MYSTICISM [horizontal ellipsis] IS NOT AN OPINION: IT IS NOT A PHILOSOPHY. It has nothing in common with the pursuit of occult knowledge. On the one hand, it is not merely the power of contemplating Eternity: on the other, it is not to be identified with any kind of religious queerness. It is the name of that organic process which involves the perfect consummation of the Love of God: the achievement here and now of the immortal heritage of man. Or, if you like it better-for this means exactly the same thing-it is the art of establishing his conscious relation with the Absolute."1




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I extend my thanks to Dr. Grypma2 and the Journal of Christian Nursing for attention to Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the philosophical and practical founder3 of modern secular nursing. However, there are many issues on which Dr. Grypma and I disagree in our analysis of Nightingale. We seem to be far apart on the essential meanings of terms such as "mystic," "mysticism" and "spirituality"-yet it is difficult to know for certain because Dr. Grypma nowhere defines explicitly what she means by these terms.


In my book Florence Nightingale: Mystic, Visionary, Healer4 and in my recent co-authored Florence Nightingale Today: Healing, Leadership, Global Action, 5 reviewed by Kathy Schoonover-Shoffner in JCN,6 I provided the definitions and criteria according to which Nightingale qualifies as a full-fledged, nineteenth-century "practical mystic." What does Dr. Grypma consider a mystic to be? I am left wondering. This does not prevent her, however, from suggesting that the classification of Nightingale as a mystic is a "New Age" and "postmodern" move. [See note 1]


The view that Nightingale is a mystic is hardly postmodern. In fact, "post-modern mystic" is an oxymoron, in view of the timeless, perennial mystical tradition that I discussed in my books, a view that is drawn from much of the scholarly writing in this area. [See note 2.] I was not the first to describe Nightingale as a mystic. Others, such as Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), the British authority on the Christian mystical tradition, did so nearly a century ago.7 To establish Nightingale as a nineteenth-century mystic, I used Underhill's criteria and five phases of mystical spiritual development. Thus, my primary historical research required reading Nightingale's letters and correspondence of her sustained spiritual development and action over her lifetime. My conclusions were not based mainly on Nightingale's Suggestions for Thought (1860, three volumes, 829 pages), as Dr. Grypma stated.8 They are congruent with the assertions of Underhill and other authorities-that a mystic is one who has attained the status of union with the Absolute, however named, or who fervently believes that such a union is possible. As a result of my own research of Nightingale's richly documented life, I am confident that she easily qualifies as a mystic on these terms.


The fact that scholars have viewed Nightingale as a mystic for nearly a century defies Grypma's contention that this characterization is a recent tactic. Nightingale was being considered a mystic long before the terms "New Age" and "postmodern" were invented. The Christian mystic Louis Claude de Saint-Martin two centuries ago said, emphasizing the universality of mysticism, "All mystics speak the same language, for they come from the same country."9 He might have added that all mystics live at the same time, so to speak, because the mystical vision transcends not only space but also time. Therefore, it is inconceivable to me that the consideration of Nightingale as a mystic could be regarded as New Age or postmodern when the spiritual traditions in which she was rooted are utterly ancient, spanning millennia.

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Dr. Grypma conflates "spirituality" with what she calls "mystical spiritualism." This is a disastrous confusion. Spirituality has nothing to do with spiritualism. In Definitions and Standards in Healing Research, spirituality is defined as "the feelings, thoughts, experiences, and behaviors that arise from a search for that which is generally considered sacred or holy. Spirituality is usually, though not universally, considered to involve a sense of connection with an absolute, imminent, or transcendental spiritual force, however named, as well as the conviction that meaning, value, direction, and purpose are valid aspects of the universe."10 Spiritualism, in contrast, "is the practice of systematically communicating with the spirits of deceased persons, often through mediums, [and] is found and highly valued in many cultures throughout the world."11 It is also the name given to a social movement that sprang up in 1848 in upstate New York, as a result of the activities of the celebrated Fox sisters, who claimed the ability to contact and communicate messages from the spirits of the dead.12


David J. Hufford, professor of humanities at Penn State College of Medicine, has described the confusion that exists between "spirituality and "spiritualism," and the widespread, reckless ways in which these terms are interchanged.13 Spirituality has as much relationship with spiritualism as Jesus Christ has with Harry Houdini. Confusing spirituality with spiritualism stigmatizes the former, and influences people unwittingly to reject the term spirituality for bogus reasons. Having mingled these terms, no wonder Dr. Grypma is dubious of Nightingale's stature as a role model for nurses.


