Working with a client’s biography this morning, I took time to look briefly at one of my client’s heroes: the Italian-born Florence Nightingale.
Nightingale felt a spiritual calling when she was a teenage girl. In thousands of pages of writings she left behind, she describes a painful awareness of the suffering of others, particularly European soldiers fighting in the Crimean War. Thwarting her family’s wishes, she travelled to the wounded soldiers, set up nursing stations and trained other women to help. Kneeling in the dirt, she bound their wounds and assisted in amputations. She nursed them through deadly cholera and typhus outbreaks. Against the medial conventions of the day, she stressed better diet, washing the soldiers, and keeping their linens as clean as possible, as a way of both decreasing the mortality rate and helping to heal their malnourished hearts. She wrote letters for soldiers and wrote to their families when they died.
She set up reading rooms with books and coffee for wounded and ill soldiers at a time when only bars and lounges were available to them. She was called “the bird” disparagingly, “the avenging angel,” and “the lady with the lamp.” Aligned with what-would-Jesus-do intentions, she dared to wonder in some of her essays: can we imagine a woman who resembles a female Christ?
Nightingale’s calling to reduce the mortality rate of soldiers and veterans of the Crimean War was privately funded over the decades, allowing her to operate outside the constraints of the establishment.