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  • Writer's pictureFr. Gustavo

“Summer Saints IX – Florence Nightingale: The Lady with the Data”


Florence Nightingale: The Lady with the Data
Florence Nightingale

“It is OK not to be OK.” However, the title of today’s sermon is not related to the late 60’s book, “I am OK – You are OK”, by the Psychiatrist Thomas Harris.


As you will see later on, “It is OK not to be OK” is a very fitting theme for our Summer Saints series, featuring today Florence Nightingale.


According to the book “Lesser Feasts and Fasts”, “Florence Nightingale was born to a wealthy English family in Florence, Italy, on May 12th, 1820. She trained as a nurse in a hospital run by a Lutheran order of Deaconesses at Kaiserwerth, [near Dusseldorf, and which still stands today, and which model inspired the Deaconesses work here in Virginia]. In 1853 Nightingale became superintendent of a hospital for invalid women in London.


“In response to God’s call and animated by a spirit of service, in 1854 she volunteered for duty during the Crimean War and recruited 38 nurses to join her. With them she organized the first modern nursing service in the British field hospitals of Scutari and Balaclava.


“Making late-night rounds to check on the welfare of her charges, a hand-held lantern to aid her, the wounded identified her as “The Lady with the Lamp.” By imposing strict discipline and high standards of sanitation she radically reduced the drastic death toll and rampant infection then typical in field hospitals.


“She returned to England in 1856, and a fund of £50,000 was subscribed to enable her to form an institution for the training of nurses at St. Thomas’s Hospital and at King’s College Hospital. Her school at St. Thomas’s Hospital became significant in helping to elevate nursing into a profession. She devoted many years to the question of army sanitary reform, to the improvement of nursing, and to public health in India. Her main work, Notes on Nursing, went through many editions.


“An Anglican, she remained committed to a personal mystical religion, which sustained her through many years of poor health until her death in 1910. Until the end of her life, although her illness prevented her from leaving her home, she continued in frequent spiritual conversation with many prominent church leaders of the day, including the local parish priest, who regularly brought the Eucharist to her.


“By the time of her death on August 13th, 1910, her accomplishments and legacy were widely recognized, and she is honored throughout the world as the founder of the modern profession of nursing.


One can easily think of Florence Nightingale as a woman beyond her time. Her personal history tells us otherwise – In many ways she was a woman very much of her time, she was a staunch defender of the British Empire, in particular its colonial approach.


Through modern digitalization of her writings, it has become clear that even as she was a very much forward thinking in terms of the science of health care and – Yes! Statistics!


According to the American Statistical Association, “The lady with the lamp was also the lady who conducted pioneering and brave work as a statistician during a time when women were a rare presence in such fields. Florence Nightingale, one of the most prominent statisticians in history, used her passion for statistics to save lives of soldiers during the Crimean war, and do groundbreaking work in data visualization that continues to be influential to this day.


“Tables and diagrams fill the pages of Nightingale’s notes and records.” And long before the term “infographics” was coined, “Nightingale made data beautiful.”


Nevertheless, she was very much part of the colonial mindset of her day. Nightingale was a staunch supporter of British colonialism, even with the knowledge of the death and destruction left in its wake.


According to Canadian Professor Dr. Natalie Stake-Doucet, “It is important to understand the meaning of cleanliness within the Victorian era and for Nightingale. Cleanliness was a synonym for purity, and the Victorian rituals attached to it came with a sense of godly supremacy.”


Nightingale believed in the prevalent theory of her time that “bad smells and filth generated disease. Filth was not just physical; it was also moral. As Nightingale explained: ‘When we obey all God’s laws as to cleanliness, (…), health is the result. When we disobey, sickness.’”


So, as you can see, not every saint is as saintly as it may appear firsthand. As St James in writing about the power of prayer reminds us, Elijah, was a man with a nature like ours, with the same physical, mental, and spiritual limitations and shortcomings and yet, his prayers were heard.


Let me suggest that perhaps St James had in mind today’s first lesson about the life of Elijah.


The background to our first lesson is as follows. You may recall the story of Elijah and the false prophets, and how he challenged and taunted them until, eventually, they were killed (1 Kings 18).


King Ahab’s wife, Queen Jezebel was not an Israelite, and she followed her own gods. She believed that her gods had made her reach the position of power that she had, and she was in no mood to deal with nay-sayers. So she made her life’s ambition to destroy God’s prophets. And, upon the fracas on the top of the mountain she was, to say the least, very, very much upset.


So, she decided to go after Elijah, but she was kind enough to send him a message – “May the gods strike me dead if by this time tomorrow I don't do the same thing to you that you did to the prophets”, (1 Kings 19:2).


And so, Elijah runs away, and begins to sulk and complain. “See, nobody loves me! I have done everything you asked me to do, and now they are after me!”


Elijah, the man who had defeated the false prophets and did so many miracles now, all of a sudden, lost his faith. How come “Superman”?


But even more, if you look at his life, it could be said that Elijah wore his passion on his sleeve. He was not only passionate in the sense of being committed to God’s cause, but in the sense that he would suffer no fools.


He was not much different than St Peter himself. In today’s gospel we recall the story of Peter walking on the water. When he failed, not only he was soaked and scared, but also, in the process, lost his faith. Hearing Jesus saying, “Really! ‘Little Faith’ Peter!” might have stung. A lot.


And yet, Peter continued following Jesus. Crude, loud, with a very short temper, and yet the man which Jesus appointed to lead his church.


Florence, Elijah, and Peter all are examples of that it is “OK not to be OK.” Or, as I said last Sunday, “We do not need to be saints to become saints.”


As John Newton wrote, it is just grace, “Amazing Grace” that does it. And God’s eternal and unquenchable love.


Early in his gospel, in 1:17 John offers us the good news in a precious nugget, where he wrote, “You see, Moses gave us rules to live by, but Jesus offered us gifts of grace.” Or in the prophetic words of Isaiah, as recalled by St Matthew in his gospel (12:20), Jesus came not to snuff out smoldering faith not to break bruised souls, but to heal and restore, to encourage and inspire – even when we fail.


For like Florence, Elijah, and Peter, we all have our dark side. But Jesus came not to destroy darkness, but to destroy the power that darkness holds on our souls.


If she were to be alive, I wonder what Florence would think about our modern understanding of diseases, its transmission, and its causes. And how very good and God-fearing people die of horrible diseases. Or of Prince, now King Charles himself celebrating the becoming of Barbados, a British colony into a republic.


And I wonder about Elijah and Peter and so many more that only by the grace of God continued their race knowing that perfection is just an illusion, a moving goalpost. And yet, by the grace of God, “knocked down but not destroyed” as St Paul said, they continued their journey into the final embrace with Jesus, the author and perfecter of their faith.


Everyday Saints. This is what we are called to be. Regular folk willing to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles and to run with perseverance the race marked out for each one of us.”


And here is a piece of statistics to encourage you on your way. St Paul, whom we may call “The Apostle with the Data” said in today’s lesson, “You’ll be fine. For a hundred percent of those who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”


So, let us go forth into the world in the power of God’s love!


Fr. Gustavo

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