Through over a decade of both primary and secondary historical research of Nightingale's life and work, I have encountered widespread resistance within organized religions and professional nursing toward her. Nearly always the objections are vaguely articulated and often based on hearsay and innuendo, such as the oft-heard blatant falsehoods that she was an atheist and died of venereal disease. [See note 3 and note 4.] I have tried to understand why Nightingale rankles many Christians. Here are four of the most common reasons I have discovered:


1. Oneness with God. The central premise of mysticism-that it is possible to achieve unity with the Absolute-has always made many Christians nervous because they consider it blasphemy: man becoming God. It has long been so. Consider the Catholic Church's trial of Meister Eck-hart during fourteenth-century Germany. Today, Eck-hart is widely recognized, along with Hildegard of Bingen, as perhaps the greatest Christian mystic Germany ever produced, yet in his lifetime he evoked the Church's wrath for preaching essentially what Nightingale would say five centuries later: that God dwells within, and that one can achieve union and oneness with the Almighty. The Church almost certainly would have burned Eckhart at the stake had he not died before his trial was completed.14 Crucifixion and burning are out of style today but they still come in different flavors, such as indicting Nightingale as "increasingly unbalanced," a "fiend" or "vindictive" (terms repeated from others in Dr. Grypma's articles), or as an "avenging angel," a term in the title of a recent book on Nightingale.15Nightingale asked, "Where shall I find God? In myself. That is the true Mystical Doctrine. But then I myself must be in a state for Him to come and dwell in me. This is the whole aim of the Mystical Life; and all Mystical Rules in all times and countries have been laid down for putting the soul into such a state."16 Again, this view is anchored squarely in the Christian mystical tradition. For instance, Eckhart said, "The eye with which I see God is the same as that with which he sees me. My eye and the eye of God are one eye, one knowledge, and one love."17 And as St. Catherine of Genoa exulted, "My me is God, nor do I know my selfhood save in Him."18


2. Nightingale's behavior. Dr. Grypma implies that Nightingale's patterns of behavior may render her unfit as a role model for nurses. Nowhere in the abundant literature on mysticism is there any claim that genuine mystics are always "nice." Many have indeed been considered petulant, deranged, heretical or even cruel. In the lives of many genuine mystics, compassion seems to alternate with less noble qualities. All this is largely beside the point, a lesson woven into the fabric of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The prophet Elisha caused forty-two children to be mauled by bears because they made fun of his baldness (2 Kings 2:23-24). The apostle Paul struck a sorcerer temporarily blind (Acts 13:11). And even Jesus blasted an apparently innocent fig tree for not bearing fruit (Mt 21:19; Mk 11:13-14, 20-22). Nice behaviors? You decide. But as Meister Eckhart proclaimed, "God never tied man's salvation to any pattern of life. [horizontal ellipsis] So one must be permeated with the divine Presence."19 To require mystics always to demonstrate the meeker virtues is to strip them of their humanness and surround them with a celestial halo, which they consistently reject. Perhaps the mystics see a kind of complexity in the Divine, having merged with it, that is not obvious to the rest of us. They realize there is room in the Absolute for all qualities (otherwise the Absolute would not be absolute). They see the literal truth in Isaiah 45:5-7 (KJV): "I am the LORD and there is none else[horizontal ellipsis] I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things."


