Thought for the Day: Edith Cavell

By The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich - 19 October 2015
a picture of the statue of Edith Cavell at Norwich Cathedral

Every day people visit a grave just outside Norwich Cathedral. Fresh flowers are often found there. It’s the resting place of the nurse Edith Cavell. She was executed in Belgium one hundred years ago. She came from Norfolk, and after the First World War her body was returned to her home county. On Saturday 10 October we held a service at her graveside, as we do every year. This year was especially poignant.

Edith came to nursing late. She was thirty before she even began training at the London Hospital. A decade later – in 1905 – she was recruited by the Belgians to start a nursing school there. She did so with conspicuous success. When Germany invaded Belgium in 1914, Edith could have returned home. She chose instead to stay in that occupied country and to nurse any who needed her care, including injured soldiers. She assisted many to escape and reach Holland to secure their freedom. She knew the dangers. For such activities she gave her life.

The world was stunned when a compassionate nurse was executed by a German firing squad. The Allies were handed a huge propaganda victory. Not that Edith wanted that. She loved her country but died saying “patriotism is not enough”. On the evening before her execution she received Holy Communion from an Anglican priest who told her “We shall remember you as a heroine and a martyr”. Edith replied “Don’t think of me like that. Think of me as a nurse who tried to do her duty.”

Edith had a very high doctrine of nursing. She described nurses as “handmaids of science” and dreamed of a time when “disease would be unknown because the laws which scientists discover… will have banished it”.

The First World War struck a blow against such progressive sentiments, revealing just how much suffering human beings could inflict on each other. Edith’s perspective was helped by her favourite book The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. He writes that we should live with a spirit of service in a sinful world. Grieved by war, Edith refused to despair of human folly. Even after she was sentenced to death she said “Standing as I do in view of God and eternity I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”.

She treasured a phrase in The Imitation of Christ. “Vanity it is to live long and to be careless to live well”. She wanted no posthumous reputation. Edith thought herself unremarkable. Some of the most remarkable people think that of themselves. That’s one of the reasons why Edith Cavell continues to inspire nurses and many others the world over.

This blog is an adapted transcript from a BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day, broadcast on Friday 9 October 2015 by The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich. To listen to and read more Thought for the Day features, please visit the BBC website.

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