Florence Nightingale:
Mystic, Visionary, Healer
Washington National Cathedral, August 12, 2001, 4 P.M.
© Barbara Dossey, PhD, RN, HNC, FAAN

Ladies and Gentlemen, Colleagues and Friends - to all who have gathered here to honor the legacy of Florence Nightingale - This is a historic moment. We are assembled to honor the memory of a great woman whose courage and contributions have made a lasting impression on each of us. But it is not just the memory of Nightingale we celebrate. Her spirit is alive and well also. I know that many of you sense her presence here, as I do. So, if you will permit me, I would like to thank Florence for joining us!

Today we honor an extraordinary human being. Like a fiery comet, Florence Nightingale streaked across the skies of nineteenth-century England and transformed the world with her passage. She was a towering genius of both intellect and spirit, and her legacy resonates today as forcefully as during her lifetime. But why does Nightingale deserve to be included in the Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts in the Episcopal Church of the United States of America? The reason is because of the unique way in which her spiritual vision intertwined with her work in the world.

We know Nightingale best as the founder of modern secular nursing, but that is only one side of her many-faceted life. After hearing the voice of God late in her 16th year, her life was forever changed. Evelyn Underhill, who was one of the most respected authorities on Western mysticism in the 20th century, described Nightingale as "one of the greatest and most balanced contemplatives of the nineteenth century." Underhill's opinion was based on Nightingale's life work of social action. The source of her strength, vision, and guidance was a deep sense of unity with God, which is the hallmark of the mystical tradition in all the world's great religions. This aspect of Nightingale's life has been vastly underestimated, yet we cannot understand her legacy without taking it into account.

Mysticism is a universal experience. It has been practiced, in various ways, in all the major religions known to history. Mysticism can be defined as a way of life that flows from an individual's direct experience of God, however conceived. A mystic is a person who has, to a greater or lesser degree, the experience of being one with the Divine. The life of such a person is not focused merely on religious practice or belief, but on what he or she regards as first-hand personal knowledge, the love of God, or the Divine Reality of God. These descriptions fit Nightingale completely. As Nightingale said: "For what is Mysticism? Is it not the attempt to draw near to God, not by rites or ceremonies, but by an inward disposition? Is it not merely a hard word for "The Kingdom of Heaven is within.” Heaven is neither a place nor a time. There might be a Heaven not only here but now. "Where shall I find God? In myself. That is the true Mystical Doctrine. But then I myself must be in a state for Him to come and dwell in me. This is the whole aim of the Mystical Life; and all Mystical Rules in all times and countries have been laid down for putting the soul into such a state.

Florence Nightingale experienced her inner call from God as a compulsion to social action and service to those in need. The depth and richness of Nightingale's practical mysticism compares favorably with that of the greatest mystics, both male and female, within the Christian tradition. It was as if Nightingale took her marching orders from Matthew 25:40: "... Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." But her work was not only practical, but literary as well. She left some of most inspired written descriptions of her mystical and spiritual visions that exist within the Western traditions. They are on a par with anything that St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Genoa, St. Catherine of Siena, and Hildegard of Bingen, or any other Western mystic ever wrote.

Nightingale's life work of social action was her way of honoring "God's laws in nature." Although deeply religious, Nightingale was extremely tolerant and honored the beliefs, rituals, and practices of all cultures wherever the British Empire had spread its influence. Her call for cultural diversity was ahead of its time, and is particularly apparent in her work on behalf of India for over forty years. She stressed that all the world's great religions should be studied, because, as she put it, this gave "unity to the whole - one continuous thread of interest to all these pearls."

Nightingale believed that every person who is drawn to ease the pain and suffering of another is an instrument of genuine healing, regardless of whether they are a healthcare professional or not. So Nightingale's vision is generic, applicable to everyone, regardless of his or her occupation or profession.

In today's specialized world, we are often tempted to compartmentalize our lives, putting our professional interests in one corner and our spiritual concerns in another. To Nightingale, fragmenting one's life in this way would have been unthinkable. Her spiritual vision and her professional identity were seamlessly combined. As she put it, "My work is my must." She is therefore an icon of wholeness, an emblem of a united, integrated life. By her shining example, she invites each of us to find our meaning and purpose - our own "must" - in our individual journey through life.