3. Christian diversity. What does it mean when Dr. Grypma questions whether or not Nightingale can be considered "a model for Christian thinking in nursing"? Whose Christian thinking? Who speaks for Christian nurses? Christians cannot be put in a box; there have always been uncountable veins and strata of thought within Christianity. This is especially obvious when one surveys how Christians interpret "mystic," "mysticism" and "spirituality." Many contemporary Christians embrace these terms and find strength and fulfillment in actualizing them in their lives, while others find them objectionable, repellent, "New Age," "postmodern," blasphemous or satanic. It does Christian nursing no service to shoehorn it into a single belief structure. I know many devout Christian nurses who are attracted to the relationship of oneness with God espoused by Eckhart, Hildegard, Teresa, Nightingale and other Christian mystics; I know others who run in the other direction.


4. Religious tolerance. Two of Nightingale's favorite books were the Holy Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu text, which many Christians consider to be "pagan." Nightingale, like mystics in general, valued many spiritual paths, saying, "To know God we must study him in the Pagan and Jewish dispensations as in the Christian [horizontal ellipsis] this gives unity to the whole-one continuous thread of interest to all these pearls."20 Some Christians believe this gives not unity but heresy to the whole, and they consider this sufficient reason to banish Nightingale from the playing field of Christianity. Yet this unambiguous call to tolerance is not unique to Nightingale, but can be found in many Christian saints and mystics who preceded her, such as, again, the exemplary Eckhart, who said "All paths lead to God and he is on them all evenly, to him who knows[horizontal ellipsis]. God responds to all techniques evenly to a knowing man. Such and such may be the way but it is not God."21 Raymond B. Blakney the scholarly authority on Meister Eckhart, might have been speaking about Nightingale when he said, "To go where Eckhart went is to come close to Lao Tzu and Buddha, and certainly to Jesus Christ."22 So, the mystics in general remind us that to be open to the mystical view is to honor Jesus Christ, not dishonor him, and to be tolerant of other paths, other faiths.



I am perplexed how Dr. Grypma can state that Nightingale "never [horizontal ellipsis] made declarative statements about her views of religion or spirituality." In fact, her relationship with God was extraordinarily intimate, and she recorded that God spoke to her three times in her life. Her writing is peppered with her views on the nature of God and her relationship to him, as we have seen. Her religious and spiritual views recur through some 10,000 letters, the largest collection of private correspondence in the British Library; 4,000 letters to family and friends at the Wellcome Library, London; and in over a hundred published papers and books. The interested reader can now read most of these letters in The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale that makes available for the first time all the accessible surviving writing of Florence Nightingale.23


Dr. Grypma says that labeling Nightingale a modern mystic says more about those doing the labeling than it does about the woman herself. I would express it this way: rejecting Nightingale's connections with the traditions of Christian mysticism says a lot about individuals who take this view. This position begs for clarification of terms such as mystic, mysticism and spirituality; attention to the crucial distinctions between spirituality and spiritualism; historical accuracy of Nightingale's life; and, not least, a recognition of the similarities between Nightingale's spiritual views and those of many of the greatest Christian saints and mystics who have ever lived.


In 2000, the Episcopal Church of the United States of America officially recognized the exemplary Christian life, the extraordinary achievements, and the spiritual worthiness of Florence Nightingale, thereby affirming the biblical assertion that "by their fruits ye shall know them." [See note 5.]



Note 1:Premodern era is the period to the 17th century that fused arts, values and science with the Church; modern era is associated with the 17th to 20th century empirical knowledge and mindset characterized by science, technology, rationality, objectivity and a linear cause-and-effect, physical-material world and explanations; fixed interpretation of universal principles and stable laws; physical reality seen as the ultimate explanation and reality of consciousness; postmodern refers to late 20th century and beginning of the 21st century that engages art and science as a new intellectual, dynamic, artistic and intuitive period; boundaries are fluid and ever-changing, as one searches for new interdisciplinary explanations and experiences of wholeness, meanings and purposes; honors multiple interpretations about caring, healing and being-ness; engages and accepts non-linear thinking and multiple constructed realities, truths and possibilities; postmodern era refers to the end of the modern period.24[Context Link]


