Florence Nightingale: 19th Century Mystic

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

The early life, adventures, and challenges that propelled this 19th century mystic to greatness.

In the source document Barbara Dossey provides an excellent description of the five developmental stages in the life of a mystic and relates it to the life and work of Florence Nightingale.

[ Dossey, B. M. (1998). Florence Nightingale: A 19th Century Mystic. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 16 (2), 111-164.]

I have taken much of this information and simply put it in narrative form to provide a light read.

Florence Nightingale was born on May 12, 1820 into a wealthy and well-connected British family in Florence, Tuscany, Italy, and was named after the city of her birth.

During her childhood, she had a desire to nurse the sick and provided care to family members, pets and dolls. She day dreamed of hospitals and visited them whenever she could. The year prior to her call to service the influenza epidemic hit the family winter estate at Embley. Florence provided care for the household which included 15 servants, her mother and two children of her brother. Her only assistant was the cook who was not ill.

On February 7, 1837 (at the age of 16) while in her sacred spot for contemplation under two majestic cedars of Lebanon at Embley, the family’s winter estate, she experienced a sudden inner knowing which has been described in the literature as contact with the Divine Reality. However, as is often the case with mystical experience of awakening, she had no clear understanding of the meaning of the vision or any idea of her path forward. Energized, she worked very hard among the poor people with a strong feeling of religion for the next three months. This period was interrupted by the family’s departure for a European tour which lasted from April 1937 to September 1839.

Upon the family’s return to England, she and her older sister Parthe both made their debut at the Queen’s Court. Florence was described tall, willowy, and elegant, with piercing gray eyes. She had rich, thick, flowing golden-red hair and perfect teeth, and sweet smile. At the balls, young suitors stood in line to dance with her. When the first flush of excitement passed, she wrote in her journal that she must overcome the temptation to shine in society.

During her early 20s, Florence was learning as much as she could about hospitals and sanitation reform on the one hand; and studying religion and exploring the inner life on the other.

At the age of 25 she sought her family’s permission to study for three months at the Salisbury Infirmary under the direction of Dr. Fowler, a family friend. Permission was denied. Her mother was horrified by the idea and called her odd. The venture was beneath their social position; caregivers were merely women who would be servants if they were not nurses.

A year later, Florence learned of the Institution of Deaconesses at Kaiserswerth, Dusseldorf, Germany – an experimental training program for protestant nurses. When she read the description of program, she journaled “There is my home, there are my brothers and sister all at work. There my heart is, and there I trust one day will be my body, whether in this state or the next”. She spent the next five years seeking guidance, always with the goal of nursing education in her heart and in her mind.

During the intervening years (1845 to 1850) she had several opportunities to travel with an elderly childless couple – Charles and Selena Bracebridge, who treated he like a daughter. Selena was understanding, good and kindred. Their companionship provided Florence with a great window on the world.

During their trip to Rome, she met the Madre Santa Colomba, a nun of the Convent Trinita de Monti, who would become one of her great spiritual colleagues and who admitted her for a 10-day spiritual retreat. She was introduced to a formal practice of contemplation and meditation which enabled her to move forward on her path. The Madre felt that Florence was something special; divine messages that the nun received said that Florence should “turn her whole heart to God that she might be ready to do his work”. At the end of the retreat, Florence recorded in her journal that "God spoke to her and asked her to surrender her will to all that is upon the earth". The Madre validated that she was being called to a very high degree of perfection.

When she returned to England, she had high hopes of making her way to Kaiserswerth with her mother who was planning to the Karlsbad baths near Frankfurt. Revolutions in Europe that year

made travel impossible. Family tension rose even higher when after a 7-year courtship, Florence turned down marriage proposal from Richard Monckton Milnes, the highly popular poet and politician. Her calling simply did not include domestic titles of wife and mother.

She was again rescued by Mr. and Mrs. Bracebridge and set out on another adventure to Egypt, Greece, and back through Trieste, Vienna, Prague, Berlin and finally to her long-anticipated destination – Kaiserswerth. Barbara Dossey describes this adventure as a “monumental inner journey, a spiritual and intellectual whirlwind, a significant withdrawal from the world as a prelude to action, alternating between periods of purgation and illumination”.

The party reached Alexandria “laden with learned books on theology, philosophy, and Egyptology. The Nile journey on their private Nile sailboat would take them some 900 miles south to Ipsamboul, in the vicinity of today’s Aswan High Dam. It was a serious journey with real risk. They visited the pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, and many other archaeological sites, endured sandstorms, gales and water spouts on the Nile as well as 110-degree heat; and tolerated brawls among the crew at the Cataracts under the watchful eyes of basking crocodile.

An intensification of her spiritual development through the purgative state of pain and effort is reflected in her journal entries over the time period of March 3 through March 21. The following entries are among those made during that time:

  • Did not get up in the morning but God gave me the time afterwards, which I ought to have made in the morning – a solitary 2 hours in my own cabin, to “mediate on my Madre’s words.

  • God called me in the morning & asked me “Would I do good for Him, for Him alone without the reputation”.

  • Thought much upon this question. My Madre said to me Can you hesitate between the God of the whole Earth & your little reputation as I sat looking out on the sunrise upon the river in my cabin after dinner.

  • During half an hour I had by myself in the cabin…settled the question with God.

  • Thought how our leaving Thebes which was quite useless owing to this contrary wind…but without it I might not have had this call from God.

  • Very sleepy. Stood at the door of the boat looking out upon the stars & the tall mast in the still night against the sky (we were at anchor – they were all asleep & I could not got to bed) & tried to think only of God’s will – & that everything is desirable only as He is in it or not in it – only as it brings us nearer or farther from Him. He is speaking to us often just when something we think untoward happens.

  • Such a day at Memphis & in the desert of Sakkara…God had delivered me from the great offense -- & the constant murderer of my thoughts [i.e., her dreaming].

  • Tried to bring my will one with God’s…as we rode into Cairo. Can I not serve God as well in Malta as in Smyrna, in England as at Athens? Perhaps better – perhaps it is between Athens & Kaiserswerth – perhaps this is the opportunity my 30th year was to bring me. Then as I sat in the large dull room waiting for the letters, God told me what a privilege he had reserved for me, what a preparation for Kaiserswerth in choosing me to be with Mr. B. during his time of ill health & how I neglected it -- & had been blind to it. If I were never thinking of the reputation, how I should be better able to see what God intends for me.

The party departed Egypt for Athens where Florence met the American missionary couple, John and Frances Hill. She wrote that the couple had the real missionary in them as they were purely devoted to God & their fellow-creatures and not to some fid-fad or other.

The following journal entry indicate Florence’s awareness of the perennial nature of true mystical faith: It is interesting to me to see the same mind as it was in Christ Jesus clothed in a different coat, in different parts of the world – my Madre at Rome, whose mind was dressed in black & white nun’s robe even more than her body -- & the Evangelical American here, Mrs. Hill, my true missionary, are so alike – & I see, are always listening for the void of God, looking for his will.

Mrs. Hill provided Florence with an account of how she began her missionary life:

It was always God who made the initiative never she. It was never her doing – always circumstances – only to do the duty which offers itself for the day was the way, she said.