“Those whose hearts are torn with anguish
Lack the pow’r Your name to call!
Heal their wounds, Ma, soothe their sorrows—
You, the Mother of us all.”

In Ananda’s early days, still in the midst of the Cold War, we often thought of those who served heroically as God’s hands and feet, as Divine Mother’s secret agents in the Cosmic Cold War between Light and Dark. A true warrior of Light, Florence Nightingale spent her early years feeling herself an alien in the repressive Victorian mores of her upbringing. Family, social obligation, propriety pressed in on her soul, crushing her yearning to live usefully “instead of frittering time away on useless trifles.”

Then, at the age of 17, February 7, 1837, “God spoke to me and called me to His service.” Like Joan of Arc, she heard, with absolute clarity, a voice coming from outside herself, speaking to her in human words. What she was to do she did not know — only that He had work for her, that all would be made clear in time. The frustration and anguish of her childhood were at an end. God had spoken to her, and she trusted that He would come again and point her way forward. Her heart was at last at peace, confident and full of faith.

Two years passed, then a third, and still God had not come again. Florence turned within, feeling desperately unworthy: What had she done to justify God’s call to her soul? Her interior training began. Groping for answers, deeply introspective, she cut away the impedimenta of her social life and threw herself into studies she hoped would help prepare her for a still-unknown divine mission. Mathematics, Greek, philosophy she absorbed early mornings before the household arose and late nights after her family retired.

Not until 1842, five years after her call, did she understand that her service to God would be among the destitute. The “hungry forties” in England were a time of poverty, disease, and starvation; workhouses, hospitals, and prisons overflowed with anguished humanity. “What can an individual do,” she asked, “towards lifting the load of suffering from the helpless and miserable?” Inexorably, Florence was drawn into serving the poor and sick in their own homes, all the time badgering her mother for medicines, food, bedding, clothing. From this time on, she wrote, “there never was any vagueness in my plans or ideas as to what God’s work was for me.”

Clarity at last, and arrived at without God’s direct speaking: His silence had spurred her into a prayerful intensity that awakened her intuition for His will — to serve in hospitals and wherever the sick suffered without succor. Secretly she asked a visiting American philanthropist about the propriety of her aspiration: a young Englishwoman in Victorian England serving in the dreaded and despised hospitals. The answer came: “Go forward, if you have a vocation for that way of life; act up to your inspiration and you will find there is never anything unbecoming or unladylike in doing your duty for the good of others. Choose, go on with it, wherever it may lead you, and God be with you.”

And God was with her, but not in a way she could perceive. For eight years she struggled in a dark night of the soul, night after night praying and weeping, seeking to make herself worthy of God’s all-merciful guidance. Her obstacles were overwhelming. Hospitals were horrifying places: killing more than they cured, unsanitary, hotbeds of infection, a place to die rather than a place of healing. Nurses received no training and were considered fallen women. Beds were jammed together, seldom cleaned, even after a patient had died. Her family were aghast at her wish to serve in hospital: Angrily they brought down on her what she called “the petty grinding tyranny of a good English family.” Ill, in despair, close to madness, Florence suffered most that she could not feel that she was walking with God. In the end her suffering was a holy purification. In the furnace of her eight-year trial her character took on the immense strength that was to see her through the heroic journey of her service to God and man.

Finally, 16 years in all since God’s first call, He spoke again. This second visitation came just before she undertook the duties of superintendent of the Institution for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Distressed Circumstances. Gentle, sympathetic, charming, the purified Florence Nightingale loved all equally but with never a personal note. Her reforming work had begun. With irresistible strength of will and divine conviction, she pushed forward for a spiritual foundation to hospital life: persons of all faiths to be served, their appropriate clerics to be made welcome at their bedsides; and for a school to train the nurses not only in efficiency and expertise but also, and most important, in personal integrity and service with a feeling of God’s guiding presence.

For the third time, God spoke to His beloved daughter, this time just before she sailed for the Crimea. She had been serving in the cholera epidemic of 1854, fearless in face of contagion even while all around her patients and nurses were dying, and many nurses were fleeing in terror. What she found in the Crimea beggared imagination: a cavernous, dank, and filthy great warehouse for a hospital; hundreds of British soldiers pouring in on stretchers day after day. The English army — it was the time of the tragic Charge of the Light Brigade — regarded as barely human by their officers, had been decimated by the harsh winter just ending. Stranded on a bare hillside without shelter, adequate clothing, blankets, food, the soldiers died of exposure and neglect.

Undaunted in face of the horror of mass suffering, Florence ministered at the bedside of more than 2000 deaths. The worst cases she nursed herself. Here she became the Lady with the Lamp, walking the nighttime corridors carrying her lamp, setting it down to minister to the soldiers. “What a comfort it was to see her pass, even,” one soldier wrote. “She would speak to one, and nod and smile to many more; but she could not do it to all, you know. We lay there by hundreds; but we could kiss her shadow as it fell and lay our heads on the pillow again, content.”

“They have heard Thy Name,
The blind, halt, and lame.
Those who are in despair,
Wipe Thou their tears.”

In divine friendship,
Prakash
For Ananda’s “Thank You, God” Tithing

12 Comments

  1. During that dark time in Crimea, Florence also became an advocate for sanity conditions. She adopted what eventually became standard techniques to reduce infections due to the poor conditions. She also became on of the first to use statistics to prove that it worked, using the math that she taught herself years earlier. On returning to England, she started a second effort to change the medical establishment, again undaunted by the difficulty & resistance.

  2. Is there a good biography of Florence Nightingale that you might recommend?

  3. Great story. I believe the nurse is a good example of what Swamiji called Kshatriya: those who serve. I’ve always been inspired by the attitude of service and have strived to have that in my own life. Thank you Prakash

  4. Thank you Prakash ji.

    This blog fills me with more energy & enthusiasm to serve. Jai Guru!

  5. What a beautiful article, and a great reminder for these times. Thank you very much for writing it, Prakash!

  6. Dearest Prakashji,
    Thank you from the bottom my soul for sharing this story. It has touched me deeply.
    Love

  7. Thank you, Prakash.

    I am about to forward this beautiful story to 3 of my fellow nursing buddies. Of course, most nurses know of Florence Nightingale, but I have not known of the spiritual aspect of her service. i am so happy to learn of this deep connection she had to the Divine.

    I would appreciate knowing of the book which would allow me to learn more about Florence and her spiritual life.

    Again, thank you, Prakash.

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