Note 2: Perhaps a clearer picture of the mystic's activity in the Western tradition may be gained by considering more in detail the biblical passage, Matthew 7:20 (KJV), which has become a verity in our language: "By their fruits ye shall know them." For the life of a practical mystic is not the medieval notion that some may have of an individual's withdrawal from the world for contemplation alone-the monk in his cell, the nun in her cloister. Mystics in the Western tradition are men and women of action, some of whose names are well known to us, but whose divine motivation and real accomplishments may be obscured by the psychological and perceptual biases of our secular culture.


Perhaps lesser known is the fact that a singular religious institution born of the mystical tradition endures today. The Quaker movement, with its belief in an "Inward Light," was an outbreak of genuine mysticism. George Fox (1624-1690), founder of the Quakers, was a "great active" of the first rank (Underhill, 1911; 1961b). In a different vein, Dante's Divine Comedy is regarded as one of the two greatest mystical works in the Italian language.


The modern and serious understanding of this activist element of the Western mystic tradition may be said to have been initiated by Dean W R. Inge's Bampton Lectures on "Christian Mysticism" (1899), followed by William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). James's inquiry into mysticism originated from a psychological viewpoint, and he investigated its relationship to other forms of consciousness. One of the most influential works that followed was Von HUUgel's Mystical Element of Religion and Eternal Life (1908). Shortly thereafter appeared Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness (1911), which has proven to be the most lasting and accessible work on the subject. In America, William Ernest Hocking's Meaning of God in Human Experience (1922) has been one of the most important contributions, along with his other works.25[Context Link]


Note 3: Florence Nightingale's Crimean fever, contracted in May 1855 while in the Crimea, is recognized today as Malta or Mediterranean fever and is included under the generic name brucellosis. Following her acute illness, she had to be hospitalized five months later with sciatica, and had another severe fever episode in 1857, at which time she and her family felt she might die. Her debilitating, chronic symptoms over a thirty-two year period are compatible with the specific form of chronic brucellosis, both epidemiologically and clinically. Understanding the symptoms of chronic brucellosis helps us to more clearly understand Nightingale's symptoms and behaviors during the period 1855-1887; it also sheds new light on how she managed her severe symptoms. Her death certificate states that she died of old age and heart failure at the age of ninety years and three months.26[Context Link]


Note 4: New and refreshing light can be cast on Florence Nightingale's life and work by examining her personality type. Using the theory-based Myers-Briggs Type Indicator(R) (MBTI(R) instrument), Nightingale's personality type reveals she was an INTJ (Introverted, Intuition, Thinking, Judging). The merit of using the MBTI(R) instrument is that it allows us to more clearly understand major areas of Nightingale's life that have been partially unacknowledged or misunderstood: her spiritual development as a practicing mystic; how she managed her chronic illness in order to maintain her prodigious work output; and the strategies she chose to transform her visionary ideas into new health care and social realities.27[Context Link]


Note 5: The Reverend Canon Ted Karpf, Partnerships Officer, Department of HIV/AIDS, HIV/TB/Malaria Cluster, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, and former HIV/AIDS Coordinator of the worldwide Anglican Communion and Provincial Canon for HIV/AIDS in the Anglican Church of the Diocese of Washington, provided support to Barbara M. Dossey and Louise C. Selanders during 1997-2000. This support resulted in the formal proposal and successful reconsideration by the Episcopal Church General Convention of Florence Nightingale's name for inclusion in the Episcopal Church's Liturgical Calendar, Lesser Feasts and Fasts (2004) that is now included in the Book of Common Prayer (2004). The Inaugural Florence Nightingale Service was held at the Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., on August 12, 2001, followed by the Florence Nightingale Service on May 9, 2004. The next Nightingale service will be held at a date to be determined in 2007. [Context Link]


1 Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1911/1961): 81. [Context Link]


