Sunday, 11 October 2015

Light of faith lived: Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell's Lamp
Near the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, just off Trafalgar Square, stands a memorial to an English nurse.  At the base are the words
“Patriotism is not enough.  I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
Edith Cavell was executed by the German army 100 years ago tomorrow (12th October).  She was shot at 7.00am by firing squad at Tir national shooting range in Schaerbeek, Belgium.  Her crime was harbouring Allied soldiers and helping them escape.  Belgium was under German occupation during WW1 and any Allied soldiers in need of care hid in the woods.  Any found were either shipped off to prison camps or shot.  So those who came to Edith’s hospital for treatment needed medical care, hiding and also help to escape.  That brought her into contact with the resistance and clandestine activity.  Her hospital regularly searched, she was betrayed by an entrapment sting. 

The night before she was executed she wrote final letters and was visited by the priest from the Anglican church where she worshipped.  As she spoke with him she uttered those famous words, recorded on her memorial, except there was a bit more to them.  What she actually said was:
“I have no fear nor shrinking; I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me…  But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity I realize that patriotism is not enough.  I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
Those words often missed out about ‘standing in view of God and eternity’ matter enormously, because it was her faith that inspired her in her work and it was her faith that provided tremendous comfort and perspective as she faced her own death having seen so many others die.

She had been reading Thomas a Kempis’ ‘The Imitation of Christ’, that great 15th century spiritual classic.  It has in it passages that speak of improvement.  One passage in the chapter entitled ‘On considering one’s death’ says poignantly
“What is the use of a long life when we show so little improvement?…  Always be ready; live in such a way that death can never find you unprepared.”
He gives practical advice on dealing with the failings of others and being patient, as we ourselves expect others to be patient with us: for as we pray ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’!

She showed great compassion, treating the wounded of whatever side.  Her hospital flew the Red Cross’ flag and she told her nurses: “Any wounded soldier must be treated, friend or foe.  Each man is a son, husband or father.”  For each was equal at the point of need.  Her compassion, her rejection of hatred and bitterness sprung from her profound faith.

Laurel Court, Peterborough Cathedral Cloister
It therefore seems fitting that the memorial we have to her in this cathedral is not just the tablet paid for by her colleagues and friends from Laurel Court School in our cloister, where she had been a pupil teacher in 1886, but her lamp hanging above it, given to us in 2009.  The light is the light of faith lived, that placed its hope on God and ‘standing in view of God and eternity’ was conscious not to hate or be consumed by bitterness.

The gospel reading this morning had a man anxious to live a life improved and validating of his faith (Mark 10:17-31).  Keeping rules and ticking the right boxes, showing that measurables have been achieved and met – don’t lie, steal, murder…; outward discipline is not on its own the point.  The one thing this man lacked was a heart that stood in view of God and eternity and was ready.  Possessions distract us and distract us from emptiness within.  Keeping rules can do the same.  Yes we devise rules to help us learn and to give us boundaries that help us be virtuous, or at least limit the damage we might otherwise do, but they are not a substitute for a heart that is content and at peace.  If the rules are just and true, and that is itself a massive question, then a heart that is filled with that justice and truth will instinctively behave in a way that is life-givng and therefore blesses.  So the injunction to go and sell all you have exposes straight away that the man was not living in a state of readiness for death; that was not standing in view of God and eternity.

Possessions, then as now, were seen as a sign of blessing, as validating a life.  The established view was that God showed his favour in bestowing riches and good things.  Bad things came because of God’s displeasure.  Thus we get passages that ask who sinned, the blind man or his parents.  Jesus moves beyond such shallow and transitory badges; indeed he turns them upside down.  Cash is to be given away.  The very signs of blessing shunned and rejected.  Poverty is held up over riches.

How hard these lessons are to learn, now as then.  We have inherited such great wealth from the past: buildings which glorify; craftsmen’s art and music’s measure sublimely combined.  As we pray, far from being stripped back to be prepared for our death, or standing in view of God and eternity, we can be very firmly locked in the temporal.  The grandeur of this place must come with this spiritual health warning.  That which should point beyond, from temporal to eternal, to be ready to let go of everything, even life itself, can actually serve the complete opposite.  Those of us who live and work here daily have to be careful we don’t take all of these surroundings too seriously less they corrupt the soul, distort our vision and distract us from the view of God and eternity.  It is hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.  Those whose sofas are well cushioned, and nests soft, have a harder task in reaching beyond those distractions.

The reality check here is provided by the firm hope in the Kingdom of God.  It grows within us if we let it and it comes to a heart that stands utterly dependent on God.  Whenever I go on retreat, I like to kneel in a simple chapel, in simple clothes (I don’t have an elaborate wardrobe), without status, except that of a child of God, focused on the stillness that comes from being touched by the silence of eternity and at one with the one who is the source and goal of our existence.  I fully understand St Cuthbert praying in the waves of the sea, and the holy sites on wind swept hillsides or cliff edges. There is a challenge to find that in more urban areas, but it is possible, away from the padding and all that would make us think we are no more than material things.  There is no other hope, certainly not in money, elaborate surroundings or trappings.  The question is often not can your faith survive outside of this great place, but can it survive in it!  If it struggles outside, it will certainly struggle inside where the distractions are so great.

Memorial, Peterborough Cathedral
For Edith Cavell faith found its fullest expression in serving those in need.  In that she found hope renewed, not diminished, and in facing death eternity was clearer.  The man in our gospel reading addressed Jesus as ‘good teacher’.  The reply reminded him that God alone is good.  When the priest told Edith Cavell on the night before her execution that she would be remembered as a martyr she rejected it, saying she was ‘just a nurse who tried to do her duty’.  Do not get distracted by hopes of glory and fame, by the comfort of riches, but viewing God and eternity, having a purity of heart totally focused on God, counts for more.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 11th October 2015 

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