During this month of September when the first readings at our Eucharist have been from the letter of James, we’ve heard of five people who heeded the keynote verse in that letter: be doers of the word, not hearers only. In the modern translation the verse reads: what good is it if you say you have faith but do not show it in deeds?
We started the series with Martin Luther King, one of the leaders of the civil rights movement in the USA until he was murdered in 1968 at the age of 39. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland in the 5thc., converted a country of Celtic polytheists to Christianity, enduring hardship and danger in the course of a strenuous life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a leading theologian in 1930s Germany, a man of penetrating intellect who asked fundamental questions of the confessing church and was executed in 1945 for his part in the resistance to Adolf Hitler. Last week Anne talked about Hilda, abbess of Whitby, a formidable woman of faith who combined managerial skills with sensitivity, to the extent that she recognised the poetic talents of Caedmon, a swine herd and encouraged him to overcame his reticence and recite his poem in praise of the creator, the earliest fragment of Old English, Anglo Saxon to have survived.
Today, we’re going to celebrate the courage and faith of Edith Cavell, a woman brought up in conventional stability who risked and eventually lost her life to serve the Gospel.
Edith Cavell was a middle class woman but her circumstances were modest. She was born in 1865 in a village near Norwich where her father was vicar. She was the eldest of four children who were taught by their father. She had no higher education. She had to work for a living as her father kept his family on a limited income with no inherited wealth. She became a governess. One of her pupils described her, after he had grown up, as ‘a martinet’ After working for a family in Brussels between 1890–1895, she came back to England, trained as a nurse at the London Hospital and worked in various hospitals in England. Then in 1907, Nurse Cavell was recruited by a pioneering Belgian surgeon, Dr Antoine Depage to be matron of a newly established nursing school, in Brussels. By 1910 she was a training nurse for three hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens in Belgium.
When war broke out in 1914, she was visiting her widowed mother in Norfolk. She immediately returned to her clinic in Brussels. The next day, the German army marched into Brussels, ignoring the Belgian neutrality treaty. 200,000 Belgians fled across the Channel and were given asylum in the UK. Dr Depage set up a major emergency hospital on the Belgian coast to receive retreating French, British and Belgian soldiers in 18,000 beds in makeshift wards. He asked Edith Cavell to join him but she decided to stay in Brussels and said: ‘Any soldier must be treated, friend or enemy. As nurses we must take no part in the quarrel – our work is for humanity. The profession of nursing knows no boundaries’.
In late August and September of 1914, the German army advanced toward Paris, leaving thousands of French and British soldiers stranded behind German lines. The Germans warned the populations of France and Belgium that if they sheltered allied soldiers they would be shot. Edith Cavell defied this warning. She treated any wounded soldier, friend or foe; she reminded her nurses that each man is a father, a husband, a brother, a son.
An underground support network was formed and by May 1915, she had helped at least 200 allied soldiers to hide in the basement of her clinic, to be treated and smuggled across the border to neutral Holland. Her deputy begged her to stop but she refused. In early August 1915 she was arrested and imprisoned. She confessed to her captors and was sentenced to death by firing squad. The English chaplain visited her in the evening after her sentence and recorded her saying: ‘Standing as I do in the sight of God and eternity, I have realised that patriotism is not enough. I must have no bitterness or hatred towards anyone.’ These are the words carved on her statue at the bottom of Charing Cross Road. The chaplain told her he would always think of her as a heroine and a martyr. She wasn’t happy with this. She told him she was simply a nurse who tried to do her duty. She wrote a farewell letter to her nurses from her prison cell: ‘When better days come, our work will resume all its power for doing good. The thought that before God you have done your duty will sustain you in the hard moments in life and in the face of death. I may have been strict but I have loved you more than you can know.’
She was kept in solitary confinement for three months before her execution. There was public outrage as the news of her death reached London and a memorial service was held in St Paul’s Cathedral in October 1915. It was attended by members of the royal family and senior members of the government. Public opinion favoured burying her in Westminster Abbey, an exceedingly rare offer for a woman of her social status. But her family felt it would be more appropriate for her to be buried in her home county of Norwich.
Edith Cavell was brought up with an over-riding sense of Christian duty and she carried this with her to her death. She didn’t go willingly to her death but she went confident that she had done her duty to God and humanity as far as she was able. She wasn’t a reckless woman. She knew she had gifts. Medicine was developing as a science and she wanted to make a difference to the role of nurses, not by sacrificing the vocational, caring aspect of their work but making them partners with doctors and almoners, using science and training entrants into nursing in such a way that they would be recognised as a profession. She was an efficient and effective administrator. The boy who remembered her as a martinet obviously recognised that she wouldn’t suffer fools gladly and she had expectations and made demands of her colleagues so that they lived up to the high standards she set.
She valued all people as children of God, no matter what their status, their wealth, their nationality. If they were in need, she wanted to help them. Edith Cavell was a woman of deep faith but the message in James’s epistle about faith and works underpinned her whole life. She wasn’t self-seeking or self-promoting, she was an honourable, highly moral woman of great integrity.
Six weeks today we’ll be commemorating the armistice that was declared at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month a century ago, bringing the war to an end. At least 2 million young lives on both sides were lost in that war in Europe alone. The war itself was such a senseless failure politically, economically, strategically that two decades after its end, another conflict broke out with its own trail of lost lives and land laid waste. Edith Cavell was 45 when she died, at the prime of her life. Most of the war dead were considerably younger than that, as you can read in the book Harriet Hall compiled about our memorial tablet. Edith Cavell wanted to make the world a better place. She was a trail blazer– she confounded the Victorian expectations for unmarried middle class women. She created a model for future generations.
For a while after Anne’s sermon last week I thought that the order should’ve been reversed so that we ended the series on a high note – the Abbess of Whitby lived a long, fulfilled life which didn’t come to a violent end, like Martin Luther King or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Edith Cavell. But I thought on reflection that it’s entirely appropriate that we should end by celebrating the Christ-like sacrifice of a woman who followed the pattern of her Lord. What good is it if you say you have faith but do not live it out in deeds?
Margaret is a retired teacher and serves as Reader (Lay Minister) at the Ascension.
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