2 Sonja Grypma, "Florence Nightingales Changing Image? Part 1: Nightingale the Feminist, Statistician & Nurse," JCN 22, no. 3 (Summer 2005): 22-28 and "Florence Nightin-gales Changing Image? Part 2: From Saint to Fiend to Modern Mystic," JCN 22, no. 4 (Fall 2005): 6-13. [Context Link]


3 Louise Selanders, "Nightingale's Foundational Philosophy," in Barbara Montgomery Dossey, Louise C. Selanders, Deva-Marie Beck, and Alex Attewell, Florence Nightingale Today: Healing, Leadership, Global Action (Silver Spring, MD:, 2005): 65-74. [Context Link]


4 Barbara Montgomery Dossey, Florence Nightingale: Mystic, Visionary, Healer (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 2000). [Context Link]


5 Barbara Montgomery Dossey, Louise C. Selanders, Deva-Marie Beck and Alex Attewell, Florence Nightingale Today: Healing, Leadership, Global Action (Silver Spring, MD:, 2005). [Context Link]


6 Kathy Schoonover-Shoffner, "Florence Nightingale Today" JCN 22, no. 4 (Fall 2005): 45-46. [Context Link]


7 Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1915/1943): 102. [Context Link]


8 Grypma, Part 2: 10. [Context Link]


9 Underhill, 80. [Context Link]


10 Larry Dossey, "Samueli Conference on Definitions and Standards in Healing Research: Working Definitions and Terms," in Wayne B. Jonas and Ronald A. Chez, eds., "Definitions and Standards in Healing Research," Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 9, no. 3 (Special Supplement 2003):A10-A12. [Context Link]


11 David J. Hufford, "Mapping Spiritual Care," in Ronald A. Chez and Wayne B. Jonas, eds., Spiritual Transformation Through the Life Cycle (Alexandria, VA: Samueli Institute for Information Biology, 2003): 1-21. [Context Link]


12 "The Fox Sisters," Wikipedia. Accessed January 19, 2006, at [Context Link]


13 Hufford, 1-21. [Context Link]


14 Raymond B. Blakney, Meister Eckhart (Translation), (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1941). [Context Link]


15 Hugh Small, Florence Nightingale: Avenging Angel (New York: St. Martins Press, 1999). [Context Link]


16 Florence Nightingale, Notes from Devotional Authors of the Middle Ages, Collected, Chosen, and Freely Translated by Florence Nightingale (1872) BL Add. MSS 45841: ff11-28. [Note: Only the preface for this book was completed. It was to include the following mystics: Blessed Angela of Foligno, Madame Jane de Chantal, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Francis Xavier, St. John of the Cross, St. Peter of Alcantara, Father Rigoleuc, St. Teresa of Avila, and Father Surin.] [Context Link]


17 Andrew Harvey and Anne Baring, The Mystic Vision (New York: HarperCollins, 1995): June 14 reading. [Context Link]


18 Underhill, 127. [Context Link]


19 Blakney, 17. [Context Link]


20 Sir Edward Cook, The Life of Florence Nightingale (London: Macmillan and Co., Limited 1913, vol. I): 74. [Context Link]


21 Blakney, 250. [Context Link]


22 Ibid., 14. [Context Link]


23 To learn more about The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, go to [Context Link]


24 Jean Watson, Postmodern Nursing and Beyond (Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 1999); Ken Wilber, Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy (Boston: Shambhala, 2000): 158-73. [Context Link]


25 Barbara Montgomery Dossey, "Florence Nightingale: A Nineteenth-Century Mystic," Journal of Holistic Nursing 16, no. 2 (1998): 115-16. [Context Link]


26 Barbara Montgomery Dossey, "Florence Nightingale's Crimean Fever and Chronic Illness," Journal of Holistic Nursing 16, no. 2 (1998): 168-96. [Context Link]


27 Barbara Montgomery Dossey, "Florence Nightingale: Her Personality Type," Journal of Holistic Nursing 16, no. 2 (1998): 202-22. [Context Link]