A sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

Last Tuesday, the 12th of May, was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale. Florence Nightingale was infused with what Jesus, in our reading from the 14th Chapter of John’s Gospel, called the Spirit of Truth. The spirit that Jesus promised God would send stands alongside, gives comfort and sheds its fierce loving light on the truth. Florence Nightingale was infused with this spirit as she fought her family and friends to follow her God given vocation to be a nurse. We might, especially now in this time of pandemic, greatly honour nurses, but in her time, a nurse was viewed with no more respect than a prostitute.

Beyond her famous exploits transforming nursing care for wounded soldiers in Scutari during the Crimean War, it was in later life that she really transformed healthcare and inspired generations of nurses. [1]

The Lady with the Lamp as she was known shed light not only on the suffering faces of those in her charge but she also revolutionised the care of patients in hospitals changing the design and structure of hospitals and their working practices in ways which remain today. The spirit of truth, the spirit of light, infused also the lives of Florence Nightingale’s daughters and sons, generations of nurses that followed her path.

Julianne is an Intensive Care nurse in New York City during this time of pandemic.

All Quiet on the Eastern Front [she writes in article posted on Facebook]
I am a COVID ICU nurse in New York City, and yesterday, like many other days lately, I couldn’t fix my patient. Sure, that happens all the time in the ICU. It definitely wasn’t the first time. It certainly won’t be the last. What makes this patient noteworthy? A few things, actually. He was infected with COVID-19, and he lost his battle with COVID-19. He was only 23 years old. I was destroyed by his clinical course in a way that has only happened a few times in my nursing career. It wasn’t his presentation. I’ve seen that before. It wasn’t his complications. I’ve seen that too. It was the grief. It was his parents. The grief I witnessed yesterday, was grief that I haven’t allowed myself to recognise since this runaway train got rolling here in early March. I could sense it. It was lingering in the periphery of my mind, but yesterday something in me gave way, and that grief rushed in. I think I was struck by a lot of emotions and realities yesterday. Emotions that have been brewing for weeks, and realities that I have been stifling because I had to in order to do my job effectively. My therapist tells me weekly via Facetime that it’s impossible to process trauma when the trauma is still occurring. It just keeps building. [2]

This is only the beginning of Julianne’s post, a piece of writing that is relentless, gut-wrenching, woven with the hideous truth that is an Intensive Care Unit in a city where this virus has taken hold.

What is it, this fierce speaking of the truth? And why might we relate it to God’s spirit, why might we ponder the possibility that it is infused by God’s spirit?

The Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, wrote the following about speaking the truth. I read these words a long time ago and they influenced me greatly in my sense of what prayer is. So I’m sure I’ve read them to you before. Karl Rahner said,

When we are feeling lonely – if we are brave enough to resist the urge to call someone up, or go shopping, or take a drug, or turn to music or TV or go to bed; if we are courageous enough to remain alone and instead of fleeing the pain, to go down into it, we will gradually notice another Presence there, silent, but benelovent and peaceful.

I think he is speaking about sitting with the truth. Telling the truth. Allowing it, pondering it, writing about it, perhaps, as the ICU nurse Julianne has done.

Karl Rahner is talking about not running away from the truth. And he is right to say that this takes courage. Sitting with the truth, be it the pain about which Rahner writes, the trauma about which Julianne writes, be it the fact that we feel trapped in a situation, as we might all do in this pandemic time now, be it some disappointment, or a vague sense that we lack gratitude, be the truth even joy, sitting with the truth takes courage and we would often do anything to avoid it. Rahner knows human nature well, when he catalogues the things that we will turn to, to avoid sitting with the truth – if we are brave enough to resist the urge to call someone up, or go shopping, or take a drug, or turn to music or TV or go to bed; he says. If we are brave enough to pray. Prayer takes courage.

Then Karl Rahner suggests that we will find something in that place where we sit with the truth. He says, we will gradually notice another Presence there, silent, but benevolent and peaceful.

The presence of God. A presence that is usually known gradually, silently. The spirit of truth that Jesus promises. “You know him,” Jesus says to the disciples terribly troubled by the truth that he is about to be taken from them. “You know him because he abides with you, and he will be with you.” (John 14:17)

There is something more to be said about this presence, this abiding presence. This benevolent peaceful presence will hear us. God will hear us when we speak the truth. This morning’s psalm tells us that. “I called to him with my mouth…” the psalmist says, “God has heard me, he has heeded the voice of my prayer.” (Psalm 66:17, 19) God always listens, always hears our cry. Somehow it is when we speak the truth, though, that we sense that, know that we are heard. Notice, as Karl Rahner says …

God’s presence, silent, but benevolent and peaceful.

This is Jesus’ promise to us, too. This abiding spirit. The one who bids us tell the truth. Pray our truth. What is it we would say in this pandemic time? What is the one thing we would say? Grief at a world so transformed by virus? … Guilt that we are so fortunate here? Worry about what lies ahead, about not knowing what lies ahead? Gratitude, perhaps, for politicians and leaders in so many work places including the church that means so much to us, gratitude for frontline health workers, for nurses, perhaps, nurses like Julianne…

We stayed while she screamed. [Julianne wrote of the mother of her 23 year old patient just after he died.] We stayed until she finally let go of her vice grip on my hands, her body trembling uncontrollably, as she dissolved into her grief, in the arms of her husband.

This is ONE patient. One patient, in one ICU, in one hospital, in one city, in one country, on a planet being ravaged by a virus. She wrote.

And this is one nurse’s story. One daughter of Florence Nightingale.  The one infused with the Spirit of Truth. The Lady of the Lamp. The light of truth. The truth that holds us, abides with us, in this pandemic time.

[1] See https://museumcrush.org/life-beyond-the-lady-of-the-lamp-the-photograph-of-86-year-old-florence-nightingale/

[2] https://www.wamc.org/post/our-grief-nurses-experience-during-covid-19-pandemic