Nightingale believed that intentions and prayer, informed by love and compassion, affected the clinical outcome of patients. The popular image of her as "The Lady with the Lamp" who patrolled the halls of the wounded during the Crimean War embodies the concept that compassion is crucial in healing. In her time, this was indeed an unproved assumption - but a host of recent controlled, double blind studies has affirmed the role of intention, prayer, and compassion in healing in various diseases. Nightingale would probably be amused by these studies, and would ask us why we think the value of intentions, prayer, compassion, and love needs to be proved by controlled clinical trials!

Currently there is a renaissance of interest in Nightingale. As many of you know, it is not all positive. It is fascinating why some individuals, almost a hundred years after her death, seem to take delight in belittling her contributions. Let us put this in perspective. Nightingale can be criticized. She pushed hard - as a woman in nineteenth-century England, she had to push hard in order to get things done. This meant that she sometimes offended those in power and made enemies. Her brusque style continues to irritate some people to this very day. Moreover, Nightingale was not perfect; she freely admitted that she made mistakes, and she was troubled that she did not completely attain all of her goals. Also, in her day as in ours, some people were irritated by her transcendent spiritual vision that went beyond specific religions to honor all the great traditions. This is one reason she has been alternately dammed and praised by various religious groups since her death. The fact is, spiritually advanced people can indeed be hard to take. When we are around them, we may feel inadequate, as if we don't measure up. As the old saying goes, no priest wants a saint in his parish.

And then there is that strange modern tendency to revise the glowing legacies that have been left by great figures in history. It is as if we cannot tolerate heroes and heroines any more; we cannot stand in their light; we must bring them down to our level. There is, therefore, a current tendency among some biographers to emphasize the failings of great persons instead of focusing on their majestic contributions. Surely we should tell the entire story of Nightingale, but we should not judge her by impossible standards. Those who attempt great things make great mistakes. And what human has not fallen short? As Browning said, “our reach should exceed our grasp, or what's a heaven for?” So today we recognize Nightingale's accomplishments as well as her imperfections. She was one of us. But that is why we can relate to her, why we love her, and why she still lives in our hearts.

Where are we headed in healing, and how can Nightingale help us get there? Today, nurses and others involved in healing are challenged to rediscover our essence and to emerge as true healers. Nightingale's example is a source of strength from the past. Through it we can find the vision and strength to assert ourselves in a very difficult moment in history. Nightingale's message moves us towards the integration of the scientific, moral, political, aesthetic, spiritual, and metaphysical aspects of nursing, and invigorates our profession with a sense of calling.

But Nightingale would not want us to dwell on the past; she would be concerned about future developments. When we feel overwhelmed with the " 3 D's" - downsizing, devolution, and decentralizing, or the "3 R's"- restructuring, reengineering, and redesigning, we can think of what Nightingale did without very many supportive colleagues, professional nursing organizations, and the information superhighway. If she achieved what she did with her handwritten letters, publications, and networking men in power, can you imagine Nightingale with a laptop computer, cell phone, fax machine, messenger recorder, E-mail, Internet, CD-ROM, information superhighway, and a satellite uplink! It boggles the mind!

A part of Nightingale's wisdom resides within each of us. She would be at home in our world. I imagine hearing her voice as she tells each of us to identify our "must" and to fight for a health care system driven by the needs of patients. She would encourage each of us collectively to join together to actualize our visions. She would ask us if we are documenting through research our work and services. Nightingale, the master net worker, would want us always to know who is in charge, who our representatives and senators are. She would ask us to educate and inform them through research findings, so that they can develop legislation for health care reform that makes sense.

As our understanding of our unique heritage increases, we deepen our personal commitment to our work in the world. Our role in today's events will be part of tomorrow's future. We must challenge ourselves to learn to communicate to a wider audience. This means learning to write clearly and powerfully not only for our colleagues, but also for patients, consumers, and other health care professionals, about how we as nurses integrate caring and healing.

Each of us, of course, must look forward, not backwards. Exciting work lies ahead. How are we going to write our chapter of nursing history at the beginning of the 21st century? What is our role at the local, national, or international level? What germinating seeds are we going to leave for others? What is our next innovative and creative education, practice, or research endeavor? What is our leadership role in the health care system? And finally, I ask “Can you hear Nightingale's voice?” Thank you.

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