‘Like a fiery comet, Florence Nightingale streaked across the skies of 19th century England and transformed the world with her passage… We know Nightingale best as the founder of modern secular nursing, but that is only one-side of her many-faceted life. The source of her strength, vision and guidance was a deep sense of unity with God, which is the hallmark of the mystical tradition as it is expressed in all the world’s great religions. This aspect of her life has been vastly underestimated, yet we cannot understand her legacy, without taking it into account.’ – Barbara Dossey, ‘Florence Nightingale – Mystic, Visionary, Healer’
Evelyn Underhill, one of the most respected authorities on Western Mysticism, described Nightingale as, ‘one of the greatest and most balanced contemplatives of the nineteenth century’ based on Nightingale’s life work of social action.
The range of Florence’s early influences, motivation and inspiration is vast, especially seen in her early reading of Plato’s emphasis of importance of women having a meaningful role in society. So, Florence was deeply influenced by prominent female pioneers, including the Unitarian writer and journalist, Harriet Martineau, who was a family friend, Mary Somerville, one of the early women scientists in England and, Elizabeth Garrett, who, was the first female registered on the British Medical Register.
However, Florence was not merely influenced by these significant minds of her day, she in turn influenced them! Florence wrote a critical essay in 1852 called ‘Cassandra’, which highlighted the plight of women as being regarded as man’s inferior and as merely wives and mothers, or worse, failed wives and mothers! ‘Cassandra’, influenced none other than the philosopher, John Stewart Mill’s famous philosophical book, ‘On the Subjection of Women’ (1869), in which one of his own arguments about women always needing to be at the beck and call of everyone, is borrowed directly from Florence’s essay ‘Cassandra’, in which he credits Florence anonymously as ‘a celebrated woman’ with unpublished work.
John Stewart Mill wrote to Florence Nightingale to serve on the board of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1867, but although Florence did join and gave her name to the movement, she said that she did not have time to devote herself to that cause specifically, which is why some people think that Florence was not involved in women’s suffrage. However, Florence saw Nursing and Social Reform as her own avenues of dedication. Florence felt that women would actually be more practically emancipated by Reforms allowing women to own their own property, as in the eventual passing of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 – an earlier emancipation for women than suffrage.
Florence was also influential in supporting the formation of the Red Cross and the repeal of the controversial Contagious Diseases Act in 1886, which attempted to solve the Army’s problem with venereal diseases through prostitution, by subjecting women to painful internal examination and treatment. Florence was asked if she would oversee the selection of the medical officers who would conduct the physical examinations – but she flatly refused. Instead, she lobbied for its repeal with Unitarian Harriet Martineau!
Florence’s theological book, ‘Suggestions for Thought’ is her lesser-known book of radical theology, which outlines her ideas and concepts of God, Universal Law, Human Will, Sin and Evil (Theodicy), Spiritual Life and Life After Death – her motivation was to give people who had turned away from conventional religion in her day, an alternative to atheism. Florence’s extensive theological writings reveal a fascination with comparative religion and a deep mystical understanding of the Bible, especially of Jesus’ teachings that ‘The Kingdom of God is within’ as being an expression of the experiential reality of the immanence of God’s Presence in the depths of the soul, which is similar to the belief in the Quaker Movement of an ‘Inner Light’ inspired by George Fox.
Florence saw religion as having two complementary strands of both rationalistic enquiry (the ‘Reason’ of Unitarianism) and practical service in the world alongside a more contemplative practice of an inward seeking after union with God – and, in Volume 4 of her ‘Collected Works’, on ‘Mysticism and Eastern Religions’, Florence reflects deeply on the relationship between mysticism and pragmatism:
“For what is mysticism? Is it not the attempt to draw near to God, not by rites or ceremonies, but by 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.”
