Did she not still live up to all three evangelical counsels, and on a heroic scale at that: virginity, forgoing the cravings of the heart again and again for the sake of her vocation; obedience, to its wearing, merciless claims; poverty, in the austere and selfless privations involved in her utter surrender to the “one thing needful”? Is her broad, glowing, generous Christianity not more truly human, more truly Christian than at least our present-day cloister ideal?’ (Broken Lights, London, 1964).

In 1850-1851 Florence Nightingale wrote in her diary: “I am 30 . . . the age at which Christ began his mission. No more childish things, no more vain things, no more love, no more marriage. Now, Lord, let me only think of thy will. . . . But why, oh my God, cannot I be satisfied with the life that satisfies so many people?”

From Invincible Spirits: A Thousand Years of Women’s Spiritual Writings, compiled by Felicity Leng (Eerdmans, 2006).

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