Unitarians are no strangers to mystical social activism. However, traditional Christianity has often interpreted the Biblical story of Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha as valuing Mary’s example of Contemplation over Action, devaluing Martha’s hard working active, practical hard work, whilst Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, hanging on his every word. However, mystics like Meister Eckhart have turned the traditional interpretation on its head. For Eckhart, it is Martha who has truly matured in her faith, whilst the still immature Mary occupies an ‘inferior place’, at the beginning of her spiritual life. Mary is hanging on every word of Jesus, in contrast to the spiritually mature Martha who is content in her selfless service to others, viewing Social Action as the natural result of Mystical inner knowing.
Florence Nightingale was particularly influenced by Saint Teresa of Avila, whom Florence described as ‘the most active of the mystics’ and, as Bernard McGinn explains, Teresa identifies Mary and Martha as different qualities in the different depths of ourselves. Mary represents the transformed will in the inner-essence of the soul in Union with God and Martha represents our outer faculties of reason and intellect. Teresa therefore calls for the Union of the Action of Martha with the contemplation of Mary in a spiritual mystical marriage in which it is possible to become ‘an active contemplative’ or a ‘contemplative social activist’, as beautifully articulated in Tom Owen-Towle’s book, Free Thinking Mystics with Hands.
Action and contemplation are therefore not opposed modes of life that can be realised only by a spiritual-practical oscillation between one and the other, but as equally valuable modes of being. The very Commandment to Love God with all your soul and your neighbour as yourself can be seen anew as a profound statement of the life of ‘the transformed mystic’, as an ‘Active Contemplative’ or Mystical Social Activist – that one’s Love for God, (found in contemplation) translates naturally to love of neighbour (in Action).
Despite Florence’s highly religious nature and devotion to her calling to God, she actually advocated and established a secular approach to Nursing. Florence was dismayed by the in-fighting between different religious denominations, particularly Catholics and Protestants and so her secular approach prevented people from being suspicious of one another. Barbara Dossey a-likens the profession of Nursing itself to having the state of Presence of a mystic. She says that both the mystic and the nurse, must become at one with the task at hand, which involves a kind of self-forgetting, an emptying of the ego with a complete identification with a nursing intervention, particularly those involving life and death situations, such as cardiac resuscitation. A humbling thought in these times…
Florence was influenced by Catholicism, Protestantism, John Wesley, Unitarianism as well as Platonic, Egyptian, and Eastern Religions but she never found a religious organisation that she could call ‘home’. Inspired by Thomas à Kempis’ emphasis in The Imitation of Christ of the inner joy and freedom of mystics, Florence said that saints/mystics were ‘not for the Church but for God’, saying that, ‘you must go to Mohametanism, to Buddhism, to the East, to the Sufis and Fakirs, to Pantheism, for the right growth of mysticism’ and that, ‘to know God we must study Him as much in the Pagan and Jewish dispensations as in the Christian’, which feels very modern day Unitarian Universalist!
For those of you who attended FUSE this year in Worthing, Philip Roderick spoke of ‘Mystical Realism’ and, in his book, Henri Nouwen – In Conversation, he quotes Henri Nouwen: ‘My deepest conviction is that communion with God and solidarity with all of humanity always go together. You cannot live in communion with God without living in solidarity with people; it is essentially the same. That’s why every mystic is an activist in that sense, because mystical people are not people who sit there and contemplate. Teresa of Avila ran around founding one monastery after another. John of the Cross was a very active person and Thomas Merton was a very busy guy… With mystics and with mysticism, the point is that when you come to the heart of God, you touch God’s communion with all people.’
The Mystic Florence Nightingale wrote prophetically… ‘In 1999 what will our religion be? Will religion consist then, as now, not in whether man seeks to know God, and what He is, and…whether the man seeks to be a fellow-worker with God…but whether the man “had believed what he was told to believe? Had gone to church for what he called his prayers” and had duly paid his fee to the temple.’
Florence was a true mystical social activist – she was God’s… And, as Barbara Dossey writes, Florence inspires and invites each of us to find our meaning and purpose – our own “must” – in our own individual journey through life… So, I must ask you – What is your “must”?
– Rev. Jenny Miller
First published on www.sundarispirit.co.uk